The greatest document of the American gun debate

Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted August 28, 2000

The history of the gun control debate has been marked by several truly great documents that are eternally enshrined in cyberspace and will be treasured by historians of the future. When these memorable documents are examined in future centuries, which treatise will stand above the rest as being the best, the most important, or the most representative of the entire debate?

One candidate for greatest document of the gun control debate is a 1989 essay titled, "The Embarrassing Second Amendment" by highly respected legal scholar Sanford Levinson. A liberal himself, he served notice to liberal opponents of gun ownership that they could not simply ignore the Second Amendment. This single law review article started an avalanche of research into the meaning of the long neglected Second Amendment. The overwhelming majority of the researchers say that it does indeed guarantee an individual right to keep and bear arms, just as ordinary folks have believed for two hundred years.

Another possibility is John Lott's exhaustive scholarly study of the relationship between guns and crime in America. To make this complex study more accessible, he distilled it into quite a readable book, "More Guns, Less Crime", published in 1998 and currently offered in an updated second edition. The chapter on how Lott has been the victim of personal attacks, since his work is unassailable, is worth the price of the book.

Some might vote for Olsen and Kopel's 1999 law review article, "All the Way Down the Slippery Slope", a well written and well researched description of the history of gun prohibition in England. It elegantly demonstrates the historical relationship between increased gun control and increased crime.

These are all great documents that will be treasured by history, but my favorite is a 1993 article by Jeffrey R. Snyder: "A Nation of Cowards". Snyder distilled the arguments for private gun ownership, disposed of the arguments against it, and claimed the moral high ground in this landmark 5,800 word essay. [George Will responds to that article in this essay.]

I first read "A Nation of Cowards" sometime in 1994 when I was just beginning to realize the danger that America faced from the gun prohibition lobby. Snyder's writing helped me to focus the random thoughts that I had already developed and added a few that had not occurred to me yet.

He pointed out how the movement to ban guns was related to the change in the way Americans are taught to think of themselves. A few decades ago, before the gun hating really got started, young people were encouraged to develop self-respect, dignity and a sense of personal responsibility. This was built through their accomplishments, by assuming responsibility, and honoring obligations.

This traditional value system gradually changed to one where self-esteem is now paramount. A young person is taught that they are a precious and important member of society regardless of their own efforts or accomplishments. Many observers have noted the way in which this leads to a poor sense of responsibility and a higher risk of criminal involvement, but Snyder takes the logical chain a step further.

He demonstrates how our entire approach to fighting crime has changed. Rather than accept the slightest risk to our precious skins, we are taught that we must give in to criminals whenever the basic precautions like locked doors and alarm systems fail to protect us. Almost every American now believes that it is not worth hurting someone, or being hurt, over stolen property. Even potential rape victims are taught not to fight back. Recent articles in women's magazines suggest trying to chat with a rapist or even asking him to use a condom.

In short, we are all to blame for our current crime problem, because we have decided that fighting back is not appropriate. Crime increased largely because we made it easier and safer. This is a direct result of the changing value system that teaches us to value life above pride and self-respect.

Anti-self-defense groups have tried to blame the crime problem on law abiding gun owners for allowing their guns to fall into the hands of young people who then turn to a life of crime. Snyder compared this with a television commercial that urged people to lock their cars with the slogan, "Don't help a good boy go bad". At the time, the ad was considered offensive (and racist, I believe) by enough people that it was soon dropped, but that same logic is still used today by the gun haters.

"A Nation of Cowards" lays out the arguments for civilian gun ownership that have only grown stronger in the last seven years. It mentions the inability of the police to protect us from crime by any means other than locking up criminals after the fact. It asks us to consider what will happen if we are prevented from dialing 911 or how we can protect ourselves if an attack is imminent and the police response is less than instantaneous.

It was also the first article I recall that pointed out an interesting paradox in the way that anti-gun individuals view the police. They believe that the ability to dial 911 absolves them of all responsibility for their personal defense. Although they consider it immoral and dangerous to use a gun to defend themselves, they are perfectly happy to allow underpaid police officers to bring guns into their neighborhoods and do the dirty work for them. The fact that this is a glitch in their moral system never seems to trouble the true gun haters.

The elitist nature of the gun prohibitionists was obvious even in 1993. The politicians and elite journalists who spoke out against gun ownership were either people who were protected by bodyguards, or thought that gun prohibition would never apply to them because of their exalted status. They demonized gun owners with coldly calculated misleading statements similar to those they use today.

Some of their worst and most dishonest diatribes were directed at laws allowing concealed carry. The idea of ordinary citizens carrying guns responsibly drives them crazy. The success of these laws in the last two decades proves their whole view of guns is incorrect. Even before John Lott's famous study, it was becoming obvious that something was seriously wrong with the old theory that guns cause crime.

Every point made by Jeffrey Snyder in "A Nation of Cowards" is still valid today. I believe it will stand the test of time and deserves to be called the greatest document of the modern American gun debate.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist in Vancouver, Washington, who can be reached at

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