Sunday, April 06, 2003

Several bloggers were apparently impressed with a recent column and a followup by Timothy Noah. Sam Heldman says this:
I don't think that I saw Prof. Volokh or even pseudo-Prof. Reynolds make any attempt at answering Tim Noah's penetrating question in Slate: if popular access to guns is such a great bulwark against tyranny, as gun supporters often tell us, then how did Iraq (with ready popular access to guns) get such a tyrannical government? Noah has a follow-up column on the question today.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden adds:
I've long been a liberal with serious doubts about “gun control.” But Timothy Noah asks a good question: If gun ownership is such an effective and important bulwark against tyranny, how is it that a country in which most households own at least one gun turns out to be one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world? The country in question being, of course, Iraq, where it turns out that practically everyone is packing heat.

Noah posts an overview of responses here, none of which are awfully impressive. * * * What about it? If gun rights are so all-fired important, why is Canada a free society and Iraq anything but?
Noah's question could have been a good one, if his opposition (ranging from the modern NRA to founding fathers like Madison, Jefferson, and Adams) had argued as follows:

"The presence or availability of guns is a 100% fool-proof guarantee that the country in question will never fall prey to a tyranny. And conversely, the regulation of guns is a 100% guarantee that the country in question is a tyrannical dictatorship."

But few if any gun advocates have ever made such an absolutist argument. What gun advocates and the founding fathers argue, by contrast, is something more sophisticated --- that the presence of guns is an aid in preventing tyranny, not a guarantee that no tyrannical government can possibly arise. Similarly, they argue that a ban on guns is one factor that makes resistance to tyranny more difficult -- not that any gun regulation automatically makes the government tyrannical right then and there.

What Noah should have asked is whether the availability of guns to Iraqis has, in some instances, prevented acts of oppression that might otherwise have occurred. If the answer turned out to be No, then he might ask what other complicating factors might have diminished the effectiveness of the citizens' weaponry in those situations. If it turned out that there were no complicating factors and that guns simply weren't effective at all in making oppression less likely, then Noah would have scored a point against the gun advocates' argument. As it stands, he has merely managed to refute the straw man argument that guns automatically prevent tyranny with 100% effectiveness regardless of any other characteristics of the government/society in question.

For the sake of balance, I should say that gun advocates are guilty of the same sort of argumentation at times. When gun control supporters argue that easy availability of guns makes crime more likely -- an eminently disputable point -- one response that you sometimes hear is, "What about Switzerland? Every household has a gun, yet crime is low." While that may be perfectly true, it is not an argument that refutes the gun controllers' point. Switzerland's low crime rate may be due to many other factors, and it might have even less crime if fewer people had guns. The question is not, "Is crime solely caused by the number of guns?," but, "Given all the other factors that affect crime in a society, does the availability of guns positively correlate with the level of crime?"

Same as to tyranny. The question is not, "Do guns automatically prevent all tyranny?," but rather, "Given all the other factors that affect whether or not a government is tyrannical, does the availability of guns positively correlate with the ability of people to resist tyranny?" The sophistical question posed by Noah (and echoed by Heldman and Hayden) is irrelevant to that sort of inquiry.

UPDATE: I should point out that for the purposes of this post, I have assumed the truth of Noah's premise -- that Iraqis do indeed have ready access to firearms. As Megan McCardle and Glenn Reynolds point out, however, Noah's evidence for this is based on a very dubious and unconfirmed source.


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