Why I Carry

Introduction, No. 1, 22 October, 2000

by Paul Hager (c) 2000

This is the first in a series of articles that I will be publishing on this website dealing with the subject of a citizen's right to carry arms for self-defense and why I have chosen to exercise that right. I intend to have a new article posted every Sunday evening, so you, dear reader, should be guaranteed of finding the latest installment in the series by Monday morning, local time (GMT-5). As I begin this, I am the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate from Indiana but both this site and the series will continue on after the November election.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let me suggest that you visit my Candidate Biography for the 2000 Senate race, as well as my personal site called The Libertarian Corner. If you look at my 2nd Amendment related writings on that site and this, you will find out that I've been active in the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (ICLU) and that I chaired the Commission on the 2nd Amendment and Gun Control for that organization. You'll also discover that I am something of a convert to the cause as a result of that work. The why and how of that is what I'm going to sketch out in this introductory article.

I was 8 years old the first time I ever fired a gun. My father took me out into the woods and let me shoot his .22 revolver. Sometime later, he got rid of the revolver and acquired a .22 Baretta semi-auto which we would take out and use to plink at bottles and cans. When I was 14, my father got me an over-and-under .22 rifle/410 shotgun, but my pride and joy was a .22 semi-auto tube-loaded rifle that I bought when I was 15. I went to high school in Texas, and at that time, rifle teams were common -- I was on mine. We fired bolt-action .22 target rifles. The really hard-core competitors (I wasn't one) had expensive, custom rifles rather than what the school district provided.

All of the foregoing shows that I was acculturated to be a "gun nut". For a whole host of reasons, the acculturation didn't take. By the time I was on the rifle team in high school I was actually a gun prohibitionist. The reason for this was that I had developed the view that most people were simply too irresponsible to have a gun. Add to that the fact that any random nut -- like Lee Harvey Oswald -- with a little marksmanship training could assassinate a President and I saw a compelling case for prohibition. There was no contradiction between my owning and shooting guns and wanting to see private ownership prohibited. My view was that just as soon as the laws were passed, I'd be happy to give my guns up. (Apropos of this is a line from the 1967 satiric movie, The President's Analyst. In the movie, the liberal "gun nut", after saying that his conservative next door neighbors are "fascists" who "ought to be gassed", offers that "us liberals will give up our guns just as soon as the conservatives give up theirs.")

In 1968, when I was 17 and a freshman majoring in sociology, I did a term project/debate on the subject of guns and crime. At that time, some influential sociologists were positing that guns in private hands exacerbated violent crime. The assassinations that year of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy reinforced the idea that guns were an instrument used by deranged zealots to intimidate liberal activists and to thwart the political process. The evidence I found made what I thought was an overwhelming scientific case in favor of "gun control" -- eventual total prohibition. Interestingly, for the debate part of the project, my team took the anti-gun control side -- we won.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the "science" purporting to show a correlation between guns and crime was actually a series of inferences based upon raw crime statistics and some unfounded conjectures about the psychology of violence. One of the anti-gun control arguments that I used to good effect in the debate was that the rate of violent crime was lower in those states with weak gun control and high gun ownership. My personal answer to that piece of disconfirming data was that such states were predominantly rural. In urban environments crowding and resultant stress meant that when a gun was added to the social equation, it would quickly escalate to violence. In other words, it was the combination of guns and the urban environment that were deadly. However, I never found any hard, scientific evidence to support the stress/escalation hypothesis. Everything was at the level of anecdote.

My attitudes about guns remained in about the same place through the 1970s. They began to change somewhat beginning in the early 1980s as a result of two world events. Those two events were the Vietnam War and the Afghan War. One of the arguments that had been made against gun control was that an armed citizenry was the final bulwark against tyranny. My response had been that untrained, lightly-armed non-soldiers couldn't prevail against a modern army. I had concluded that the qualitative difference in firepower was such that all of the previous rules of guerilla war no longer applied. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrated that wasn't true. Repelling an armed invasion is not something that American citizens are likely to face, but the possibility of a despotic government coming to power is not wholly unthinkable. One of the sequellae of Vietnam was the rise of the Khmer Rouge and slaughter of perhaps a million Cambodian citizens. Those citizens, like the Jews in Germany or the Armenians in Turkey, were unarmed and thus utterly and completely defenseless against police and paramilitary. An armed minority was able to kill and terrorize unarmed victims with total impunity.

I began to consider the possibility that since the consequences of a government going bad were so severe, even if there were a social cost to citizens having guns, that cost would be offset by forestalling a despotism from coming to power. I was more willing to entertain the possibility of a tyrannical U.S. government after Reagan was elected. I saw the Reagan Administration exacerbating a number of anti-freedom trends as well as starting several new ones. Projecting those trends into the future and applying my usual pessimism made me consider that the option of having a gun at some point might not be such a bad idea after all.

