news of a masked gunman opening fire on movie theater goers in Aurora, Colorado during the premier of The Dark Knight Rises has predictably reignited calls for increased gun control laws. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately called on President Obama and Mitt Romney to take charge and tell the American people “what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.” Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is proposing legislation to limit the ability to purchase high-capacity firearm attachments. To make matters worse, Congress is currently considering the International Arms Control Treaty. In the spirit of “never let a good crisis go to waste,” public officials are once again demonstrating their infinite capacity for political opportunism. The press is, of course, playing its part by echoing the calls across their editorial pages.
Per usual, it is never asked in the establishment media’s commentary “what if any one of the movie patrons was armed?” No news pundit starts a conversation by wondering “what if someone in the crowd fought back like the 71 year old man who shot and chased away two would-be robbers at an internet café?” Such questions evoke principles like personal responsibility, self reliance, and, above all, freedom. That’s why they can’t be alluded to by politicians are their fawning press. Considering how individuals could protect themselves outside the government’s watchful safeguards undermines the institution itself. To the press that finds itself profitable in reporting on the doings of the ruling class, terrible events mean convincing the public to ask “what is the government going to do about it?” That way the state remains the focus in all matters of importance.
But heinous crimes are not issues to provide an excuse for government to further its reach into society. If anything, they should be a sign that the state is inadequate at the task it claims the sole responsibility of conducting. Instead of laws to “fix” what public officials supposedly lacked the foresight to prevent, alternatives to government should enter the public discussion to add to the breadth of the debate. And that means challenging the whole concept of the state as the great protector of humanity.
Terrible as they are, the irony of the Aurora shootings is that they occurred in an area where a little over a century ago, peace and order were provided by private means. To which I am referring is the “wild, wild West” of 19th century America. Yet the West was never truly that wild as is often portrayed in public school classrooms. In fact, according to Frank Prassel, “it must be that this last frontier left no significant heritage of offenses against the person, relative to other sections of the country.” As documented by Robert A. Dykstra, the five major cattle towns of Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell only reported at total of 45 murders between the years of 1870 and 1885. In San Francisco during the 1850s, the organized civil government was at first ineffective at deterring crime. After the advent of what was called a “vigilante committee,” two murders occurred over the next three months compared with the more than a hundred which occurred in the six months before. In the book Frontier Violence: Another Look, author W. Eugene Hollon even goes as far as to state “the Western frontier was a far more civilized, more peaceful, and safer place than American society is today.”
So how then was law and order provided in an environment of relative anarchy? The answer comes with the realization that protection, property enforcement, legal arbitration, etc. are services like any other. When there is demand, entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit will offer their services. The only difference between a stateless society and one with the existence of the state is that services related to law are monopolized and not subject to market forces. Because of its violently imposed privilege of suppressed competition, the state frees itself from having to answer to the fickle demands of consumers. The inefficiency that the market weeds out then ends up institutionalized by the state’s bureaucracy.
In the case of the West, not only were property rights established and enforced through private arbitration, enforcement was also handled by what could be labeled “professional killers” or mercenaries. These hired guns were influenced more by compensation than any moral code of conduct. The desire for monetary reward is precisely what encouraged private enforcement agents to conduct their job with “thoroughness and dispatch.”
With the federal government still not a present force in the Western frontier, settlers would often form land clubs to establish rights over property and rules for settling disputes. User fees were charged for those seeking to employ a judge to settle a disagreement. If one party refused to pay or show up in court, the judge would still render a ruling. For anyone who refused to abide by the judge’s ruling, the community as a whole would often decline to trade with the accused; thereby incentivizing his leaving of the association. In addition to land clubs, cattlemen associations, mining camps, joint stock companies, and wagon trains were formed as a means of establishing protection for property and person.
Contrary to its depiction as a place of chaos and lawlessness, the American West during the 19th century was relatively orderly thanks to market provided agencies of peace. As Watson Parker put it “the frontier American was the mildest of men, to be so well armed and to shoot so few people.” Rather than rely on one set customs or rules, different standards of justice were the norm among the various associations. Above all, these associations were voluntary and attracted clientele by their own merit in providing an orderly environment. People were free to come and go as they pleased for the most part.
Just as the free market has brought civilization a cornucopia of needed goods, it has proven capable of providing law and order as well. In an age where the right to defend one’s self is constantly challenged by the forces of statism, it becomes even more important to have a tangible vision of what freedom truly looks like. The reactionary calls for bigger, more paternal government needed to be combated not with utopian visions of a free society but a logical explanation as to why voluntary enterprise is not just the moral alternative but more practical.
Thankfully, nothing will likely come from another round of hyperbole directed at private gun ownership. As two reporters from the Associated Pres describe it, “gun control advocates sputter at their own impotence.” Many American still realize how essential private gun ownership is even while their rulers in Washington, the state legislature, or the town hall may tell them otherwise.
A state where only the police have guns is a police state. Totalitarian dictators such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were always quick to ban the private ownership of guns. Even Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez recently banned the private ownership of firearms. The prospect of a society where only monopolized law enforcement has access to arms is downright terrifying. The fact of the matter is that there is a cost to everything; including liberty. If people are going to be allowed to exercise their right to own a firearm there stands to be a chance that someone will turn to destructive behavior. Morality can be taught but not forced upon a person. Humans, as naturally imperfect as they are, can provide societal order without the direction of a dominating body of individuals known as the state.
The men, women, and children who died in that Colorado movie theater sadly had their lives cut short. Still, that is no excuse to pursue policies which would undoubtedly put future lives at risk by taking away a person’s right to live for and to protect themselves without relying on an institution that claims to hold the legitimate use of violence; no matter its actions or motives.
As Murray Rothbard pointed out
If guns are restricted or outlawed, there is no reason to expect that determined criminals are going to pay much attention to the law. The criminals, then, will always be able to purchase and carry guns; it will only be their innocent victims who will suffer from the solicitous liberalism that imposes laws against guns and other weapons.