Gun Articles: Guns & Other Freedoms

Guns & Other Freedoms - 'The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong' - Book Review

Each of us has a favorite part of the Bill of Rights; for me-as for many others-it's the First Amendment. But a good rule of thumb is to consider that particular freedom most important which, at a particular time, is most under attack. And that's why John R. Lott Jr. of the American Enterprise Institute deserves the status of Hero of the Constitution in our time: He stands up for the embattled Second Amendment, the section of the Bill of Rights most hated by today's smart set. Try the following thought experiment. Imagine a fellow who goes on TV and says, "Muslims tend to be violent and creepy," and another who says, "Gays tend to be violent and creepy." In both cases, there would be a justifiable explosion of outrage at the proclamation of such unfair and bigoted stereotypes. But now try to imagine a third fellow, who declares that "gun advocates tend to be violent and creepy." His outburst would probably occasion, at most, a press release from the National Rifle Association; the mainstream media and the public at large would likely see nothing exceptionable in his statement.

In his new book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You've Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong (Regnery, 349 pp., $27.95), John Lott explains how the defenders of gun ownership have been saddled with this undeserved reputation-and provides the statistical truths that the anti-gun activists don't want you to know. The picture he paints is quite striking. Gun ownership is an important factor in reducing the crime rate; it makes ours a less, not more, violent society. For example, states with concealed-carry laws have seen large decreases in the number of multiple-victim public shootings; which only makes sense, because a violent criminal intent on a murder spree is more likely to shoot at targets he can confidently assume to be unarmed. This is part of the more general benefit of allowing citizens to engage in defensive gun use. One study found that in the ten states that adopted concealed- carry laws between 1977 and 1992, overall murder rates fell after the laws were passed. Lott's book is full of information of this kind-which is highly inconvenient for media outlets that want to traffic in gun scaremongering.

In today's academy, University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein is one of the most valuable resources on the side of liberty. In Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism (Chicago, 311 pp., $39), he offers a detailed intellectual defense of a liberal social order with a government that is limited but-just as important-strong and effective in performing the tasks that are proper to it. The book is a complex and challenging attempt to respond to the objections raised to classical liberalism in recent years by specialists in law, economics, and philosophy; as such, it frequently addresses controversies outside the ken of the average educated reader. But Epstein is an engaging man, with a quick mind, and will not permit careful readers to lose sight of the fact that his effort is aimed at protecting the very heart of the American project. His thought is sophisticated, but the insights are intimately connected to a commonsensical realism:

The key . . . to making (and understanding) these decisions [on important life choices] is to avoid thinking in terms of categorical judgments . . . It is hopeless to ask categorically whether we value family more than professional attainments, or a pristine environment more than a warm and safe home. Typically, we value both, so our key decision is never made in the abstract, but always at the margin. When the question is posed grandly, as family versus work, or environment versus home, it is as though we are allowed to choose between only two points on the private indifference curve, (1,0) or (0,1), without having the luxury of any intermediate solutions. In practice, however, we are usually at some point closer to the middle of the range.

Here, as elsewhere, the theory Epstein favors is concerned with life as it is actually lived, and not as a clever philosopher would design it if he were starting from scratch. This preference is crucial, and goes a long way toward explaining why America's experiment with classical liberalism has largely succeeded, while states based on ideologies- paternalistic, one-size-fits-all theories of The Good-have failed. Living, as the ancients realized, is more an art than a science; and therefore, like artists, human beings flourish best in a system of liberty within certain basic limits (such as the prohibition of force and fraud). For the Bolsheviks seeking to create a New Soviet Man, soulcraft was not an art but a hard science-one in which all important questions were held to have been answered. In this world, of course, the human question will never have a final answer, so the Bolsheviks' creation was misguided from the start. This is an easy enough conclusion to draw in hindsight; but Lenin's blueprints were to claim a monstrous toll in life and suffering before they were finally scrapped as unworkable.

Such experiences leave Epstein sober about humanity's future: "Legal and political institutions can take us only so far. . . . There is no automatic safeguard against the scourges of [totalitarianism]. All that we can hope to do is to improve the odds, and toward that end the most powerful bulwark is a determined citizenry that internalizes the basic lessons of human history." Those lessons are clear enough-"private property and limited government"-but they are not self-enforcing. Their survival depends, as does so much else, on human virtue (and, I might suggest, a little prayer as well).

-- What, exactly, is wrong with France? This has been among the more agitated questions of the era of the Second Iraq War. In Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and Triumph of the Left in France (Transaction, 276 pp., $44.95), a fascinating analysis of the politics of the Mitterrand era, journalist Roger F. S. Kaplan offers a clue to understanding the pathology of today's French Left. France's former radicals, he says, have become "a conservative force in society: a force to conserve French particularisms (for example, cheeses which no one eats and films that no one views), to conserve France's 'independent' foreign policy and its 'leadership' of the European project, and, not least, to conserve the elaborate system of privileges that is an important part of France's social fabric."

French leftists fear change; they are suspicious of America, with its attachment to the individual and his freedoms vis-a-vis the state; and they are afflicted with a debilitating, defensive nostalgia. So should we really be surprised that their rhetoric against the war to liberate Iraq should echo the fulminations of U.S. paleoconservatives? And this represents a sad decline in France's commitment to human fraternite: A populace imbued with the spirit of 1789 would have supported America's effort to liberate the prisoners trapped in Iraq's Bastilles.

Francois Mitterrand, Kaplan writes, "could attack American 'imperialism' and speak of 'breaking with capitalism' in the knowledge that he did not know, or did not really care, what he was talking about, except in its effect on the immediate political context in France, which was to rally the left, not against America or capitalism but the French right." On the bright side, this lip-service approach to radicalism was a way for the Socialists to "put an end to the historic French issue of aspiring to change society-and life-by political means"; unfortunately, however, such rhetoric can also do great harm over the long run-by fostering the kind of pretensions, unmoored from real responsibility, that led to the recent French obstructionism at the U.N. In this regard, Jacques Chirac, though a Gaullist, represents the fleurs du mal of seeds planted in Mitterrand's time.

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