Gun enthusiasts frequently argue that only armed ordinary citizens could stop mass murderers. “Why didn’t the teacher have a gun?” they ask. No one’s seemed to offer a cogent response to that argument, apart from pointing out the difficulty of shooting only the assailant in a room full of panicking people. That’s a good response, but it’s not quite enough. Here’s a better one.
In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out that in a civilized society, the state has a monopoly on violence. In other words, the state secures the peace by way of a professional police force. It’s the job of the police to keep disputes from escalating into violence, and to ensure that they are resolved by law rather than by fists or bullets. That way, citizens don’t need to carry personal arms, nor do they need to be constantly on alert worrying about those who might. Steven Pinker sums it up well in his recent book The Better Angels of Their Nature: by restraining and penalizing aggressors, the State is “defusing general anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating everyone’s need to maintain a hair trigger for retaliation to prove their resolve” (p. 35). A well-regulated state maintains security so that people can go about their business in a peaceful and predictable world.
By these lights, gun advocates have it precisely and profoundly wrong. They want to drag us back to times when states were so weak that everyone had to be armed to the teeth and constantly primed for violence. That’s no way to live, and most couldn’t live that way even if we wanted to. The person with the better gun would be the winner of the fight, period. That’s not civilization. It’s feudalistic anarchy.
We have a real problem with guns. It’s not just with guns, as people have pointed out; it’s also a problem with identifying, restraining, and treating the people who are driven to violence. But we have to start somewhere. And we can start, right now, first by banning assault rifles, and then by making it much harder for people to buy guns of any kind.
That’s not where it ends. In the long run we need to strengthen the social institutions that keep people from turning to violence in the first place. That’s a large and complicated job. But for today we need to remind ourselves that civilized nations are the ones that grant a monopoly on violence to their legitimately elected governments. That’s how you get real security and peace. Not by letting self-styled vigilantes carry guns into colleges and theaters.