How big a Gun does Anyone Need?

The public discourse suddenly swirls angrily around this issue: How big a gun should people be allowed to own, with how many bullets? Despite all the furor, the question has a very simple answer. But it's the wrong question.

Even those who routinely carry a concealed weapon, and certainly many who don't, wrestle with the question, "How much firepower does anyone need?" Perhaps those who don't own weapons think the answer should be very close to zero. Those who know that many times each year violent attacks are stopped when someone simply shows a weapon understand that self-defense tools are legitimate and necessary, but still worry about where the line should be above that level.

Legislators are hurriedly drafting a variety of bills to answer the question, phrasing them in terms of how evil a weapon looks, whether it automatically chambers the next shell for you, and how many cartridges it can feed. For those more knowledgeable about guns, the real concern is with things far beyond the personal defense category: rocket-propelled grenades, for example, the sort of things jihadists bring to a party at the U.S. embassy.

Here are some simple, foundational ideas to help sort it out.

The first principle is that the federal government has no constitutional say whatsoever in the size or quantity of weapons maintained by the people -- because that very government is the most dangerous person in the room. The Second Amendment has one purpose: to ensure that "we the people" can withstand a tyrannical government, for perhaps the first time in history. The writings of James Madison (Federalist #46), among others, make that abundantly clear.

Since the fashion these days is to pass legislation without reading it, everyone can play. Given the Second Amendment, you can know this without even reading the new laws: whatever they pass or decree at the federal level will be unconstitutional. Why? Because the federal government is specifically forbidden by that Amendment from even addressing the question.

The second principle comes to our rescue: the powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by the states and the people. (Sound familiar? The Tenth Amendment.) So the question really has to be addressed by the states, which can afford and manage any size weapons they choose. When we get beyond home and personal defense weapons, the question is not whether your neighbor will have a tank, but whether your state will.

Different states will decide differently. My state of Texas might love freedom and lean very heavily into "whatever it takes." States that love the power of big government and the illusion of gun control might choose an answer close to zero, as Illinois and New York have already done. The result? Rapid absorption into the federal entity, where the government is armed, the elite have bodyguards, and the citizens are helpless. They'll feel right at home.

Each of us can then live in whatever state we prefer based on their policies on this and many other subjects. This is federalism as it was designed to operate.

The third principle is the one that worries us: resistance must be able to be effective in order to be... effective. The fact that the founders did not know about AK-47s is irrelevant. In the context of the Second Amendment, "whatever it takes" is the correct answer to the "how much" question. As Judge Andrew Napolitano expressed it,

The historical reality of the Second Amendment's protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, thus, with the same instruments they would use upon us.

In Federalist #46 James Madison scoffs at the idea that the states would ever allow the federal government to become this lawless, but if they did, he assures his readers that the mass of citizens able to bear arms would always be able to resist the much smaller army a federal government might muster against them; the unspoken assumption is one of equivalent arms.

If that raises fears about how heavily citizens might need to arm themselves because of a hostile administration, we should focus our efforts on forcing the national government back within its prescribed constitutional limits so the concern can be forgotten. On the other hand, if we need bigger defensive weapons because drug lords are bringing automatic weapons across the border into our southern cities, that is again because of the federal government refusing to carry out its constitutional mandates, and even providing those weapons.

In one case, the federal government is becoming a tyrant; in the other, it is derelict. In either case, the citizens and states must respond to the federal lawlessness.

The fourth fundamental reality is that we're starting at the wrong place, and therefore asking the wrong question.

Whether we are discussing salt, tobacco, gasoline, fountain drinks, greasy hamburgers, or guns, much wrong-headed policy today is being driven by the question, "How much does anyone need?" In Venezuela, Soviet Russia, or present-day England, it might be different, but here the correct answer is, "Whatever they want."

Not because we support greed, plundering the rest of the world, or any of the other accusations the left throws at the right, but because of sovereignty. Your sovereignty. Yes, yours.

In America, based on the ideals expressed so well by John Locke and adopted by our framers, sovereignty rests with the individual, and then by extension his family. He then delegates some of that to the community, in exchange for protection of his rights -- some is delegated to his city, some to his state, and then a few things were entrusted to a national government.

But none of those entities get to decide what a man needs; only that man himself does. While he lives within the legal boundaries of the societies he has willingly submitted to (including state-level weapons laws), he remains free, autonomous, and sovereign in his sphere.

Even if everything about him offends you and worries you.

Just like you, he is an adult, a free citizen in a free society. How much of any legal product he wants is purely a matter of what he can pay for and how he wishes to spend his own resources. A small handgun for protection at the mall and on the street? Something stronger for hunting and protection against home invasions? All of the above? He'd like to stock a few thousand shells, in case a hostile government decides to ban them? None of our business. In fact, I may be very glad he made those choices if the economy collapses, mobs take to the street, and I live next to him.

So the real question is who gets to decide what a man needs or wants. In America, until a man breaks the law, he does. If you reject that principle, you are left with statist tyranny, of which two flavors currently dominate the rest of the world.

The underlying principle which we abandon to our great risk is that in a free society we trust each other. Sometimes nervously. But we certainly trust each other far more than we trust the government where money flows, power accumulates, and that accumulated power corrupts. In America we don't punish people for crimes they haven't committed, or search our citizens without warrants because years ago a foreign enemy hijacked four airplanes and attacked us.

Oh, wait, I guess we do.

Gary Henderson is the author of Freedom. You Can Handle It. But Hurry!