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"Safety" is not even worthy of our consideration as an issue

By Jeff Snyder
web posted December 3, 2001

On April 18, the Violence Policy Center released a report, "Where'd They Get Their Guns?: An Analysis of the Firearms Used in High-Profile Shootings, 1963-2001" (vpc.org/graphics/where.pdf). The report surveys firearm information (including how the firearm was acquired) relating to 65 "high-profile" shootings, most of which (59) occurred from 1980 onward.

In the report's conclusion, the VPC claims that "specific firearm design characteristics— concealability, high capacity and large caliber, among others— make certain guns more prone to use in multiple shootings." The report concludes with an endorsement for "The Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act" (H.R. 671 and S. 330) to end "the firearms industry's deadly exemption from health and safety regulation," by empowering the Department of Treasury "to set minimum safety and design standards… and ban specific firearms in extreme cases when no other remedy is sufficient."

I cite the VPC report not in order to take issue with its data or claim, but because it so nicely exhibits, and seeks to exploit, the reigning value of our time: safety.

Curiously, safety was not deemed to be Man's Highest Value, nor its creation Government's Principal Service, by the Founding Fathers. In fact, the Constitution doesn't even list health, education or welfare among the 17 subjects which Congress has a power to legislate (Article I, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution).

Further, not even one of the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights includes any exception for safety. You will not read there that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press— except as may be necessary for public safety.

No where does it say that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed— except as may be necessary for protecting the public.

Careful reading won't uncover this: that each man shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures— unless we would really be more safe if we were subject to continuous public surveillance.

Safety Not An Issue

Why is that? Did the Founders simply not care if innocent lives were lost for no good reason? Were they heartless, unfeeling brutes? Maybe the Founders just didn't care about the children!

Did the idea just never occur to them that, by creating some exceptions to rights in the interest of public safety, it might be possible to prevent crime, rather than simply punishing criminals after the fact, when it was too late?

Apparently the Founders did understand the concept, but rejected it as the principal object of good government. Benjamin Franklin said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." [Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759.]

This is more than rejection; this is contempt for those who crave safety. What twisted world view could these men have shared that would lead them to conclude that liberty was more important than safety?

Liberty Or Safety

I know of no detailed examination of the relationship of liberty and safety in the writings of the Founders. All we have are aphorisms like Franklin's, or Thomas Jefferson's translation of Beccaria's observations on false ideas of utility that "…would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it."

Possibly, to the Founders, the idea that anyone could think safety preferable to liberty was so craven, so repugnant, that it was, for the most part, unthinkable and unworthy of comment. Sadly, it has fallen to our lot to consider this, because we are not the men the Founders were: what was repugnant to them has become precisely that which allures us.

In safety vs. liberty, we have a way to take the measure of the distance of ourselves from the Founders. I will make a start with two observations, one psychological, and one philosophical.

First, it is noteworthy that safety nowadays is viewed as something that is provided and delivered, which inheres in the structure of, and is created by controlling, external reality (i.e., banning guns). The citizenry views themselves as consumers of public safety; they expect to have a safe world created for them and delivered to them.

As such, the pursuit of "safety" as a principal goal of government indicates an essential, if not pathological, passivity in the citizenry, indicating that they view themselves as "recipients," and not actors, even in a matter that concerns the preservation of their very lives.

Such a world outlook can arise only in one who has abandoned the idea that his safety is his responsibility, for if he produces it himself, and it is his responsibility, he does not believe it is to be created for or provided to him by others, who are supposed to arrange external reality for him to make it nonthreatening.

His safety is in himself, not in external reality, and certainly not in an illusion that external reality has been rendered safe by the work of police enforcing paper decrees (i.e., guns are banned so I need not worry about being hurt by guns).

Those who view themselves as source and producer of their safety will be concerned foremost with their liberty, for that is the condition needed for them to act and to fulfill their responsibility.

Second, we may view the matter from the perspective of political philosophy. The Founders were schooled in the principles of the common law. As such, they would have believed that the purpose of the criminal law was to provide justice: to avenge or requite wrongs.

Justice can be rendered only after the fact. Since it is unjust to punish someone who has not actually done anything wrong, justice must wait until someone has actually done something morally wrong.

Prior Restraint

Modern law, however, seeks prevention, not justice. Accordingly, it imposes prior restraints on citizens' conduct in order to protect them from themselves. Consider a few familiar examples.

A firearm dealer may not sell a firearm to a convicted felon. Presumably, this has been defined as a crime because it is feared that the felon will use the gun to perpetrate other crimes like assault, robbery or murder.

A citizen cannot purchase or own a semiautomatic assault weapon manufactured after 1994. Presumably, this has been made a crime because it is feared that the citizen will have too deadly a weapon for robbing banks, going on murder sprees, engaging in terrorism or even starting an insurrection.

Citizens cannot carry guns into post offices or airports, presumably because they might shoot someone or might hijack an airplane.

Viewed from the perspective of the principles of justice established at common law, the use of law as a tool of prevention punishes citizens, not for actual acts that they have committed that are harmful to others and which were committed with an intent to harm or in reckless disregard for others, but simply because of what they might do, or because of what someone else might do, later.

Citizens are punished in advance, before they have actually done anything that, under common law principles, would be defined as criminal or wrong.

Thus, citizens are subjected to prior loss of liberty and, if they flout the restraints, actual additional punishment, for the commission of an act, not in itself harmful to anyone and which has not been demonstrated to actually have harmed anyone because that event has not in fact happened, but merely because of assumptions, statistical probabilities or fears about what might happen later.

Doing No Wrong

Citizens who have done nothing wrong, morally speaking, are therefore held accountable for a presumed failure to prevent crimes which government itself, with its direct laws against crimes, its police forces, courts and prisons, cannot and does not prevent. All this is the logical consequence of the pursuit of safety instead of liberty and justice.

Only justice, and not safety, is consistent with liberty, because safety can be secured only by prior restraint and punishment of the innocent, while justice begins with liberty and the concomitant presumption of innocence and imposes punishment only after the fact.

The two cannot be combined in a system that "balances" safety and liberty, for they are completely incompatible with one another.

Any attempt to introduce the pursuit of safety into a system of justice founded on liberty must inevitably lead to the destruction of the latter, as the continual erosion of the Bill or Rights in the name of safety amply demonstrates. The Founders evidently instinctively knew this, knew that there is no liberty in safety, and no justice without liberty. They chose accordingly.

And we have chosen otherwise.

Jeff Snyder is the author of Nation of Cowards: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, available from Accurate Press, 1-800-374-4049. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2001 issue of American Handgunner Magazine and is reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Snyder. You can find other articles written by Jeff
Snyder at his website, www.nationofcowards.net.

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