A second factor in my reconsideration was tied to the fact that I'm a true feminist. By "true feminist" I mean that I want women to have choices and options not foreclosed by either law or social convention. I don't subscribe to gender junk science, special privileges for women (such as gender norming) nor any of the other hobgoblins of the "feminist" movement that impute all sorts of evil tendencies to men and some sort of intrinsic superiority to women. Without getting further bogged down in this, suffice that I want to live in a society in which women, by dint of their own efforts can achieve the same things as their male counterparts. One obvious area where women are, and will always remain, in a position of inferiority to men is in physical strength. In our imperfect world, the strength disparity will mean that a small number of bad men will almost always be in a position to physically victimize and abuse women. This is a real and pervasive problem in the U.S. and elsewhere. A gun immediately erases that strength disparity. For me, this was another case of the possible social benefit -- women being able to protect themselves -- offsetting other negative social consequences that might be associated with gun ownership.

Another factor in my reevaluation of gun prohibition was my growing awareness of the role that drug prohibition and its attendant black market have on the rate of violent crime. I've always opposed marijuana prohibition, but somewhere in the early 1980s, I began to consider that all drug prohibition is societally detrimental. I also began to consider the possibility that guns were not driving the violence but rather that there were a number of demographic, social, and economic drivers and guns were, so to speak, just along for the ride.

Throughout the 1980's and my period of reevaluation, I was acquiring knowledge about developments in the social sciences. I try to stay well informed in a wide variety of fields in both the hard and social sciences. One thing, dear reader, you should know about me is that whatever speculations I may have on a given subject, everything is always ultimately grounded in science. And what I was reading on the subject of violent crime in society was not confirming the earlier ideas about the role of guns. I hasten to add that I wasn't encountering anything that suggested that guns in private hands were beneficial either. In any case, by the time the 1980s had ended, I had moved to an essentially neutral position on the subject of gun control.

It was at this point, around 1990, that I discovered the internet. It was a wonderful tool for political activism, facilitating both political organizing, and educating and converting people to one's cause. My cause in the early 1990's was ending drug prohibition and the drug war (for specimens of my work from that time see Marijuana Myths and The Drug War and the Constitution). While debating/discussing drugs and drug prohibition on various internet newsgroups, I stumbled onto a group called talk.politics.guns, which boasted a number of very well-informed pro-self defense, pro-Right to Keep and Bear Arms (RKBA) cyber habitues. Over a period of around a year or so, I'd visit talk.politics.guns and discuss aspects of the RKBA issue, including the meaning of the 2nd Amendment. Most of the time, my contribution to the discussion was to defend the official ACLU position, which was the 2nd Amendment was about reserved state powers and not individual rights. Over time, it became apparent to me that my defense was weak, and that the other side had some very strong arguments. I was also being challenged by people who said the ACLU was hypocritical and inconsistent on the matter of the 2nd Amendment. They said they would never join the ACLU as long as it denied what they saw as the plain meaning of the 2nd Amendment for purely ideological reasons. Since I was an elected member of the ICLU board, I made a pledge that I would see if I could get the ICLU to examine the issue officially. I felt that the ICLU, if it investigated the matter, would come to the correct conclusion -- that is, the conclusion supported by the facts whatever they might be.

I discussed the ICLU undertaking this investigation with the then Executive Director, Sheila Kennedy, as well as some influential board members. I pointed out that a number of the people with whom I'd been discussing the issue on the internet were from Indiana and gave every evidence of being "good civil libertarians" who were disgusted by the ACLU's "hypocrisy". These people said that if the ACLU/ICLU did the right thing, they'd be happy to join the organization. There may have also been a few of those people who contacted the ICLU on their own to express the same sentiment. In addition, there were some other political factors in play at that time that made it useful for the ICLU to demonstrate that the organization was not a "liberal front", but an organization strictly devoted to the Bill of Rights. Suffice that my arguments did produce the desired effect with one exception: I found myself appointed to put together a commission to look at the matter. I would have preferred for someone else to have headed this effort since I was trying to focus on drug testing as an illegal search and I saw the 2nd Amendment as a diversion, though a useful one. One of the "political factors" for me was that if the ICLU gained credibility with conservatives for honestly looking at the 2nd Amendment, it could prove useful with my activities in drug policy reform/legalization (I still saw Reagan-Bush and the conservatives as being the problem in this area).

Starting in mid-to-late 1992 and running to late 1993, the Commission conducted its investigations. At some point during this period, I was contacted by a fellow named Don Kates whose name kept cropping up in materials I was reading. Kates is an unabashed liberal, with a strong liberal resume -- for example, he had done poverty law work, had been involved in the Civil Rights movement, and had worked as an aid to attorney William Kunstler. Kates had also taught criminology, been a long-time member of the ACLU, and done original scholarship in the area of the 2nd Amendment. It was in this latter role that I kept encountering his name. Kates had gotten wind of my activities from someone on the internet, and gave me a call. He put me in contact with a number of top liberal constitutional scholars, including Akhil Amar and William Van Alstyne, who had been studying the meaning of the 2nd Amendment. As a result of Kates' contributions, the Commission had a lot more credibility when it produced its final conclusion. That conclusion, delivered at the end of 1993, was that the 2nd Amendment protected an individual right -- and that the official ACLU position was wrong.

