NATION OF COWARDS: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, by Jeff Snyder. St. Louis, Missouri: Accurate Press (800-374-4049), 174 pp.


A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves.

 – Bertrand de Jouvenel


     The contested terrain of gun control, like other present-day battlegrounds of ethical conflict, cannot be surveyed in depth without a grasp of its origins in the soil of history, in the relentless colonization in the West of the moral and social spheres by materialist habits of thought and sources of authority – and the growth of the modern totalizing state which is its political expression. The unprecedented scientific and technological progress which marked the nineteenth century, and the ascent to mass affluence made possible by the capital accumulation with which that progress was entwined, unleashed yearnings for a corresponding ascent up the ladder of social and moral perfection, via the transfer to the state of increasing portions of the immense new wealth in the hope of eradicating millennial blemishes on the face of social life. Developments in science and philosophy alike served to erode older notions of individual responsibility, liberty and limited government, as belief in the determining power of material environment over individual destiny and character came to the aid of a new faith in the boundless ability of coercive engineering to remake the social order – in the mass societies of the twentieth century with authoritarian pasts, such heresies bore fruit, in Hegelian/Romantic guise, in National Socialism and Communism, where dreams of total liberation bred a coercion all too total; in the more democratic Anglo-Saxon sphere, liberalism, soon compromised by a reforming utilitarianism whose calculus treated individuals and their rights as means rather than ends, was transformed from a leash upon the state and bulwark of liberty, to a “positive” doctrine sanctioning the unceasingly centralizing power of the state, now enthroned as the prime motor of social progress and guarantor of material security.


     Under such dispensations, with responsibilities transferred from the individual to “society” at large, and with a late-affluent, techno-bureaucratic refinement in the division of labor which found more and more of the public estranged from the brute physical activities necessary to sustain life from the ground up, formerly instinct in the life of our forebears on the frontier and prairie – armed self-defense not least among them – it came as no surprise that we found ourselves in a society with a critical mass of citizens only too willing to cede the sole legitimate use of firearms to agents of the state – and a correspondingly sharp rise in the numbers of those taking criminal advantage of moral expectations lowered, it would seem, for their express benefit: perversely enough, the demons so unleashed by modern social engineering seem, in the amnesiac official minds of the political, educational and media classes alike, to call for further erosion of the individual right to keep and bear arms, in the never-satisfied pursuit of what one gun-control supporter called “my right to feel safe.”           .


     Into this historically provincial arena strides gun-rights essayist Jeff Snyder like a colossus, in his aptly-titled collection NATION OF COWARDS. In a debate whose terms are often cloaked in the emperor’s new clothes of ostensibly “value-free” social science, with utilitarian premises and dueling sets of criminological data, Snyder is almost alone in unearthing the deeper strata where lay the philosophical and cultural questions dearest to us all. Steeped in the literature of classical republican political philosophy and the tradition of English common law, he writes with an ethical acuity and existential clarity which make him unique in his field, in prose of lapidary concision.. Snyder’s title essay, published originally in 1993 in THE PUBLIC INTEREST, provoked NEWSWEEK columnist George F. Will to rush into print with well-timed second thoughts over his earlier suggestion that the Second Amendment be repealed, at a moment when the Brady Bill and the ban on assault weapons embodied the early-Clinton consensual tide washing craft from both political parties toward the sirens’ shore of further restrictions upon the right to keep and bear arms (given the lackluster defense offered this right from the ranks of elite conservative pundits, by occupational upbringing accustomed like their brethren on the left to a relative over-reliance upon the pen over the sword as a bulwark of liberty, Snyder does well to note the stout yeoman’s post manned by a rank-and-file of gun owners grown increasingly radicalized in their own defense). This essay’s lightning force, at once cerebral and visceral (he is the William Lloyd Garrison of the right to armed self-defense), soon made it in the Internet age a regulation piece in the well-stocked armories of hundreds of gun sites. In Snyder’s sights is a central disorder of our therapy-addled age of diminished responsibility: our culture celebrates from every forum the glories of unbridled self-assertion and the coddling of the ego – except when it comes to our rights and responsibilities as individuals to defend the God-given gift of life itself from criminal aggression: here, we accept the official counsel to submit meekly to the criminal’s demand; leave the dirty work of armed resistance to the professionals who alone are qualified for it.


“Crime is rampant because the law-abiding, each of us, condone it, excuse it, permit it, submit to it. We permit and encourage it because we do not fight back, immediately, then and there, where it happens.  Crime is not rampant because we do not have enough prisons, because judges and prosecutors are too soft, because the police are hamstrung with absurd technicalities. The defect is there, in our character. We are a nation of cowards and shirkers…Most people readily believe that the existence of the police relieves them of the responsibility to take full measures to protect themselves. The police, however, are not personal bodyguards…As numerous courts have held, they have no legal obligation to protect anyone in particular…If, however, you understand that crime can occur at anywhere, anytime, and if you understand that you can be maimed or mortally wounded in mere seconds, you may wish to consider whether you are willing to place the responsibility for safeguarding your life in the hands of others…How can you rightfully ask another human being to risk his life to protect yours when you will assume no responsibility yourself?…If you believe it reprehensible to possess the means and will to use lethal force to repel a criminal assault, how can you call upon another to do so for you?…What exactly are these special qualities possessed only by the police and other agents of the state and beyond the rest of us mere mortals?…One who values his life and takes seriously his responsibilities…will never be content to rely solely on others for his safety…He will be armed, he will be trained in the use of his weapon, and will defend himself when faced with lethal violence.”


