In the wake of the terrible tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there have been many reactions in the media. The spectrum of acceptable opinion that has been established regarding possible ways to prevent criminal acts like this in the future apparently runs from Chris Matthews to Wayne LaPierre. Chris Matthews on his program Hardball wondered why we could not ban semi automatic weapons like we did fully automatic weapons in this country. Effectively Mr. Matthews is advocating taking people’s guns away, as many correctly fear. We were then treated to the specter of the NRA press conference exactly one week after the shooting in which the NRA Executive Vice President advocated placing armed security guards in every school and blamed the shooting not on guns saying that this was scapegoating but instead immediately proceeded to scapegoat the media, Hollywood, and the video game industry. When this is the spectrum of socially acceptable opinions, it’s time for a paradigm shift. The solutions that have been offered in the wake of this and other shootings are almost exclusively bad ones and most of which flagrantly violate the people’s rights in some way or another.
The gun lobby as well as commentators on the right have been quick to invoke the second amendment to The Constitution of the United States of America when arguing against the overwhelming urge for gun control following such a tragedy. The problem is that many have abandoned the freedom of association implicit in the first amendment of the very same Constitution of the United States.
The New Prohibition
The NRA, Rush Limbaugh, and Republicans in Congress are correct in their abhorrence of left liberals’ discussion about banning assault weapons or Chris Matthews mulling a ban on all semi automatic weapons on the grounds that these “solutions” violate an individual’s constitutionally protected right to bear arms as per the second amendment. This right has been established and affirmed by the Supreme Court in the recent case of DC vs Heller in 2008 as well as United States vs Miller in 1939.
The DC vs Heller case struck down a 1975 law prohibiting individuals from owning handguns in the District of Columbia as well as several provisions that required rifles and shotguns to either be unloaded and disassembled while in an owners house or to have a trigger lock installed. The Supreme Court held that both the ban on handgun ownership (except those registered prior to 1975) and the disassembling requirement for rifles and shotguns ran contrary to the 2nd Amendment because they believed that inherent in the amendment was individual ownership of firearms for the purpose of self defense. The trigger lock and requirement of unloaded and disassembled rifles and firearms is obviously contrary to being able to use personal firearms for the purpose of self defense. If an individual in DC hears someone break into his apartment he has seconds to react to defend himself and his family but he needs several load and perhaps clumsy minutes to re-assemble and then load his rifle evincing the failures of such a policy from a self defense perspective.
One might object that the handgun ban does not violate a citizen’s 2nd Amendment right to self defense due to the fact that someone does not specifically need a handgun for the purpose of self defense when instead they can use a rifle or shotgun. The Supreme Court took their cue on overturning the handgun ban from the 1939 case of US vs Miller which upheld that the types of firearm that can be possessed by citizens are those which are commonly used. This precludes things like machine guns and rocket launchers but clearly allows for handguns rifles and shotguns.
On a more fundamental level, if gun ownership is looked at from a basic property rights perspective then it is clear that individuals should be allowed to own any and as many guns as they want. If Alf buys a gun, be it a handgun, assault rifle, shotgun, or even machine gun, he has not violated any ones rights, he has only exercised his own. There is nothing violent or harmful about voluntarily purchasing a firearm of any kind, the same goes for owning or possessing said firearm. It follows that because purchasing, owning, and possessing a firearm do not violate anyone else’s rights and are all well within a person’s natural right to private property, none of these activities should be made illegal in any way.
Note that this understanding of property rights does not necessarily preclude gun regulations such as background checks, permits, licenses, etc. It only precludes regulations that ban the purchase, ownership, or possession of such guns. Proponents of gun control will protest to this reading of rights by saying that something must be done to protect the children in our schools as well as movie goers and all the others who have been killed or irreparably harmed in some other way by gun violence and they are absolutely right.
Something must be done but unfortunately the answer does not lie in restricting access to guns. Liberals, of all people, should know that prohibition does not work as they have been opposed to the war on drugs on those grounds for decades. As with illegal drugs, making guns in general or a certain type of gun illegal will not make them magically disappear. Most of the honest law abiding citizens will obey the law and no longer carry or possess the illegal guns but the criminals (those who we are worried about killing people) will not abide by these laws, as per the definition of being a criminal.
Another problem with gun restrictions is one of social justice. Who is really sent to prison on gun control violations, just looking at the numbers we can tell that it isn’t the psychopathic murderers who commit atrocities. In general it is poor African Americans who bear the burden of this policy. The percentage of those incarcerated for gun control violations who are African American is 49.6 percent. 1This should raise eyebrows seeing as the African American population in this country is a mere 13 percent and of the recent mass shootings, in Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, none of the killers were black. Clearly imprisoning poor black people who are using firearms to defend themselves in crime ridden neighborhoods has not been an effective method of stopping mass murderers in upper middle class communities.
A Question of Rights
So in our search for an answer we return to the far right represented by Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association who made a speech one week after the tragedy. Given his position, tirelessly defending gun rights for Americans, many would assume him to be an ardent supporter of individual rights in general. To the detriment of gun rights agitators everywhere, this could not have been further from the truth. LaPierre, after ironically casting blame on many other industries for violent murders, settled on one solution for protecting America’s children from further violence. He proposed that the federal government immediately appropriate whatever funds necessary to station an armed police officer in each and every school across the country. Alternatives floated included training teachers or principals to carry and use a handgun, all along the same lines.
