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Pacifism vs. Private Gun Ownership

By Scotty Boman

In addition to being a libertarian activist, I am also a peace activist. In the course of attending meetings, rallies, and protests, I have noticed confusion by some anti-war activists who favor laws designed to prohibit, or severely limit, private gun ownership. Some have suggested that it is hypocritical of me to advocate both non-violence and gun rights.

The most absolute approach to non-violence is pacifism; but can a pacifist support gun rights? The answer can be found in a careful analysis of core moral principles. Pacifism is a philosophy most notably promoted by Jesus Christ, as described in the canonized gospels. These teachings have been adopted by well known twentieth century activists such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. To sum it up in a few words, pacifists oppose violence as immoral, regardless of any provocation or defensive justifications. A pure pacifist is willing to be killed or allow others to be killed rather than take up arms to defend one’s self or family.

The other moral code at issue here is the non-aggression principle. This philosophical standard builds on premises developed in the enlightenment movement, which appears to have influenced writers of the United States Constitution. These ideas, however, were most clearly expressed in the writings of Ayn Rand and were later adopted by the libertarian movement. The non-aggression principle asserts that the initiation of force is fundamentally immoral, but that force is morally acceptable when necessary to protect one’s self, loved ones, or property from violent actions or seizure by an aggressor.

So can a libertarian be a pacifist? Absolutely. The fact that the non-aggression principle allows for the use of force in some circumstances does not imply an obligation to use force. For instance, a person who uses force to stop an aggressor does not become an aggressor, because he or she would only be responding to a person who has chosen coercion as a means of interaction. However, “turning the other cheek” would not be aggressive either.

Conversely, can a principled pacifist observe the non-aggression principle? Absolutely. In fact a pacifist must observe the non-aggression principle. The practicing pacifist is called on to refrain from all acts of violence, be they acts of aggression or defense.

Must a libertarian be a pacifist? Not necessarily since the non-aggression principle allows for violent behavior as a means to repel aggression.

So a pacifist must observe the non-aggression principle, and a libertarian may chose to be a pacifist.

What does the above have to do with private gun ownership? Well, one use of guns is to deter or stop attackers (potentially by injuring or killing the attacker). Clearly such a use would be wholly inconsistent with pacifism, but would be compliant with the non-aggression principle. So a pacifist would not own weapons of any kind for defensive purposes, though it is conceivable that a pacifist might own fire-arms for sporting purposes. In fact, there are a variety of weapons that most pacifists posses for non-defensive uses such as baseball bats, knives, forks, ropes and hands. So even though most pacifists would not be inclined to be gun-owners, it is possible; ownership does not compel defensive use.

Gun-ownership among libertarians for defensive purposes is acceptable since defense is the condition under which the non-aggression principal allows violence.

So now for the issue of so-called gun control: Laws controlling people’s possession of firearms including restrictions on weapon style and the amount of available ammunition.

Laws, unlike moral imperatives, are rules enforced by violence or the threat of violence. Law-breakers are subject to abduction, captivity, or execution. If they resist abduction, or attempt to escape captivity, they may be legally killed or injured. If the law is a prohibition on an act of aggression, then such enforcement is consistent with the non-aggression principal. Otherwise, such enforcement is itself, an act of aggression.

Hiring a proxy to carry out an action one regards as immoral does not absolve one of culpability. It is morally indistinguishable from carrying out the act ones-self; the difference is one of methodology, not moral principles. A libertarian may carry a gun or hire an armed guard for defensive purposes. A pacifist is morally enjoined from doing either one.

So if one supports so-called “gun control,” through the political process, one is committing an act of aggression. Not only can a pacifist respect people’s right to gun-ownership, but to support “gun control” laws violates the core principles of pacifism; a principled pacifist cannot support “gun control” laws.

In fact, supporting such laws is even worse then a violation of libertarian and pacifist principles, it makes the gun control advocate complicit in the victimization of other people. Consider the case of an individual victim being attacked by an assailant. That person may choose to fight back, resist, or submit. Now if someone comes along and physically restrains the victim, so she can’t fight back while being assaulted, how do we regard his actions? Is he enforcing pacifism by preventing her from fighting back, or is he an accomplice to the assault? Clearly this isn’t a pacifist act at all.

On a larger scale, if large numbers of people, through their proxies in government, impair the ability of victims to repel attacks, they are accomplices to all of those violent attacks. They are not pacifists or libertarians; they are brutal thugs.

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"Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, ...

history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest."