Only Outlaws Will Have Guns?

Analyzing a common cliche in the gun debates

Posted Mar 14, 2018

Russ, CCL
Source: Russ, CCL

"If guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will have guns!"
This claim has been around for decades. It can be seen on bumper stickers, banners, and across various social media. But what exactly is the claim here? What is its relevance for the gun debate? And, most importantly, is it true?

Like any if-then statement, this claim by itself is not an argument. Yet many people use it as one. We can craft the argument that the statement is meant to communicate as follows:

1. The result of outlawing guns is that only criminals would have guns.
2. We should not create a state of affairs in which only criminals have guns.
3. We should not outlaw guns.

This argument is fundamentally flawed.

For the argument to work, the first two claims must be true, and they must support the conclusion. The argument’s first claim is clearly false. Even if all guns were made illegal, that is, if Congress repealed the Second Amendment, many law-abiding individuals would still possess and use firearms in the United States. Police officers and members of the armed forces jump to mind, as well as those who serve in the FBI, CIA, and Secret Service, among others. If guns are outlawed, then many who are not outlaws will still have guns. This argument is flawed, and so advocates of the status quo with respect to guns should look for other ways to make their case.

Another way to interpret the claim is that law-abiding individuals would be more vulnerable to harm by criminals, if guns were outlawed. The criminals would have guns, but the rest of us would not. We would be at greater risk of becoming victims with no effective way of protecting ourselves. We would, literally, be outgunned. First, some contend that this is the job of law enforcement, and we should let trained professionals protect us. However, there are many cases in which the response time is so great, or at least not quick enough, to depend on. As I’ve said elsewhere, my proposal is not to abolish gun rights, but rather to make them less liberal so that those who should not have guns will have a more difficult time obtaining them.* Given this, law enforcement and qualified law-abiding individuals would possess guns, and not only outlaws.

There is another way to interpret the statement, though, that is worth considering. Perhaps what some mean by making this claim is that if we outlaw guns, then many competent and law-abiding gun owners would refuse to forfeit their guns. Such people would now be criminals, because they would be disobeying gun laws. But these are good people who should not be forced to break laws prohibiting them from owning firearms. It is important to notice that this is only a problem if guns are entirely outlawed. It is not a problem for those who, like myself, merely advocate for more restrictions on who can obtain or use firearms.

More rational gun laws would not have the impact that is claimed above, rather, they would in time make it more difficult for outlaws to obtain guns.


Photo by Russ, CCL:

*This paragraph has been added to the original post, thanks to reader input.