Book Review:

April 23, 2016

Do Guns Make Us Free?

Democracy and the Armed Society

By Firmin DeBrabander

Published By: Yale University Press

On: March 19, 2015

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Reviewed By: Madison Wilcox

Critiquing the Pro-Gun Arguments

The executive action to increase firearm safety, announced by President Barack Obama in January 2016, represents a climactic point in the gun legislation battle that has been taking place in the United States. The presidential overreach was in response to a debate, which has endured and become increasingly partisan as gun-related violence continues to occur. In contradiction, champions of gun rights, such as the National Rifle Association, purport that gun ownership increases safety and is a basic Constitutional right that is tantamount to the freedom promised by the Founding Fathers. Following the disturbing trend of mass shootings in the United States, Do Guns Make Us Free? takes a targeted approach to the issue by directly attacking the core argument of pro-gun activists: that loosening gun ownership laws increases freedom. In his book, Firmin Debrabander, a professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, gives a comprehensive and fully reinforced critique of many of the arguments put forward by gun rights proponents in the United States.

Sequentially, Debrabander analyzes each argument and provides refutation using data, logic, and alternative renderings of many of the ideological sources gun rights advocates regularly draw upon. Throughout the book, Debrabander refers to statistics, which connect higher levels of gun ownership to higher levels of gun-related violence. Additionally, Jefferson and Locke, two of the significant thinkers most regularly cited in support of gun ownership rights, are utilized by the author to show their true ideological arguments that would contradict such assertions. In the end, the analysis not only rejects the claim that guns increase freedom but goes as far as to purport that guns, in fact, limit freedom by compromising rule of law and bringing society closer to the state of nature. Though the argument seems, at times, overextended to promote broader liberal opinions that are not clearly connected to the thesis, Debrabander’s work provides a valuable and logical understanding of a loaded issue.

From the prologue, Debrabander importantly limited his claims as being philosophically and logically driven by stressing that he is not a policy expert suggesting acute legislative solutions. Importantly, he also refutes the assertion that since he and many of those who do not own guns lack an intimacy and understanding of the weapons, they do not have the expertise to critique gun control laws. In addition to conveniently limiting the pool of experts to those who own guns, the exclusionist claim ignores the fact that all Americans live in a society with high levels of gun ownership and have to deal with the consequences. As an American with children living in Baltimore, a city which in 2014 had a murder every day, Debrabander establishes his legitimacy in arguing for limited gun ownership beyond his background in philosophy and simply as an American citizen. This is a stance that is relatable to the general audience the book looks to persuade.

In his first chapter, the author begins by establishing an understanding of the “culture of fear” that he claims was created in order to increase gun ownership by certain interest groups in the United States. Here, he first identifies the National Rifle Association (NRA) as the leader of a counter-productive crusade to improve security in the US through gun ownership. The culture of fear argument is key to what the author is trying to portray in the end. Through speeches from Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and statements from popular figures in the gun advocating community, Debrabander shows their intention to scare people into believing in a society without rule of law where only guns can save the good people.

The author does well to reference a variety of influential sources and to use colloquialisms such as the “Sheep Dog” fable to strike a tone of familiarity with a general audience. In sum, he shows that the NRA’s argument represents a vicious cycle that begins with the correlation between guns and further gun violence in society. Debrabander states, “Guns do not liberate us from fear. They are a symptom of fear’s domination over society.”[1] With more gun violence comes more fear, which is used by the NRA and others to proliferate weapons for protection which, in turn, induces more gun-related violence. The fear cycle brings society closer to Locke’s “State of Nature” which underlines the main argument of the novel on the limitations of freedom brought about by gun ownership.

                  Additionally, the use of statistics helps ground the author’s argument in quantitative realities. Reference to the success of Australian, British, and Canadian gun control regulation in reducing gun-related deaths, though not the main philosophical point of the book, provides crucial underpinning in establishing the cycle of fear narrative. With more requirements to purchase firearms such as a permit, background checks, and restrictions on ammunition, Australia has lowered its gun related deaths to 1.04 people per 100,000. Conversely, the United States has a rate of 88 guns per 100 people and a rate of gun-related deaths that is highest among the developed nations and nearly ten times that of Australia. Generally, the data derives from reliable government sources in the respective countries as well as the Center for Disease Control in the United States. While using the arguments of criminologists and public health officials for confirming the correlation between guns and deaths, Debrabander provides his own philosophical analysis to provide a more fundamental outlook.

