magine the world without guns" was a bumper sticker that
began making the rounds after the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon on
December 18, 1980. Last year, Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, followed up
on that sentiment by announcing she would become a spokeswoman for
Handgun Control, Inc. (which later changed its name to the Brady
Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and which was previously named the
National Council to Control Handguns).
So let's try
hard to imagine what a world without guns would look like. It isn't
hard to do. But be forewarned: It's not a pretty picture.
The way to get
to a gun-free world, the gun-prohibition groups tell us, is to pass
laws banning them. We can begin by imagining the enactment of laws
which ban all non-government possession of firearms.
It's not likely
that local bans will do the job. Take, for example, New York's 1911
Sullivan Law, which imposed an exceedingly restrictive
handgun-licensing scheme on New York City. In recent decades,
administrative abuses have turned the licensing statute into what
amounts to prohibition, except for tenacious people who navigate a
deliberately obstructive licensing system.
mainly those willing to obey them. And where there's an unfulfilled
need — and money to be made — there's usually a way around the law.
Enter the black market, which flourishes all the more vigorously
with ever-increasing restrictions and prohibitions. In TV
commercials that aired last August, New York City Republican (sort
of) mayoral candidate Mike Bloomberg informed voters that "in 1993,
there were as many as 2 million illegal guns on the street." The
insinuation was that all those guns were in the hands of criminals,
and the implication was that confiscating the guns would make the
city a safer place. What Bloomberg never explained was how he
planned to shut down the black market.
imagine, instead, a nationwide gun ban, or maybe even a worldwide
heroin and cocaine have been illegal in the United States, and most
of the world, for nearly a century. Huge resources have been devoted
to suppressing their production, sale, and use, and many innocent
people have been sacrificed in the crossfire of the "drug war." Yet
heroin and cocaine are readily available on the streets of almost
all large American cities, and at prices that today are lower than
in previous decades.
global prohibition law isn't good enough. Maybe imposing the
harshest penalty possible for violation of such a law will give it
real teeth: mandatory life in prison for possession of a gun, or
even for possession of a single bullet. (We won't imagine the death
penalty, since the Yoko crowd doesn't like the death penalty.)
thought, Jamaica's Gun Court Act of 1974 contained just such a
penalty, and even that wasn't sufficient. On August 18, 2001,
Jamaican Melville Cooke observed
that today, "the only people who do not have an illegal firearm [in
this country], are those who do not want one." Violent crime in
worse than ever, as gangsters and trigger-happy police commit
homicides with impunity, and only the law-abiding are disarmed.
Jamaican government wants to globalize its failed policy. In July
2001, Burchell Whiteman, Jamaica's Minister of Education, Youth and
Culture spoke at the U.N. Disarmament Conference to demand
the "implementation of measures that would limit the production of
weapons to levels that meet the needs for defence and national
And as long as
governments are allowed to have guns, there will be gun factories to
steal from. Some of these factories might have adequate security
measures to prevent theft, including theft by employees. But in a
world with about 200 nations, most of them governed by
kleptocracies, it's preposterous to imagine that some of those
"government-only" factories won't become suppliers for the black
market. Alternatively, corrupt military and police could supply
firearms to the black market.
revise our strategy. Rather than wishing for laws (which cannot,
even imaginably, create a gun-free world), let's be more ambitious,
and imagine that all guns vanish. Even guns possessed by government
agents. And let's close all the gun factories, too. That ought to
put the black market out of business.
Back to the Drawing
Then again.....it's not very difficult to make a
workable firearm. As J. David Truby points out in his book Zips,
Pipes, and Pens: Arsenal of Improvised Weapons, "Today, all of
the improvised/modified designs [of firearms] remain well within the
accomplishment of the mechanically unskilled citizen who does not
have access to firearms through other means."