I'm not going to say much about how the ICLU board responded to this report. Officially, after several delays which carried consideration of the report through a board election and a major turnover of its membership, the board voted to take no position on the Commission's conclusion and to indefinitely table further consideration. I will say that the ideologically driven political maneuverings behind the board's decision were a profoundly disillusioning experience for me. (Don Kates later suggested that I write an article on the ACLU and the 2nd Amendment for the Tennessee Law Review, which was devoting an issue to gun control and the law. I extensively researched how the ACLU policy was actually developed and discovered that it was without any intellectual foundation and wholly ideologically driven. I completed most of the research for the article but was so burned out and otherwise emotionally drained by this point that I never ended up writing it. The only thing I've ever written -- other than this piece -- that deals with the ACLU's lack of intellectual integrity is a brief letter I wrote to the Indiana Daily Student in response to an anti-gun editorial.)

A funny thing happened while I was chairing the Commission: RKBA became the most important civil liberties issue for me. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which was the cognitive dissonance I encountered from otherwise intelligent people on the ICLU board. But above everything else was the assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidians. Whether the law used to justify the raid on the Davidians was constitutional or not (it isn't), the one fact that is never discussed is that Vernon Howell's (aka David Koresh) only alleged crime amounted to failure to pay a $200 federal tax on a firearm. I once had a $60-odd traffic citation for straying onto a freeway wholly devoted to carpooling. Why does a tax violation that involves slightly more than 3-times as much money as my traffic violation occasion the need for a commando raid with helicopter gunship support? Why were federal bureaucrat/spokespersons disseminating everything about the bizarre beliefs and practices of the Davidians while glossing over the legal justifications for federal involvement? Ironically, it is my research into drug prohibition that informs my views on RKBA and is a major part of why this is the civil rights battle that I have decided must be fought now.

There is no constitutional basis for drug prohibition (see The Drug War and the Constitution for my arguments). The best explanation for how the federal government assumed unconstitutional powers in this area is what I call bureaucratic entrepreneurship. High level bureaucrats desiring to increase their power use various techniques to expand the scope and authority of the agencies they belong to. Drug prohibition started innocently enough as a tax/prescription system but through a series of carefully selected prosecutions of thoroughly disreputable persons involved in "gray market" activities, the law was slowly pushed in the desired direction. By choosing people for prosecution who were objectively "bad" or otherwise social misfits, there was a strong incentive to bend the law to achieve the desired result, which was to remove such people from respectable society. A byproduct of these results-oriented judicial outcomes was an incremental increase in the power of the enforcing bureaucracy. The evolution of drug prohibition is well documented in a number of books on its legal and political history -- I cite some of them in the referenced talk, above. In this context, it is easy to see that the Davidians were perfect targets for bureaucratic entrepreneurs in the BATF: weird millenarians with a leader who engaged in polygamy and preached the End of Days. The BATF bureaucrats knew that everyone would consider the Davidians to be a bunch of crazies, and little niceties like proper search warrants, and reasonable use of force wouldn't matter to the public at large, nor would anyone know or care that this was all about a $200 tax. The same techniques used so successfully by über-bureaucrats J Edgar Hoover and Harry Anslinger to build, respectively, the FBI and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now known as the DEA) are being used today by the BATF and its bureaucratic allies in the Department of Justice. Whenever powerful and shadowy law enforcement bureaucracies are on the march, citizens must be made to take note.

I also need to mention at this point that, although I spent a lot of time researching constitutional matters while doing my Commission work, my main effort was actually in the social sciences area -- remember, my undergraduate degree is sociology. For me personally, the most compelling arguments in favor of RKBA are not constitutional but practical -- if this were just an arid debate over the meaning of some words added to the Constitution in 1791 it would have much less urgency. I haven't said a lot thus far about what I discovered in reviewing the social science research -- I'll save that for a later time. Suffice that what science indicates is that all of the dire statements about guns and crime, and guns operating to escalate violence, and all the rest of the justifications behind the drive for gun prohibition are just so much mythology. So, in addition to civil liberties, I see defending RKBA as being a fight for science and reason.

In late 1993, after delivering the Commission report, I decided that I should buy a gun -- I hadn't owned one in over 20 years -- and obtain an Indiana Carry Permit. My reasons for doing this were totally political -- I lift weights and am in good physical shape (in other words I'm not physically infirm and unable to defend myself), and I live in a low-crime area in a low-crime state. (In this regard, I must mention the fact that around 5% of adult Hoosiers have Carry Permits and frequently carry their self-defense gun. This is probably a factor in the low crime rate.) For the most part, I don't think I objectively need a gun for self-defense. Rather, once I decided that this was a civil rights issue, I concluded that the only way to be an effective advocate was to put myself on the line and have a direct stake in the outcome.

Hopefully at this point, you'll at least have a general idea of the intellectual and political trajectory I've followed on RKBA. With the preliminaries out of the way, in future installments I'll deal with what the personal experience of carrying a gun is like and the sorts of demands that it makes on the person carrying. This series also has a political purpose (as will become apparent), so expect the articles to deal with that aspect in some depth.