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The Real Reason Guns Matter in America

Why do guns matter so much in America?

The conventional answer is two-fold. The first is that people need the right to arms in order to defend themselves, their families from those who would do them harm. This is the reason most handguns in America are purchased, and is the generalized reason for gun ownership in society.

The second reason for the right to bear arms is the more controversial one, at least from the perspective of the mainstream media. It is based on the premise that the individual possession of arms is a necessary counterbalance to the tyranny of government. When individuals own the means of resistance to government force, the government will generally be kept in check. And if it does turn against its citizens, or otherwise tramples on their rights, the people can rise up and resist.

This second reason is the historically justification for gun ownership. After all, it is the raison d’être of the Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms as a necessary function of the preservation of a free state.

Critics argue that this historical reason is outdated, that the nature of civil government makes ownership of weapons obsolete. They say that the current restrictions on the sorts of weapons citizens can own (rocket launchers, fully automatic weapons, etc.), and the extreme sophistication of the United States military, would make any such resistance impossible.

I am skeptical of that argument, if only because the military has had great difficulty stamping out guerrillas in other countries that were arguably less well-equipped than many citizens are today. Also, the sheer size of the American continent would make patrolling territory and suppression of resistance a virtually impossible task.

That being said, I consider most of the talk about resisting the tyranny of the federal government by force to be little more than fantasy. It is vanishingly unlikely, to the point of near impossibility, that any such civil conflict could emerge in this country, barring some sort of cataclysmic political change. Americans tend to muddle along pretty well. Fighting in the streets is not on my agenda.

Ultimately, the right to bear arms, and people’s exercise of that right, is a symbol. Guns serve a vital totemic purpose in national politics. Whether or not a people’s militia would succeed against a tyrannical military, and whether or not some or all of the US military would go along with engaging their own fellow citizens (an unlikely event in itself), in the day-to-day life of many Americans it is the very right to be armed that is a symbol of the inherent relationship between citizen and government.

A critic might ask: “If all you really need is the symbol, then why do you need assault rifles and other dangerous weapons? Wouldn’t simple hunting rifles suffice?”

To answer in practical terms: The federal and state governments do draw a line already on certain kinds of arms, this is true. And that line is drawn ultimately in a balance-of-harms scenario. Considering the overwhelming majority of gun deaths in America are from handguns that none but the most radical left-wing of American politics wants to outlaw, not much is done by distinguishing an “assault” rifle from any other kind of rifle.

But to answer this question in a more fundamental way: An empty symbol has no meaning. There has to be at least some sense that the power underlying the symbol has meaning. Where that exact precise line is, as to that I remain somewhat agnostic.

In some ways, this a particularly American view. Our national story is built around resistance to tyranny and our education and social interactions reinforce this concept. This is, perhaps, why guns are such a vital issue, even as they don’t seem to bother citizens of other countries, including those with similar degrees of civil liberty and economic freedom. The right to bear arms is a crucial part of the national character, in a way citizens of other countries may find impossible to understand.

An armed citizenry is a proof of where power in a society ultimately lies. And a free society of individuals must invest that power in the people, not the state. That is what the right to bear arms means: It is a living acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the people over their government. That is why we should always struggle to preserve it.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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