In the article
"Gun-Making as a
Cottage Industry," Charles Chandler observed that Americans
"have a reputation as ardent hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers,
building everything from ship models to home improvements." The one
area they have not been very active in is that of firearm
construction. And that, Chandler explained, is only because
"well-designed and well-made firearms are generally available as
items of commerce."
A complete gun
ban, or highly restrictive licensing amounting to near-ban, would
create a real incentive for gun making to become a "cottage
happening in Great Britain, a consequence of the complete ban on
civilian possession of handguns imposed by the Firearms Act of 1997.
Not only are the Brits swamped today with illegally imported
firearms, but local, makeshift gun factories have sprung up to
already know about some of them. Officers from Scotland Yard's
Metropolitan Police Serious Crime Group South recently recovered 12
handgun replicas which were converted to
working models. An auto repair shop in London served as the
front for the novel illegal gun factory. Police even found some
enterprising gun-makers turning screwdrivers into workable firearms,
and producing firearms disguised
as ordinary key rings.
closing the Winchester Repeating Arms factory — and all the others —
will not spell the end of the firearm business.
Just take the
case of Bougainville, the largest island in the South Pacific's
Solomon Islands chain. Bougainville was the site of a bloody,
uprising against domination by the government of Papua New
Guinea, aided and abetted by the Australian government. The conflict
there was the longest-running confrontation in the Pacific since the
end of World War II, and caused the deaths of 15,000 to 20,000
hostilities, which included a military blockade of the island, one
of the goals was to deprive the Bougainville Revolutionary Army
(BRA) of its supply of arms. The tactic failed: the BRA simply
learned how to make its own guns using materiel and ammunition left
over from the War.
In fact, at the
United Nations Asia Pacific Regional Disarmament Conference held in
Spring 2001, it was quietly admitted that the BRA, within ten years
of its formation, had managed to manufacture a production copy of
the M16 automatic rifle and other machine guns. (That makes one
question the real intent behind the U.N. Conference on the Illicit
Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects, which
followed several months later: the U.N. leadership can't be so daft
as to fail to recognize the implications for world disarmament after
learning of the success of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.)
If this single
island of Bougainville can produce its own weapons, the Philippine
Islands have long had a thriving cottage industry to manufacture
firearms — despite very restrictive gun laws imposed by the Marcos
dictatorship and some other regimes.
It looks like
we'll need to revisit our fantasy, yet again.
proclamation of Kopel, Gallant, and Eisen, not only do all firearms
— every last one of them — vanish instantly, but there shall be no
part's a bit tricky. Auto repair shops, hobbyists, revolutionaries —
everyone with decent machine shop skills — can make a gun from
something. This takes us down the same road as drug prohibition:
With primary anti-drug laws having proven themselves unenforceable,
secondary laws have been added to prohibit possession of items which
could be used to manufacture drugs. Even making suspicious purchases
at a gardening store can earn one a "dynamic entry" visit from the
local SWAT team.
proscribing the possession of gun-manufacturing items would have to
be even broader than laws against possession of drug-manufacturing
items, because there are so many tools which can be used to make
guns, or be made into guns. What we'd really have to do is carefully
control every possible step in the gun-making process. That means
the registration of all machine tools, and the federal licensing of
plumbers (similar to current federal licensure of pharmacies), auto
mechanics, and all those handymen with their screwdrivers. And we'd
need to stamp a serial number on pipes (potential gun barrels) in
every bathroom and automobile — and everywhere else one finds pipes
— and place all the serial numbers in a federal registry.
antigun lobbies who claim they don't want to ban all guns still
insist that registration of every single gun and licensing of every
gun owner is essential to keep guns from falling into the wrong
hands. If so, it's hard to argue that licensing and registration of
gun manufacturing items would not be essential to prevent illicit
production of guns.
