The Right To Guns Against The State

by Thomas R. Wells

The right to own guns is typically justified by the fundamental right to self-defense against bad guys, either our fellow citizens or the state itself if it were to turn tyrannical. Both of these have a superficial appeal but fail in obvious ways. Guns are an effective means of defending oneself against bad guys only so long as they don’t have guns too (because being equally armed doesn’t add up a defense against those who can pick and choose their moment of aggression). Civilians with guns are also ineffective against the armies and ruthless terroristic violence of a truly tyrannical regime.

Here I want to discuss a more subtle and less ridiculous justification for the right to own guns. I think it drives much of the enthusiasm for gun rights but is rarely spelled out. This is the fact that widespread gun ownership forces liberal democratic governments to take the views of those citizens more seriously and work harder to gain their consent. In this way gun ownership operates as a drag on the ambition and scope of what has become a somewhat paternalistic form of government with an irritating tendency to micromanage its citizens’ lives. The hoped for result would be a more libertarian regime that leaves people better alone.

First, the complaint. Contemporary liberal democratic governments are composed of two parts, of which this first is the permanent ‘deep state’ made up of institutions like education ministries and regulatory agencies and staffed by civil servants. These are the institutions that actually run things and make and enforce most of the rules we live under. In western countries their guiding motivation is to make our lives go better according to various measurable criteria they find important, such as increased life expectancy or quality of life or GDP. This is obviously paternalistic. What such a welfarist regime comes down to is the imposition of technocratic ‘best for you’ rules and punitive taxes on all sorts of things from Kinder Eggs to motorcycle helmets to tobacco that routinely overturn individual judgement on the basis of the government’s beneficent motivation and superior expert authority.

I do not claim that the maximization of life expectancy and so forth are the worst things a government could focus on. Certainly it is better than what most governments in history have measured their success by! But I do think it is illiberal (in J.S. Mill’s sense) in usurping so completely the judgement and values of the people concerned. The purpose of a liberal government should be to maximise the freedom of citizens to live their own lives their way, not to engineer particular behavioural outcomes such as a reduction in rates of smoking.

The second component of contemporary liberal democracies is an electoral politics in which the ideological values of majority get to rule. Of course this is subject to important constraints that protect political minorities from being entirely subjugated – they are entitled to come back at the next election and try to get a majority for their own values (this is what makes it ‘liberal’ democracy rather than the ‘illiberal’ kind practiced by Erdogan, Putin or Orban). Nevertheless, majoritarianism is an odd idea since it suggests that the right way to decide which values should rule is simply to add up the number of those who like them. Objectively ghastly values such as racism or homophobia are entirely legitimate if more voters can be persuaded to prefer them. Yet allowing the rule of such values is illiberal in so far as it restricts the equal freedom of citizens to live their own lives for themselves.

So much for the complaint. Now, how does gun ownership empower citizens to resist the overweening state.

The basic idea is this. Governments and their agents seem to treat gun owners differently and more carefully than they do their other citizens. As a case in point, consider the confrontation between the US federal government and the armed militia that came to the aid of the rancher, Cliven Bindy, who refused to recognize the government’s right to charge him grazing fees. In the face of threats of political violence, government with the greatest military the world has ever known responded with what seems (especially in comparison to how it treats ‘regular’ criminals) extraordinary leniency, allowing decades of reprieves and making all sorts of compromise financial offers to defuse the situation.

Gun ownership appears to generate a right to political consideration that being a mere voter does not. The possession of a gun grants anyone the power to unleash a miniature whirlwind of mayhem and this renders them a potential political force to be reckoned with. It makes them someone whose interests and values and words are to be taken seriously, someone to be engaged with on a somewhat equal footing and bargained with for example, rather than treated as a mere political statistic (just one voter among millions) to be strategically managed and pushed around.

Yet it is essential to note that this outsized political power of gun owners is not due to any fear of violence that the government feels for itself or its agents, but exactly the opposite. When a citizen points a gun outwards at a federal agent it is as good as pointing it at his own head. A liberal democracy fears the embarrassment of being forced to use lethal force against dissenting citizens whose guns make it impossible to arrest and assert its domination over them in the normal way. As the Cliven Bindy case demonstrates, liberal democracies are willing to put up with an awful lot of uncivil disobedience from even tiny groups of cranks when the alternative is being seen to lose control and to use force disproportionate to the original crime. In other words, gun owners’ political superpower largely derives from a willingness to raise the stakes to the limit by holding themselves hostage. It thus depends on facing off against the kind of government that really doesn’t want to kill its own citizens. This strategy would fail quite dramatically if tried in Turkey or Russia or China or Venezuela.

A further problem with this strategy is that all this respect and attention is in response to a willingness to threaten violence, not better arguments. There is a self-selection effect towards assholes. In practice the kind of people who one sees on TV parading around with their oversized guns in public to make the point that their view of government is right are selected not by the quality of their grievances but by their special sense of entitlement not to have to follow the same rules as other people. Yet many of the rules in a liberal democracy – though certainly irritating – are necessary for our collective prosperity, solving collective problems and successfully managing the interactions of millions of strangers with different interests and values. Cliven Bindy was resisting fees and grazing limits designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the very way of life he claimed to be defending.

Moreover, even if its policies are sometimes paternalistic or otherwise unjust there is at least a clear mechanism for correcting such problems within the system of a liberal democracy: go out and persuade other voters of the quality of your ideas. Gun-toting protestors lack that basic political legitimacy exactly because they seek to bargain directly with the government (a vertical power grab) rather than to appeal to their fellow citizens as co-equals. Whatever concerns one may have about the paternalistic excesses of liberal democratic government, they are still a more legitimate source of the rules we have to live by than the Cliven Bindies of the world.

To conclude, the complaint is that liberal democracy has an irritating tendency to paternalism. The fantasy shared by many gun rights enthusiasts is that they can resist this and reassert a strong idea of citizenship by terrifying governments with the threat of armed revolution. The fact is that liberal democracies do grant gun owners much more political power than mere voters, but only because resorting to deadly force against their own citizens is embarrassing. The problem is that the political power of guns especially empowers assholes, and these people are not likely to create a libertarian utopia.


Thomas Wells is a philosopher in the Netherlands. He blogs at The Philosopher’s Beard.