Many arguments for gun control attempt to cite a tension between the rights of individuals to acquire weapons for self-defense and the safety of society. “Sensible” gun control requires that some limitations on the individual right to bear arms be enacted to protect society at large. These limitations often take the form of bans on particularly potent weapons, such as the now-defunct U.S. assault weapons ban. While such laws may seem intuitive, I argue that the good of a free society requires not restrictions on military-style firearms, but the widespread and decentralized ownership of such arms.
Syria’s bloody rebellion saw the deaths of more civilians on June 6th. Over fifty-five civilians were killed in the town of Al-Qubeir. The perpetrators of this massacre were members of the Shabiha militia. Shabiha, roughly translated as “thugs,” are regime-friendly civilians armed by the government and used by the Assad regime as a sort of deniable means of suppressing rebels. President Assad would technically be telling the truth when he claims that criminals and terrorists conveniently killed and intimidated his foes.
What does this have to do with gun ownership? Centralization. The Shabiha militia, as previously noted, was armed by the government of Syria. Also, according to gunpolicy.org, there are only 735,000 civilian-owned firearms in Syria, or 3.9 firearms per 100 persons. For comparison, there are 270 million civilian-owned firearms in America, with approximately 88 firearms for every 100 citizens. This low rate of civilian firearm ownership in Syria allows the Assad regime to selectively arm friendly segments of society, thereby creating a radical imbalance of power. Suddenly, these favored groups have weapons, and the common people do not. They can intimidate or murder a subversive majority without fear of reprisal and without assuming any significant personal risk of death.
A free society, which our Republic is designed to be, requires that democracy be limited to guarantee the rights of minorities against majoritarian depredations. Our Bill of Rights, in addition to protecting the people from the government, also allegedly functions to protect one group of people from the legislated tyranny of another group. In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment legally guarantees equal protection under the law to all persons. Unfortunately, legal guarantees do not always equate to actual guarantees. The Constitution of the Soviet Union included legal guarantees to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. However, the people had no way of holding the government to these promises.
Consider a free society, with legal guarantees of equal rights to life, liberty, and property. In this imaginary republic, approximately (say) forty percent of the citizens, regardless of ethnic or social class, possess military-style assault rifles. Even relative poverty will not exclude persons from firearm ownership, if the society values weaponry. An AK-47 can be had for as little as $460, and I purchased my Kalashnikov for $300 from a private citizen (a practice legal in America and any free society). Suppose that a well-connected minority attempts to suppress dissent, Syria-style, in response to some new legislation enacting, oh, say, an unfair taxation scheme. Instead of mowing down unarmed demonstrators with no risk to themselves, soldiers in the employ of the oppressing group will have to face significant resistance. While it is certainly possible that the oppressing group will defeat the subversive group, such an accomplishment will require a war, and wars are costly in terms of both lives and money. Massacres are relatively cheap for the perpetrators. Further, while an oppressive class or regime might arm friendly groups with military weapons, the power gap between these ad-hoc militias and the general populace is merely well-equipped versus ill-equipped, rather than rifles against fists. While no sure guarantee of the rights of all people can realistically exist, distributed military firearm ownership presents a powerful deterrent to oppressive groups.
Such a society is one in which the rights of minority groups or poor majorities are more likely to be respected – not out of altruism, but out of that universal human quality: aversion to being shot. Combined with the fact that assault weapons are rarely used in crime, a compelling case for legal civilian ownership of assault rifles exists. Even if one believes that the good of society can legitimately trump or compromise individual liberty, the decentralized and widespread ownership of military-style firearms is clearly in the public interest.