Thus, we would
have to control every part of the manufacturing process. That would
add up to a very expensive, complicated proposition. Even a 1%
noncompliance rate with the "Firearms Precursors Control Act" would
leave an immense supply of materials available for black-market gun
In order to
ensure total conformity with the act, it's difficult to imagine
leaving most existing constitutional protections in place. The mind
boggles at the kinds of search and seizure laws required to make
certain that people do not possess unregistered metal pipes or
just to enforce a ban on actual guns (not gun precursors), the
Jamaican government needed to wipe out many common law controls on
police searches, and many common law guarantees of fair trials. We'd
have to trash the Constitution in order to completely prevent a
black market in gun precursors from taking hold. Still, as the
gun-prohibition lobby always says, if it saves just one life, it
would be worth it.
But, what if,
despite these extreme measures, the black market still functioned —
as it almost always does, when there is sufficient demand?
It's time to
seriously revisit our strategy for a gun-free world. Maybe there's a
shortcut around all of this.
going to make a truly radical, no-holds-barred proposal this time,
take a quantum leap in science, and go where no man has gone before.
There may be those who scoff at our proposal, but it can succeed
where all other strategies have failed.
Gallant, and Eisen, hereby imagine that, from this day forth, the
laws of chemical combustion are revoked. We hereby imagine that
gunpowder — and all similar compounds — no longer have the capacity
to burn and release the gases necessary to propel a bullet.
Peace for Our Time
Finally, for the
first time, a gun-free world is truly within our grasp — and it's
time to see what man hath wrought. And for that, all we have to do
is take a look back at the kind of world our ancestors lived in.
To say that
life in the pre-gunpowder world was violent would be an
understatement. Land travel, especially over long distances, was
fraught with danger from murderers, robbers, and other criminals.
Most women couldn't protect themselves from rape, except by granting
unlimited sexual access to one male in exchange for protection from
weapons depended on muscle power. Advances in weaponry primarily
magnified the effect of muscle power. The stronger one is, the
better one's prospects for fighting up close with an edged weapon
like a sword or a knife, or at a distance with a bow or a javelin
(both of which require strong arms). The superb ability of such
"old-fashioned" edged weapons to inflict carnage on innocents was
graphically demonstrated by the stabbing deaths of eight second
graders on June 8, 2001, by former school clerk Mamoru Takuma in
gun-free Osaka, Japan.
When it comes
to muscle power, young men usually
win over women, children, and the elderly. It was warriors who
dominated society in gun-free feudal Europe, and a weak man usually
had to resign himself to settle on
a life of toil and obedience in exchange for a place within the
castle walls when evil was afoot.
And what of the
women? According to the custom of jus primae noctis, a lord
had the right to sleep with the bride of a newly married serf on the
first night — a necessary price for the serf to pay — in exchange
for the promise of safety and security (does that ring a bell?). Not
uncommonly, this arrangement didn't end with the wedding night,
since one's lord had the practical power to take any woman, any
time. Regardless of whether jus primae noctis was formally
observed in a region, rich, strong men had little besides their
conscience to stop them from having their way with women who weren't
protected by another wealthy strongman.
But there's yet
another problem with imagining gunpowder out of existence: We get
rid of firearms, but we don't get rid of guns. With the advent
of the blow gun some 40,000 years ago, man discovered the
efficacy of a tube for concentrating air power and aiming a missile,
making the eventual appearance of airguns inevitable. So gunpowder
or no gunpowder, all we've been doing, thus far, amounts to
quibbling over the means for propelling something out of a tube.
back to somewhere around the beginning of the 17th century. And we
don't mean airguns like the puny Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun with a
compass in the stock, longed for by Ralphie in Jean Shepard's 1984
classic A Christmas Story
("No, Ralphie, you can't have a BB gun — you'll shoot your eye
talking serious lethality here. The kind of powder-free gun that can
hurl a 7.4 oz. projectile with a muzzle energy of 1,082 foot-pounds.
