Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 102: A Nation of Cowards: Guns and Americans Unfit for Revolution

Jeff Snyder: A Nation of Cowards: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, Accurate Press, 2001, 170pp., $24.95

While there are many books on empirical, sociological, historical, legal, or political aspects of gun policy, A Nation of Cowards is the first full-length book focused on philosophical questions.
The first, and best essay in the book bears the same name as the book. Originally published in 1993, Snyder’s essay challenges the notion that reliance on government employees for protection is morally superior to protecting oneself. Indeed, Snyder suggested that a failure to protect oneself is immoral.
The rest of the book consists of reprints from Snyder’s column for American Handgunner magazine, plus some other writings. This means that there is considerable repetition of themes from one chapter to the next. It also means that Snyder rarely gets much more sophisticated than in the first chapter. We see the same issues examined from various angles, but the perspectives never lead to greater depth.
Even so, Snyder makes many excellent points, persuasively expressed. Looking at the National Organization of Women’s opposition to female gun ownership, he observes that “feminine helplessness is acceptable as part of feminist dogma” as long as women rely on the state, rather than an individual male for protection.
Snyder also addresses the argument that women should not use guns for defense against predators because defensive gun use is not always successful: “such arguments rest on the craven suggestion that you ought not to fight back unless you are first guaranteed perfect, risk-free protection.” He likens eschewing guns because armed defense is not always successful to not wearing seat belts.
Much of the gun control debate in America revolves around social science and arguments for utility. Snyder raises two objections to such arguments: First, groups like Handgun Control shouldn’t force others to live according to HCI’s theory of utility and effective protection. Second, utility is irrelevant because it doesn’t matter how many people misuse guns compared tohow many people use them properly; to deny even one person the right to carry a gun because everyone else misuses guns is a violation of his natural rights.
Another of Snyder’s targets is “instrumentalism”—ascribing moral qualities to firearms, rather than to the intention of the person with the firearm. This leads to his broader point that the gun issue is fundamentally about character, and that refusing to assume the responsibility of owning a gun to defend one’s family is an abdication of the responsibility necessary be the citizen of a republic. This abdication, he argues, is an admission that the individual is not fit to govern himself, but instead must be cared for and controlled by government.
Certainly there is often a correlation between unwillingness to defend oneself and support for the nanny state. But in this argument, Snyder lacks nuance and respect for the variety of the human condition.
In his final chapter, “Revolution,” Snyder considers whether revolution could be justified today. He answers in the negative. First, American character today is more like that of the revolutionary French than like that of America’s Founding generation. Americans today are dependent on government and afraid of responsibility, and therefore unfit to make a new government.
Second, Snyder points to John Locke’s observation that a revolution cannot succeed unless much of society agrees that radical change is necessary, and there is no such widespread belief in modern America. Snyder urges that “We must study again” the founding documents, and “consider what principles and institutional structures might best secure liberty,” including questioning where the Founders—or we—may have failed.
Readers who want to study the Founding documents and the right to arms should purchase The Origin of the Second Amendment: A Documentary History of the Bill of Rights. The book has a new edition in hardback this year, but the 1995 paperback edition is nearly as good.
Starting with the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, and continuing through 1792, the book reprints the text of relevant sections (broadly defined) of every legislative proceeding, newspaper article, correspondence, and every other document related to the Second Amendment and the right to arms.
Besides 750 pages of original documents, the book offers an appendix of the full text of state constitution Bills of Rights from the Founding Era. Another appendix shows which states recognized certain rights or demanded their recognition in the federal constitution; the right to arms was nearly ubiquitous, and much more often recognized or demanded than the rights of assembly or petition.
When the Fifth Circuit recently upheld the individual right to arms, the court cited Young’s book scores of times, demonstrating its status as a leading source of original constitutional documents.
Dave Kopel is a guest contributor for Carolina Journal, monthly newspaper of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.