Book Reviews: A Nation of Cowards and The Origin of the Second Amendment

by Dave Kopel

This is an expanded version of a review that ran in the March 2002 issue of Ideas on Liberty, on pages 55-55.

Jeff Snyder, A Nation of Cowards: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control(Accurate Pr., St. Louis, 2001). 170 pages. $24.95 and David Young, editor, The Origin of the Second Amendment: A Documentary History of the Bill of Rights (Golden Oak Books; Ontonagon, Michigan, 2001). 838 pages. $55.00. (Update of 1995 paperback edition.)

While there are many books on empirical, sociological, historical, legal, or political aspects of gun policy, A Nation of Cowards is the first full-length book focused on philosophical questions.

The first, and best essay in the book is "A Nation of Cowards," originally published in The Public Interest in 1993. Perhaps the most influential article ever written about gun ownership, Snyder's original public interest essay challenged the notion that reliance on government employees for protection is morally superior to protecting oneself. Indeed, Snyder suggested that a failure to protect oneself was actually immoral.

The rest of the articles are reprints of Snyder's column for American Handgunner magazine, plus a few op-eds for the Washington Times, and a speech given to a Canadian group. This means that that is considerable repetition of themes from one chapter to the next, and sometimes even repetition of exact language. It also means that Snyder rarely gets much deeper than he did in the book's first chapter. We see the same issues examined from various angles, but the variety of perspectives never leads to greater depth.

Even so, Snyder makes a number of excellent points, persuasively expressed. Looking at the National Organization of Women's opposition to female gun ownership, he observes that "feminine helplessness is acceptable as part of feminist dogma" as long as women rely on the state, rather than an individual male.

Snyder addresses the argument that women should not use guns for defense against predators because defensive gun use is not always successful: "such arguments rest on the craven suggestion that you ought not to fight back unless you are first guaranteed perfect, risk-free protection." He likens eschewing guns because armed defense is not always successful to not wearing seat belts because they do not offer perfect protection, and sometimes prevent a person from being thrown free from a burning car.

Snyder is a firm opponent of utilitarianism, of harming one individual with the intention of helping others. He calls this "involuntary human sacrifice."

Much of the gun control debate in the United States revolves around social science, and arguments for utility. Snyder raises two objections to such arguments: First, groups like Handgun Control shouldn't force other people to live according to HCI's theory of utility and effective protection. "Whose life is it anyway?" Snyder asks.

Second, utility is irrelevant, Snyder argues, because it does not matter how many people misuse guns compared to how many people use them properly; to deny even one person the right to carry a gun because everyone else in the world misuses guns is a violation of his natural rights.

Another of Snyder's main targets is "instrumentalism" – ascribing moral qualities to firearms, rather than to the individual intention of the person with the firearm. This leads to Snyder's broader point that the gun issue is fundamentally about character, and being unwilling to assume the responsibility of owning a gun to defend one's family is an abdication of the responsibility necessary be the citizen of a republic. This abdication, he argues, amounts to an admission that the individual is not fit to govern himself, but instead must be cared for and controlled by government.

The argument has some emotional appeal, and certainly there is a connection between unwillingness to defend oneself and support for the nanny state. But in this argument, as in the entire book, Snyder lacks nuance and respect for the variety of the human condition. Based on the people you know, is it really true that everyone who doesn't own a gun or have expertise in some other form of self-defense is a sap who wants the government to take care of him?

Back in early 1994, a few weeks before the Brady Bill was scheduled to go into effect, Sheldon Richman asked me for advice on what kind of gun to buy. Like many other  Americans, Richman was buying his first gun, out of concern that the Brady Act might be implemented in a way to sharply restrict firearms purchases.

Now back in 1992, when Richman didn't own a gun, was he really irresponsible? Unwilling and unfit to be a self-governor?

The critique of gun instrumentalism is a constant theme of A National of Cowards. Snyder deconstructs the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, and its successors, as based on not on punishing conduct which is inherently wrong (e.g., armed robbery), but on the principle of creating new criminals (e.g., people in violation of gun possession laws) as a prophylactic.

To Snyder the fundamental problem of "gun-free school zones" laws is not that they don't work, but that they are based on the premise that by banning an object, the government can eliminate man's freedom, and hence his external behavior.

The same theme is best expressed in Snyder's chapter on zero tolerance laws, in which he recounts the story of an eight-year-old who was sent to a reform school for a month because she bought her grandfather's antique pocketwatch, with a one-inch pen-knife attached, to her public school. Many writers have pointed out the folly of such laws, but only Snyder exposes their truly immoral nature: "Now if the essence of man's dignity is his capacity for moral judgment, his capacity to know and choose between good and evil," then zero tolerance policies which ignore intent "dismiss man's moral nature. Such laws, therefore, do indeed 'send a message' and teach a profound moral lesson to students…: moral character is irrelevant…All that matter is your capacity to follow orders."

In the penultimate "Walter Mitty's Second Amendment," Snyder imagines a society in which the right to arms remains strong, but the people are turned into de facto slaves of the state. The point is to show that current American government is more oppressive in many ways that the government against which the Founders revolted. But gun rights activists never noticed, because they failed to realize that "it's not about guns."

In the final chapter, "Revolution," Snyder considers whether revolution could be justified today. He answers in the negative, based on his assessment of the current American character. First, today's American character more like that of the revolutionary French than like that of America's Founding generation. Americans today are dependent on government and afraid of responsibility, and therefore unfit to make a new government.

Second, Snyder points to John Locke's observation that a revolution cannot succeed unless much of society agrees that radical change is necessary, and there is no such widespread belief in modern America.

So what next? Snyder urges that "We must study again" the founding documents, and "consider what principles and institutional structures might best secure liberty," including questioning where the Founders "or we – may have failed."

Readers who want to study the Founding documents and the right to arms should quickly purchase "The Origin of the Second Amendment: A Documentary History of the Bill of Rights." The book has a new edition in hardback this year, but the 1995 paperback edition is nearly as good.

Starting with the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, and continuing through 1792, the book reprints the text of relevant sections (broadly defined) of every legislative proceeding, newspaper article, correspondence, and every other document related to the Second Amendment and the right to arms.

Besides 750 pages of these original documents, the book also offers an appendix of the full text of state constitution Bills of Rights from the Founding Era. Another appendix shows which states recognized certain rights or demanded their recognition in the federal constitution; the right to arms was nearly ubiquitous, and much more often recognized or demanded than the rights of assembly or petition.

When the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the individual right to arms in the landmark Emerson case, the court cited Young's book scores of times, demonstrating its status as a leading source of original constitutional documents.

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