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The limits of limitations

December 29, 2012

The United States is currently experiencing one of its periodic fits of introspection.  This time, Americans are wondering and bickering over whether their firearms laws are too lenient, whether making access to weapons more difficult would create a safer and less violent society.

The chief argument put forward by the National Rifle Association against a potential gun ban–namely that an armed citizenry deters government tyranny–is deeply rooted in an historical American distrust of central government.  It is also inherently flawed.  Assume that the United States did adopt firearms laws equivalent to those in force in Britain or Australia or Germany, which would mean the elimination of all weapons except those licensed for sporting purposes and the extremely limited availability of such licenses.  Then suppose that the United States government, in the absence of such internal checks on its power, expanded its influence to a point at which its behavior provoked outright rebellion among its citizens.  In such a case, the rebels would have no difficulty smuggling ample quantities of arms and ammunition across the borders of the United States in order to equip themselves.  The prior presence or absence of arms inside the country would make little difference to the success of the rebellion except in terms of altering its timeframe.  Widespread present-day gun ownership would not give the American people a long-term competitive advantage over their government in the event of a revolution, and the deterrent argument is therefore invalid.

For a more logical perspective, the issue of firearms control must be viewed in general terms.  A gun is a personal possession.  In the extreme case, the United States government proposes to ban ownership of such possessions.  It argues in favor of doing so on the grounds that such possessions pose a threat to public safety.  And that is the crucial point.  Once the principle has been established that any item or possession which can be held to pose a danger to the general public may be legitimately banned or confiscated by the state, the rest is a mere matter of detail.  The exact nature of the item in question becomes irrelevant, since the state may construct its own chain of reasoning to explain just why a particular item poses a danger, and may then prohibit its possession at will.  This concept can be extended indefinitely to cover any action that the state decides meets its self-established definition of public harm.  In some cases, it already is.  The United States government has a long history of maintaining its own fitness to judge whether certain writings are obscene and therefore subject to censorship, for example.  Such an action is justified by the same public interest argument as a gun ban and is essentially the same thing: the restriction of personal choice by law.  Now, does the state have any inherent authority to interfere with individuals in this manner?  Obviously not.  Since the nation-state is not a person, it possesses no rights and thus does not have the authority to prohibit the possession of any object by a human being.

Even more than making the non-personality of the state readily apparent, this situation highlights the risks of thinking in terms of details instead of underlying principles.  When the principle of a limit is once established, the exact nature of that limit is a minor question compared to the effects of the overall concept.  And to acknowledge that a limit of any kind may exist in the first place is to admit the possible validity of all limits, however lenient or onerous they may be.

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