Gun control, especially on the political left, is almost universally framed as a matter of safety. The typical leftist argument for disarming the public goes something like this. “Guns are only used for killing things, they are often used by accident and they help people commit the mass shootings that terrify us so.” On the right the argument is, frankly, much more confused. The weakest, but most common, argument is a right wing spin on the safety point. The NRA, for example, often points to instances where armed civilians killed rampaging crazies. Stronger but more fraught is the contention that gun violence is overwhelmingly concentrated in poor and inner-city communities – communities that are noticeably light on establishment conservatives and NRA activists. Finally, there is the strongest argument, guns are a means of ensuring independence.

First, the safety arguments. If safety is the only thing you care about, the debate is very simple. The leftists are correct, the conservatives are wrong and we should outlaw all firearms. Violent crimes are almost never stopped by armed civilians and are more often made worse. Guns make suicide much more convenient and are often discharged accidentally. They turn lower stakes crimes, robberies for example, into potential shootouts. Even mass murder sprees, a trivial danger in statistical terms, are more deadly when the attacker has a gun.

Second, the “not our problem” argument is valid but incomplete. It is true that the amount of gun violence present is strongly connected with the group of people under consideration. Canada has very high rates of gun ownership and basically no gun violence. Same thing with Norway, France, Switzerland, Sweeden and Finland. According to the FBI, white Americans have murder rates in line with these countries. This lends credence to the “we aren’t the problem” argument but runs into a major obstacle. The US is composed of many communities, a great number of which are ravaged by gun violence. So long as Americans wish to maintain an inclusive democracy, they must at least pretend to care about all citizens, which is why I don’t think we can take the “not our problem” argument seriously.

For the matters of independence and safety, I think it is instructive to compare the US and China because, in many ways, they are very similar. Like the US, China has experienced a wave of school and crowd massacres. Like the US, this was largely the result of “social revenge” motives brought on by, according to Professor Joshua Miller and several other sociologists, decreasing economic and marriage opportunity, rapidly changing gender relations and the breakdown of traditional social roles. Like the US, these murder massacres tended to top out around 35 deaths and a hundred or so people injured. The main difference, then, is China’s strict gun control and the US’s notoriously lax gun laws. In China, this means that the mass killings have tended to use kitchen knives. They have tended to require a higher level of organization and planning than American mass shootings and, while the difference is not huge, the maximum body counts tend to be higher in the US.

On the other hand, though, it’s interesting to note that the unarmed Chinese population never once attempted to rise up against Mao Zedong, even when his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were killing 50 million people. It’s difficult to imagine Texas, for example, going so quietly to its own destruction.

The standard leftist refutation to the independence argument has always been “we live in a stable, flourishing democracy” and that is certainly true. The danger in disarming, in submitting fully to society, is directly proportional to the threat of authoritarianism. It then seems that the honest way to weigh the gun issue revolves not around tales of heroic civilians gunning down rapists or retreats into our segregated racial communities, but how much the murder and accident reduction benefits from disarming the population stack up against the risks of the government becoming authoritarian. Do you take Donald Trump seriously when he praises Xi Jinping’s new “president for life” powers and says “we might have to try that here someday?” Do you fear the masked antifa thugs and white nationalists who keep lighting city centers on fire? Are you simply willing to accept the risk of gun violence in order to possess the ability to care for yourself in an emergency?



  1. Well written and reasoned.

  2. Hi Ben,
    My main problem here is your opening paragraph where you state the most common argument is pointing to instances where armed civilians kill rampaging crazies. While they do mention those instances, it is not their main argument.

    Their main position for many years has been ‘only criminals will have guns.’ Therefore, the juxtaposing of the differing positions seemed a bit moot to me.

    However, “The standard leftist refutation to the independence argument has always been “we live in a stable, flourishing democracy” and that is certainly true.” Why do you readily accept that notion without an explanation. I certainly don’t.

    1. Hey Ernesto,

      The “only criminals will have guns” argument, I thought, was just a variation on the “shoot rampaging crazies” argument. After all, the reason for having a gun when criminals have guns, presumably, is so that you can shoot them when they go on criminal rampages. I could be misinterpreting this.

