In Response to “On Guns and Liberty”

Last January, Max Willner-Giwerc, a student whom I feel lucky to count as a friend, published “On Guns and Liberty.” 

Willner-Giwerc’s broad argument against legal firearm ownership was well-founded, well-reasoned, and cited reputable sources. He argues that guns create a public sense of fear and deny victims of gun violence the freedom to live, while neglecting to deter government tyranny in a statistically significant manner. Unfortunately, Willner-Giwerc was also unintentionally playing political Don Quixote, tilting at straw windmills which promptly gave ground. 

A straw man was smuggled in at the beginning of the piece:

Opponents of gun control claim that guns are necessary [emphasis added] for preventing a tyrannical government from encroaching on our freedom as Americans.”

This representation is simply false because most gun advocates—myself included—don’t believe that gun ownership is a necessary condition to prevent tyranny. His cited source offers no obvious justification for this claim.

To disprove gun ownership as a necessary condition for liberty, one would simply have to find a single free nation with low gun ownership. It’s an impressively low bar. Japan, for example, is a relatively free state with incredibly low gun ownership. Clearly, it’s ridiculous to imagine that tyrants are deterred only through gun ownership; apparently the metal tools will disperse potential tyrants like snails repelled by copper. 

In reality, many who oppose gun control believe that gun ownership is one of many deterrents that work in tandem against tyranny. The oft-touted phrase “the Second (Amendment) protects the First (Amendment)” isn’t just rhetoric—it’s a statement derived from genuine belief. Free speech, gun rights, protection against searches—our rights work not separately, but united. And despite what popular rhetoric might say, our rights work effectively to guarantee long-lasting freedom from tyrannical government. Despite our present challenges, we are the longest-lasting constitutional democracy in the world. 

The unique context of the American political system is why the Atlantic article, which shows only a small (but positive) correlation between a nation’s freedom and gun ownership, doesn’t surprise me; the Second Amendment, much like the First, is an almost uniquely American institution. 

I find it fascinating that Willner-Giwerc would cite an article that clearly disproves his own case. If liberty is uncorrelated with gun ownership, then it follows that gun ownership doesn’t harm liberty. Willner-Giwerc’s assertion that “firearms are antithetical to freedom,” would require a negative correlation between gun ownership and freedom. Maybe he thinks the American experience with guns is simply different than that of other nations. I share that sentiment. But if the global and American firearm experiences are fundamentally different, why cite the study at all?

I again agree with Willner-Giwerc when he argues that nonviolent revolutions are more effective at overthrowing tyrannical governments. But the Second Amendment exists so that if nonviolence fails, the tree of liberty can be watered once again with the blood of tyrants. In the American Revolution, our peaceful olive branch was rejected by the despotic British. For a more modern example, look no further than Hong Kong. There, democratic institutions, like fair and open elections, are slowly being strangled by the Chinese government, and massive protests have been largely ineffectual. Beijing has long realized that strong nations have no pressing obligation to respect the will of a disarmed people. The Second Amendment, in the worst scenario, exists to enable violent revolution. 

Beyond the initial straw man, Willner-Giwerc ignores fundamental quandaries with his position. His argument can be summarized as: 

Premise 1. Americans value liberty (assumed).

Premise 2. Gun rights restrict American liberty.

Premise 3. Gun rights fail to protect American liberty.

Conclusion: Gun rights are incompatible with liberty.  

But these arguments fail to address whether restricting gun rights would negatively impact American liberty. For the sake of argument, I will accept Willner-Giwerc’s unjustified assumption that political and civil rights are derived from the state—another presumption he smuggles in when he writes, “based on the political and civil liberties [countries] afford their citizens.” 

Since Willner-Giwerc’s case relies on deaths, which overwhelmingly occur from handguns, we can assume he’d prefer to rescind rights to most firearms. Any other policy would either fail to solve the problems he believes are antithetical to liberty, or a facile word game unwilling to deal with the sheer scope of American gun ownership.

How can we separate 393 million American firearms from their owners, many of whom feel morally obligated to defend against unjust seizure? Should we send police into households with carte blanche warrants? Restrict the voting rights of firearm owners until they turn their weapons in? Take a note from China and institute a social credit system, then tie it to firearm ownership? 

On this point, Willner-Giwerc is silent. 

These hypotheticals are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. Abolishing the Second Amendment would likely precipitate a near-catastrophic civil war. Simply talking about minor gun control in Virginia was enough to bring militias out of the woodwork, threatening violence. A flat-out ban would ignite a conflict that would extend to every American town. Imagine Vietnam, on a larger scale, with a better-armed resistance, and absolutely no geographical lines of conflict. Every citizen a soldier, every city a battlefield, every state a war zone. 

So even if we accept Willner-Giwerc’s premise that guns harm American liberty, it’s still not clear in the conclusion whether we should rescind gun rights. The consequences of such a change would deal a more devastating blow to American liberty than status quo gun ownership does.

Willner-Giwerc leaves us with a final conclusion: “Firearms are, at their core, made to deprive freedom.” This is a reductionist view out of sync with reality. The nature of any tool is given in its use, not in some assigned value from the subjective view of the creator. Is a woman using a firearm to fight off a rapist unjustly restricting the freedom of her would-be rapist? Is Tang, an orange drink originally intended for astronauts, still purely a tool of space flight?

Firearm deaths—including the 60 percent that are suicides—comprise about one percent of US deaths in 2019. If we want to protect American liberty, reducing firearm ownership is the wrong path to take.

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