Although most points are well argued, some basic premises are taken for granted. For instance, the author’s claim that the public is uncomfortable with the current trajectory of the gun rights movement is largely unsupported by his own research. Debrabander often cites specific authors who have come to their own conclusions. Their works rely on claims that the percentage of households with guns have fallen since the 1970s, the number of gun stores are dwindling, and hunting as a sport is on the decline. While these arguments may have been convincing in their own context, it would have been beneficial to refer to the source of the statistics that those authors had used in their studies.  To be fair, Debrabander does refer to some surveys showing that, after Sandy Hook, eighty percent of the public thought there needed to be limits to certain loopholes which allow people to get firearms. These statistics came from reputable and non-partisan sources such as Pew Research Center and Gallup. However, for such an important substructure in framing the trend toward gun friendly legislation as against public opinion, it would have been useful to ground the underlying statements in primary sources.

Another nagging issue with the work is the author’s seeming promotion of a broader liberal ideology that does not obviously relate to the thesis. On several occasions, the chapters go into long tangents regarding the problems with government oversight in a Foucauldian/Orwellian discourse on the security state. He also critiques the war on terror with US involvement in the Middle East and prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. While these points may draw nods from the section of the populace most likely to read his book, they are loosely connected to the gun violence argument and often seem like unnecessary distractions from the main focus of the volume

A more central theme to the final argument is the definition of freedom. Freedom is important throughout the book as the author utilizes varying interpretations to deal with one of the core difficulties in the movement to push for stricter gun control. The NRA often portrays itself as a protector of freedom by accusing academics like Debrabander of trying to take guns away from the people. This puts gun control proponents in the unenviable position of arguing to limit a Constitutional right. However, the author does well to confront the disadvantage head on. Debrabander, first, addresses the claim that the Founding Fathers enshrined in every American the right to own a gun as the underlying principle of their freedom. Gun proponents argue that the second amendment was created so that a well-armed militia could rise up against tyrannical government. Debrabander points out that, not only do these militias not effectively exist in relation to most gun ownership, but the idea that a portion of the population, armed with various weapons, could defeat the most advanced military power in history is a concept of the past.

Yet, what makes the author’s argument unique and convincing is that it goes beyond common points and uses statements from the Founding Fathers and other influential philosophers in making a deeper case as to how guns reduce freedom. LaPierre, on many occasions, has been quick to quote Thomas Jefferson and his declarations on the rights of men to have the means to revolt against tyrannical government and protect freedom. Debrabander shows that Jefferson was unique among the Founders in that he did not believe the right to bear arms should be limited to serving in a militia. Furthermore, although Jefferson was keen on revolution in his early years, through letters to colleagues it was shown that, as Jefferson grew older, he became skeptical of such common armed revolts. The author also brought to light Jefferson’s writings supporting a Constitution that should be improved as a nation becomes wiser, perhaps pointing to a change in circumstance that would necessitate limited gun ownership.

Finally, the author’s ability to take John Locke’s theories on rule of law and connect them against the culture of fear promoted by the NRA completes his argument and unites the entire discourse. Reference to Locke’s Treatise on Government is one of the most commonly utilized supports for gun ownership. Gun rights proponents point to the Locke’s attention to freedom and his fear that unarmed subjects could be made prey by the ruling party. However, Debrabander convincingly refers to man’s escape from the “State of Nature.” The author points out that Locke feared vigilantism because it entails a grave threat to public order. Today, there are a plethora of issues with trained police officers who make errors in judgment with firearms. Higher levels of weapon ownership in average citizenry promotes an even greater danger to society. Man only escapes the state of nature by accepting and trusting governance under the rule of law. Paradoxically, he shows that gun proponents are able to tout their firearms in public not because ownership makes them safe, but because rule of law has created an environment where they are protected from using weapons. Crucially, through a culmination of points regarding the statistics of gun violence and the culture of fear logic, the reader is led to a final conclusion: increased gun ownership limits freedom because it brings citizens to a state of nature where they do not feel protected and secure to live their lives peacefully.

With both gun related violence and gun proliferation on the rise, Do Guns Make Us Free? provides a timely addition to the discussion related around this deadly problem. As the partisan divide continues to widen despite the continuation of gun-related deaths, the author attempts to deliver a coldly logical explanation of the issue. In his book, Debrabander convincingly claims that increased gun ownership limits freedom from a philosophical perspective. First, he logically refutes assertions about the safety promoted by guns by referring to statistics surrounding pro and anti-gun legislation in the US and elsewhere. Finally, the author was courageous in confronting the very argument purported by the NRA, that taking away guns is taking away freedom, and flipping it to make a unique and conclusive case. Moreover, the argument builds in a logical and consistent manner so as to fully reinforce the final claim. Notwithstanding some political tangents which seemed unconnected to the thesis, Debrabander provides a thoroughly researched and well-articulated exposition that would be of value to parties of any political affiliation to better understand the issue.

Madison Wilcox is currently a combined BA/MA candidate focusing on International Economics and International law. After completing undergraduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University, Madison continued at the JHU School of Advanced International Studies for graduate work. His areas of interest include the evolution of international human rights law as well as dynamic economic development within the international system. Past work experiences ranging from domestic law and public development to extensive involvement in an international NGO and economic policy research fuel and educate these career focuses.