      As for stable democracies, that’s more complicated. Trump has clear authoritarian sympathies straight out of the Hugo Chavez playbook – he has attempted to sue independent media into submission, to obtain loyalty oaths from law enforcement and oversight organizations, and just last week said that he “might have to try” Xi Jinping’s new president for life thing – but on the other hand American institutions and bureaucracies are doing a pretty good job shutting him down. As long as the bureaucracies are able to stifle the president and deny the will of demagogue people’s champions like Trump, then yes, I’d say the democracy is doing pretty well.

      That said, the rise of libertarianism, the increasingly common discussions about racial justice, the shit show that is higher education and the collapse of social mobility are all seriously eroding our institutions, so maybe not. I think it all depends on the next couple years. If we elect another people’s champion or two, we’ll probably slide into despotism. If, on the other hand, we elect a non-sectarian pragmatist that is able to destroy the racial characteristics of the major two parties (Republicans are for white people and against minorities, Democrats are for minorities and against white people), then we’ve probably got a bright future.

      1. The ‘only criminals will have guns argument’ lends itself to comparison of drugs. Cocaine is illegal, but there are those who have it.
        One also has to remember the rise of power and influence of criminal empires, as it happened during prohibition.
        As for Pres. Trump, you seem to be placing a lot of judgment on one sentence. Did you hear the actual audio? Even the anti-Trump WAPO referred to it as a jokey speech. Everyone present laughed. He’s actually a strict Constitutionalist.
        “Republicans are for white people…” Umm…You don’t actually believe that do you?

      2. I think the cocaine example works very well to illustrate the point. If everyone had cocaine, this wouldn’t help anything. If everyone had guns, theoretically, this would make us safer.

        As for Trump, if it was just the admiration for dictators, I would let it slide, but he’s also threatened to jail political opponents, attempted to use the office to undermine the independence of the judiciary, incited crowds to violence, tried to intimidate the media and attempted to get personal loyalty oaths from law enforcement. Luckily he’s been far too weak and incompetent to make any of these things work, but the actions and words are straight out of the Hugo Chavez playbook.

        And yeah, the parties are very segregated.

  3. I’ve been wondering if an armed population would really stop the government from becoming authoritarian. How would this actually play out?

    1. Hey Tina,

      In my reading of recent history, it doesn’t usually stop governments from turning to authoritarianism but it does throw sand in the gears.

      The best example I can think of where it seems to have actually stopped authoritarianism is Switzerland. You’d have to be pretty dumb to invade or attempt to subjugate a country where all of the adult men have military rifles at home and training in their use. You might take the land, but the immediate bleeding ulcer nature of the project would soon become very clear. It would make the Vietcong look like a convention of party planners. I’d argue that Afghanistan has been such an impossible place to occupy for largely the same reason. Sort of a “squish the central government, receive nightmare guerrilla insurgency” dynamic.

      In milder cases, we can see that the populace’s ability to fight back resulted in relatively kid glove treatment from the 20th century idealistic monsters. Norway, Sweden, Poland et al were able to blunt the worst of the USSR, imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in ways that less armed societies like China and Eastern Europe weren’t.

      The reason being the armed populaces are always potential sources of guerrilla insurgencies. (Being rural also seems to help.)

      Take this all together and you would expect Hong Kong to be more or less impotent to stop CCP strangulation, Turkey to be relatively easy to subdue and Canada to be far more trouble than it’s worth to crush under jackboot. An invasion of Texas would seem very likely to hurt while an invasion of the Ukraine probably wouldn’t.

      1. Good points. I tend to think there’s not much even a well-armed population could do against an authoritarian militia (these days), but you’re about “the bleeding ulcer” that could ensue. It turns out to be a lot more complicated than the question of who has the biggest gun.

      2. Very much so. One of the things Hannah Arendt points out in Eichmann in Jerusalem is that a lot of the time, pogroms and the like are pretty fragile.

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