Putting aside the relative merits or lack thereof as to whether or not this would make children any safer, we must review the issue of armed guards at all of our public schools nationwide, whether they be police, private security guards, teachers, or principals. What is a parent to do if they are opposed to guns in every way and do not want their children exposed to them once the government approves the funds and the guards are in place? This violates a parent’s right to freedom of association granted by the first amendment and made explicit by the Supreme Court in the case of NAACP vs Alabama. Parents, along with all individuals, have the right to associate or not associate with anyone that they choose for any reason. In the case of the parent child relationship these rights extend to the parent in whom they want their children to either associate or not associate with. In this way if LaPierre’s suggestion were enacted, now the school has violated the rights of many parents who do not want their children exposed to guns at all. The same applies to government mandated guards in movie theaters or anything of this sort as moviegoers may not want the exposure to guns either.
A Free-market Solution
We are still left with the puzzle of how to make children safer in our nation’s schools. The answer is total privatization of schools and removal of federal gun free zones regulations. Privatization of schools will allow for consumers, that is parents with children attending school, to decide what the proper level of safety will be.
They would do this by the free market mechanism of profit and loss. In any given location, there will be multiple schools within a reasonable distance that students might attend. This will mean that different schools will be in competition with one another to attract the dollars that students (or their parents) will pay to attend. One aspect among many on which they will compete is safety. If one school is reputable for its safe environment, it will attract more customers than a school in which crime is prevalent and violence has or may occur. This will lead safer schools to make profits while less safe schools take losses. Over time the less safe schools will either go out of business and be bought out by the safer schools, thus making them safer or will have to adopt policies and practices that make them as safe or safer than the safest schools. By the invisible hand of the market, school owners working to earn as much profit as they can will act to make our nation’s children as safe as possible.
Faced with the question of what methods schools will use to keep students safe the answer is that no one can know. One could speculate that they might allow guns to be freely carried in schools, as Rick Perry envisions, or they might maintain bans against guns (effectively mirroring the current gun free school zones regulations). They might put in place metal detectors, or cameras, or gates. They might even have LaPierre’s armed security guards or teachers or principals. The point is that whatever occurs will have been caused not by arbitrary government laws but by the market selecting the most effective methods. A school owner in a free market system would choose whatever set of rules and regulations he or she thought would best satisfy the consumer’s desire for safety. Consumer’s would vote with their dollars on whatever amount of safety they thought was necessary. And all consumers would be able to freely choose to send their students to an environment that they are comfortable with.
The reason that public schools having armed guards is a violation of the right to free association but private schools doing the exact same thing is not is due to a crucial difference in the way that public and private entities interact with individuals. In the case of a public school, children that live within a certain diameter of a school are forced by law to go to that school. If a policy is put in place that a school or all schools in the case of a federal law must have armed guards, a student attending such a school has no recourse. They are forced to associate with the armed guards. In the case of private schools, there is no force involved. On the private market, all interactions are voluntary. This means that if a parent sends their child to a particular school, then they will sign a contract with the school which would outline what security measures will be taken.
Not only does the market allow for exclusively voluntary interactions but it allows for everyone’s preferences to be satisfied. If people wanted to send their children to schools in which guns were freely carried, such a school would be offered. For others who would prefer to have their children attend school in a gun free zone, this would also be an option. Both of these extremes and many moderate combinations in the middle would be available to the extent that they are demanded by consumers in the market for education. This is much more flexible than the public system we currently live under of take it or leave it.
It must be conceded that even the power of the free market system will not reduce violent deaths in schools or anywhere else to zero. This is because consumers will not want it. If a school was held in a bomb proof, bullet proof bunker with all the students and teachers physically restrained and no one allowed in or out during the school day then we might be able to achieve zero violent incidents. Conversely if guns are allowed to be carried and shot inside school buildings and access to school grounds is controlled in no way then violent deaths would certainly go up. The point is that neither of these extremes is likely to be selected by the market. The trade off we are here presented with is one between security in the former and freedom in the latter example. No parent would want their son or daughter in either of these institutions but instead they would pick the appropriate tradeoff of security versus freedom that they desire for their children.
Gun control in the sense of making certain weapons illegal to peacefully possess does not work, it prevents law abiding citizens from possessing high powered weapons but leaves them in the hands of criminals making society more dangerous in general. Gun control laws also have a disparate effect on poor and minority groups, almost half of those arrested under gun laws are African Americans. Gun control is unjust but forcing a police state on our children in the public schools is not the answer either. The best solution that will not violate people’s rights is a private free market system of schools in our country. Ending public education would not lead to zero deaths in our nation’s schools but it would lead to the fewest amount of deaths possible by maximizing safety through the market process. It is the only way to ensure that our children sleep soundly at night without allowing the government to trample our constitutionally protected rights to private property and freedom of association. Instead of a government managed solution to this issue where the federal government tries a one size fits all policy that will violate rights and leave many cracks to slip through, perhaps this time we can give freedom a chance by turning to voluntary interactions on the free market.
Anthony Gregory’s fantastic article about the disparate effects of gun control laws on different racial groups can be seen here.