The Limits of Gun Ownership

by Harry Browne

October 23, 2003          

Gun-rights advocates aren't the only people who believe that individuals should be free to own guns. Even gun-control advocates usually specify that they aren't trying to ban all guns.

But most activists on both sides of the gun issue say there must be limits on gun ownership.


So that guns don't fall into the "wrong" hands.

But if a law could keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be virtually no violent crime at all. Just pass a law specifying that bad people can't own guns and the problem of gun violence is solved.

Unfortunately, things don't work out that way in the real world.

The truth is that no gun-control law works because "bad" people who want guns can always get them. Either they'll buy them in the underworld or they'll simply steal them from good folks like you and me.

But shouldn't there be some limits on gun ownership?

No. Such limits don't reduce crime. They either render innocent people defenseless, give the police more power than they should have, or they are simply stupid, unenforceable laws.

Ex-Cons & Guns

Take, for example, the laws that prevent ex-convicts from acquiring guns.

Makes sense, doesn't it, that someone with a criminal record shouldn't be able to acquire a gun?

No, it doesn't.

If a convicted criminal pays his debt to society, he should have the same rights that every other citizen has — the right of free speech, the right to an attorney, the right to vote, the right to practice his religion, the right of habeas corpus, the right to keep and bear arms.

If he doesn't have the full protection of the Bill of Rights . . . 

    •   He will be vulnerable to any zealous prosecutor who wants to railroad him in order to pad a conviction record.

    •   He won’t be able to speak freely to others.

    •   He might not be able to attend church.

    •   He will be helpless to defend himself from thugs who will have no trouble acquiring guns in the underworld.

Dangerous Weapons

But what about assault weapons? Surely, no innocent person has any need for an assault weapon.

Actually, very few people can define what an assault weapon is. More than anything else, it's a bogeyman designed to scare people into thinking that laws are necessary to stop some folks from running around with weapons that could kill large numbers of people.

But, yes, there are innocent people who have good reason to own assault weapons. During most riots, the police are outnumbered and intentionally stay clear of gangs that are looting and vandalizing. Suppose your life savings are invested in a store the gangs are about to loot. And suppose you have little or no insurance because your store is in a dangerous section of town. How will you defend the store against the looters? With a knife? With a handgun against a dozen attackers? Or with an assault weapon?

If you prevent innocent citizens from acquiring assault weapons, criminal gangs will still acquire them — even if they have to smuggle them into America from thousands of miles away. So why pass laws that disarm only the innocent?

Mad Scientists

But shouldn't there be some limits. Would you want your next-door neighbor building a nuclear bomb in his basement?

If someone is building a bomb next door, he isn't likely to tell you — or anyone else — about it. So what good does it do to pass a law prohibiting it?

Such a law would simply give the police one more excuse to invade and inspect your home (not just that of your neighbor).

Backyard Battalion

Okay, let's make it something out in the open. Would you want your neighbor to have a tank in his backyard?

What business is it of mine what my neighbor wants to keep in his yard? It's his yard, not mine.

If he runs his tank into my yard, he's trespassing and should be prosecuted. But he would be trespassing if he ran his car into my yard, or entered my home without permission, or burnt garbage that stunk up my home. My only concern is that he stay on his side of the boundary — not what he keeps on his side of the boundary.

Gun Laws Don't Work

You might be able to imagine the perfect law that allows just the right people to own just the right types of guns, while prohibiting other citizens from owning inappropriate firearms.

But remember, you're only imagining such a law; it will never be a reality. Once the issue is turned over to the politicians, it will be decided by whoever has the most political influence — and that will never be you or I.

Like most laws, every gun law quickly turns into a tool to reward the friends of the politically powerful and to harm their enemies. But it doesn't make America safer.

The only valid policy is to have no laws regulating the ownership of guns, but to hold every citizen responsible for whatever harm he initiates against others — with or without a gun.

People should never be prosecuted for what they own, for what they think, for what they eat, drink, or smoke, or for what they believe. They should be prosecuted only for the physical harm they do to others.

And people who do harm others should be prosecuted — whether or not a gun is involved, and whether or not there is hate in one's heart or liquor on one's breath.