Compare that to the 500 foot-pounds of muzzle energy from a typical
.357 Magnum round! Even greater projectile energies are achievable
using gases like nitrogen or helium, which create higher pressures
than air does.
advent of self-contained powder cartridge guns, airguns were
considered serious weapons. In fact, three hundred years ago,
air-powered guns were among the most powerful and accurate
large-bore rifles around. While their biggest disadvantages were
cost and intricacy of manufacture, they were more dependable and
could be fired more rapidly than firearms of the same period. A
airgun was carried by Lewis and Clark on their historic
expedition, and used successfully for taking game. [See Robert D.
Beeman, "Proceeding On to the Lewis & Clark Airgun," Airgun
Revue 6 (2000): 13-33.] Airguns even saw duty in military
engagements more than 200 years ago.
automatic M-16-style airguns are a reality. It was only because of
greater cost relative to powder guns, and the greater convenience
afforded by powder arms, that airgun technology was never pushed to
its lethal limits.
non-powder weapon systems have competed for man's attention, as
well. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in the history of
mankind. And while firearms were used for killing (for example, with
machine guns arranged to create interlocking fields of fire in the
trench warfare of World War I), they were hardly essential. By far,
number of deliberate killings occurred during the genocides and
democides perpetrated by governments against disarmed populations.
The instruments of death ranged from Zyklon B gas to machetes to
To imagine a world with no guns is to imagine a
world in which the strong rule the weak, in which women are
dominated by men, and in which minorities are easily abused or
mass-murdered by majorities. Practically speaking, a firearm is the
only weapon that allows a weaker person to defend himself from a
larger, stronger group of attackers, and to do so at a distance. As
George Orwell observed,
a weapon like a rifle "gives claws to the weak."
The failure of
imagination among people who yearn for a gun-free world is their
naive assumption that getting rid of claws will get rid of the
desire to dominate and kill. They fail to acknowledge the undeniable
fact that when the weak are deprived of claws (or firearms), the
strong will have access to other weapons, including sheer muscle
power. A gun-free world would be much more dangerous for women, and
much safer for brutes and tyrants.
The one society
in history that successfully gave up firearms was Japan in the 17th
century, as detailed in Noel Perrin's superb book Giving Up the
Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword 1543-1879. An isolated
island with a totalitarian dictatorship, Japan was able to get rid
of the guns. Historian Stephen Turnbull summarizes the result:
dictator] Hidéyoshi's resources were such that the edict was
carried out to the letter. The growing social mobility of peasants
was thus flung suddenly into reverse. The ikki, the
warrior-monks, became figures of the past . . . Hidéyoshi had
deprived the peasants of their weapons. Iéyasu [the next ruler]
now began to deprive them of their self respect. If a peasant
offended a samurai he might be cut down on the spot by the
samurai's sword. [The
Samurai: A Military History (New York: Macmillan, 1977).]
status of the peasantry having been affirmed by civil disarmament,
the Samurai enjoyed kiri-sute gomen, permission to kill and
depart. Any disrespectful member of the lower class could be
executed by a Samurai's sword.
disarmament laws helped mold the culture of submission to
authority which facilitated Japan's domination by an imperialist
military dictatorship in the 1930s, which led the nation into a
disastrous world war.
In short, the
one country that created a truly gun-free society created a society
of harsh class oppression, in which the strongmen of the upper class
could kill the lower classes with impunity. When a racist,
militarist, imperialist government took power, there was no
effective means of resistance. The gun-free world of Japan turned
into just the opposite of the gentle, egalitarian utopia of John
Lennon's song "Imagine."
imagining a world without a particular technology, what about
imagining a world in which the human heart grows gentler, and people
treat each other decently? This is part of the vision of many of the
world's great religions. Although we have a long way to go, there is
no denying that hundreds of millions of lives have changed for the
better because people came to believe what these religions teach.
If a truly
peaceful world is attainable — or, even if unattainable, worth
striving for — there is nothing to be gained from the futile attempt
to eliminate all guns. A more worthwhile result can flow from the
changing of human hearts, one soul at a time.