Sense and Nonsense About Guns

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 1999

P>Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas has now joined Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado as well as schools in Springfield Oregon, Edinboro, Pennsylvania, Jonesboro, Arkansas, West Paducah, Kentucky, and Pearl, Mississippi as a tragic site of carnage and death.
As in the earlier cases, politicians and pundits have fingered the culprit—guns and the gun culture. If only there were fewer guns, goes the argument, things like this wouldn’t happen.

The identification of guns as the source of all this mayhem has the virtue of simplicity, a single concrete factor apparently common to all these cases. But while all these tragedies involved the use of guns, to blame the proliferation of such violent incidents on the availability of guns alone is not so much simple as simplistic.

Basic logic bears this out. For example, access to firearms was once much greater than today, and not just in rural areas. High schools in many large cities had shooting clubs as late as the 1960s.
It was not unusual for participants in these clubs to take their weapons to school on the subway on shooting days. Additionally, there were far fewer gun regulations and laws than there are now. But such events as Columbine were unheard of. These facts call into question the claim that greater
restrictions on firearms will prevent such tragedies as Wedgwood Baptist Church or Columbine High School.

Indeed, the young murderers who ran amok at Columbine were in violation of nearly two dozen federal and state firearms laws. Perhaps we should enforce the laws on the books against those who commit crimes with guns before we rush to restrict further the rights of law-abiding citizens.

The logic of the situation has been supplemented by careful research conducted by such scholars as economist John Lott of the University of Chicago and criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University. These writers, among others, have exploded much of the common misinformation related to guns and gun control.
(For an extensive survey of gun control research see Ten Myths of Gun Control by Glen Otero of the Claremont Institute in California, available on the Internet at

For example, the conventional wisdom notwithstanding, studies cannot establish any positive causal relationship between private gun ownership and the crime rate.
Indeed, some studies show a negative correlation between gun ownership and crime—areas with high gun ownership often experience less crime than comparable areas with low firearms ownership. This makes sense.
What criminal relished the prospect of confronting an armed citizen? It is much easier to prey on the defenseless.

Similarly, there turns out to be no consistent global correlation between gun availability and violent crime rates. Finally, there is little to support the contention that gun control laws reduce the rate of violent crime.
Indeed, the 28 states and the District of Columbia with the most stringent gun control laws still account for 73 percent of all violent crime and 70 percent of murders in the United States. The reason for this is that gun control laws do not get at the “root cause” of crime, which are criminals.
Gun control affects only law-abiding citizens, not the very small percentage of the population responsible for committing the vast majority of crime in the United States.

This brings us to one of the most important reasons for treading carefully when it comes to gun control—the right to protects one’s person, family, and property.
In 1993, Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz conducted the landmark National Crime Self-Defense Survey which documented that between 1988-1993, American citizens used guns in self-defense between 2.2 million and 2.5 million time per year, saving between 240,000 and 400,000 lives each year.
On the basis of their research, the authors estimated the defensive uses of guns to be three to four times that of illegal gun uses.

Self defense was certainly one of the reasons the Founders enacted the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged.” Obviously, gun control advocates see the Second Amendment as a stumbling block to their schemes to disarm the American citizenry so they purposely have misconstrued it. They have done so by claiming that because of the preparatory clause, the amendment guarantees only a “collective,” not an individual, right to bear arms, thereby restricting it to members of the organized “militia” (or the police and military).

But over the past decade, all serious constitutional law scholarship has refuted this view. A recent case in point is Leonard Levy, a constitutional scholar with impeccable liberal credentials, who in his new book, Origins of the Bill of Rights, demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt that the framers of the first ten amendments intended to guarantee the individual right to bear arms.

But how could this strained interpretation of the Second Amendment ever have been taken seriously in the first place? All one has to do is consult the words of the Founders themselves. “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of guns,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in his proposed Virginia Constitution of 1776. Both the Pennsylvania and Vermont Constitutions assert that “the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state…”

What is the meaning of the reference to the militia? For the Founders, the militia arose from the posse comitatus, the “power of the county” constituted by the people as a whole. “A militia when properly formed,” wrote Richard Henry Lee in his Letters From the Federal Farmer, “are in fact the people themselves…and include all men capable of bearing arms.” This view is echoed on countless other occasions during the colonial, revolutionary, and founding periods.

But the Second Amendment was intended not only to enable citizens to protect themselves against their fellows, but also to protect themselves from oppression by the federal government. “The militia is our ultimate safety,” said Patrick Henry during the Virginia Ratifying Convention. “We can have no security without it. The great object is that every man be armed…Every one who is able may have a gun.”

Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Number 29 and James Madison in Federalist Number 46 attempt to reassure opponents of the Federal Constitution like Henry that the document is no threat to the people’s liberties because they are able to defend those liberties by armed force. Americans need not fear the federal government, argued Madison, because they enjoy “the advantage of being armed, which you possess over the people of almost every other nation.” Thus Federalist and Anti-Federalist alike were united in the belief that “a people numerous and armed” are a republic’s final bulwark against a lawless or tyrannical government.

Unfortunately, we know that our own government can act lawlessly. Ask the survivors of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. One does not have to subscribe to the bizarre beliefs of this sect or to the conspiracy theories that its adherents have hatched to be appalled by the outcome of the federal siege and assault in 1993, not to mention recent evidence that points to possibly illegal involvement by elements of the US military and a subsequent government cover up.

The federal government rightly holds local and state law enforcement agencies accountable when they use excessive force against a protected minority or otherwise violate the rights of its members.
But at Waco, militarized federal law enforcement units, quite possibly aided by US military units in violation of federal statutes, did to the Davidians precisely what they punish non-federal agencies for doing.

The Founders understood the importance of vigilance against such government lawlessness. There is an old saying that unless the rights of the most unpopular and despised members of a political society are protected, no one’s rights ultimately are safe.
That is one of the reasons they bequeathed to us the explicit right to bear arms—to defend our rights no matter who threatens them.

The proper response to gun violence is to focus on those who perpetrate it. My own preference would be to treat all crimes in which a gun is used as capital offenses. If that is too harsh, then why not some version of California’s “three strikes” law and the treatment of a crime committed with a gun as an automatic third strike? Such steps would take aim at the very small part of the population that engages in criminal activity, and leave law-abiding citizens with the means of protecting themselves against both criminals and tyrannical government.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.