     In the fifteen essays following his signature article, Snyder brings his nimble and disciplined intellect to a versatile forensic demolition of the hydra-headed delusions underlying the victim-disarmament movement (moral clarity requires clarity in language, n’est-ce pas?). In an address on “The Ethics of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” Snyder has his audience conduct several mental exercises designed to illuminate the illogic underlying the arguments of those counseling capitulation to criminals, one of which is especially telling: since the authorities routinely counsel us to cede to the criminal’s demand in the interests of personal safety, what objection should we have to a law prohibiting any resistance whatever on the part of the victim, if it could thereby guarantee all such encounters injury-free? Snyder’s rebuke is characteristically pungent:


“We often claim to be shocked that violent criminals possess no respect for our property, our liberty or our lives. Yet why should criminals respect our lives or our liberty, when we ourselves do not value them highly enough to assume the responsibility to defend them, and do not hold them worth fighting for? Why, if society counsels a ready accession to the criminal’s demands, why, if law enforcement itself counsels criminals that such cooperation is their due, why, if the criminal is not to be met with immediate, outraged resistance, would a criminal believe that what he is doing is actually wrong? Because laws make it so? Then his crime is solely against the state, not against the person of the victim.”


     The creation via legislation of new classes of crimes against the state, in the avowed pursuit of preventing crimes against persons, receives detailed scrutiny in the section entitled “Against Prevention.” Passing laws prohibiting acts which are not inherently wrong – buying or selling a gun across state lines or without a waiting period, owning a military-style “assault rifle” – in an attempt to prevent actual crimes with which they may be linked,  is a process which, by denying any need for responsibility or self-control on the part of the public against which they are directed, embodies an inner logic which contains no rational stopping-point, and is typical of the coercive-utopian material-engineering approach to social life characteristic of the modern state: by keeping potentially dangerous (but morally neutral in themselves) tools out of the hands of our fellow citizens (as though they were children who cannot be trusted with sharp objects), the state renders their intent and character in the use of such tools irrelevant. Because of the social piety which places its faith in the passing of more and “tougher” gun laws as a means of crime control, each such measure comes in the guise of “a good first step,” and soon every social and commercial link in the criminal’s chain of being is fair game for new administrative burdens and prior restraints upon the right to acquire the means of self-defense; when yesterday’s laws, whose burdens are borne entirely by law-abiding gun-owners subject more and more to a presumption of guilt, fail to halt the flow of guns into the criminal market, and, say, surveillance of legal and illegal imports fails in its turn, we find before long that the next logical step, when our lodestar is that of prevention, is to require a permit to buy metal-working equipment from Sears – until that, too, fails to stem the criminal tide.


     The articles grouped round the rubric “Against Utility” highlight the two incompatible ethical modes between which the gun control debate oscillates: the utilitarian ethic, whose desire to attain “the greatest good for the greatest number” involves a results-driven attempt to game the aggregate outcome of the citizenry’s exercise of its freedom, where the scope of each individual’s liberty, including the liberty to keep and bear arms, is wholly dependent on the varying effects of the exercise of those liberties by his fellows, a doctrine which is willing to sacrifice the lives of crime victims deprived of the means of armed self-defense if on balance that sacrifice can be shown, in well-dressed “scientific” garb, to be a means to the end of more lives saved overall; and the rights-driven approach, which respects the moral autonomy of each individual and cannot sanction a prior restraint on the fundamental rights of individuals who are to be treated not as means to fulfilling the desires of shifting majorities in the realm of public opinion, but as ends in themselves, a standpoint which therefore leaves outcomes variable – as must be any outcome where the fundamental rights of responsible law-abiding citizens possessed of free will are the bedrock.  Snyder makes it clear thereby that all attempts by gun owners to justify a fundamental right by appeal to utilitarian arguments (reducing crime, preventing accidents, etc.) are guilty of an internal contradiction: “By arguing in this manner, they are conceding that their very lives are at the disposal of, and bound in service to, the desires of the majority.”


     Seen from the rights-driven vantage, the right to possess a handgun for the purpose of self-defense – against common criminals and tyrants alike - is the corollary of an inalienable right to life and its defense which exists outside of, and prior to, the claims of any earthly power to the contrary – no matter how many “democratic” compatriots surrender this right to the “enlightened” philosopher-kings  (a process akin to two wolves and a lamb voting on their dinner menu) who presume to act as their surrogates and guardians. This priority of right held by the people in their capacity as individuals found clear recognition in the Second Amendment “right to keep and bear arms” which “shall not be abridged,” – notwithstanding the latter-day confusion over the subordinate clause regarding a “well-ordered” militia, whose presence or lack thereof does not destroy the individual right enshrined in the amendment. This recognition on the part of the founders was based upon the classical “consent theory” of republican self-government, by which all states rest upon the consent of the governed, who may with justice withdraw their consent and resort to armed resistance if and when their state becomes a tyranny – a reserved right by the body of the people to say “No!” in the sole effective terms, more effective than mere words or ballots: that “handful of might” in whose absence a “bagful of right” (in the phrases of the German philosopher Max Stirner) is literally, as it were, without force.


     We live at an hour when millions among us have grown accustomed to thinking the hitherto unthinkable, to shedding the fond illusion that “it can’t happen here,” and to wondering what precisely are the political stigmata whose appearance among us would alone justify armed, organized resistance to tyranny in our midst.  In his final essay, “The Line in the Sand,” Snyder keeps his eye on his deepest concern, our character and ethos as a people, in answering this question. Drawing once more upon the precedent of classical republican thought, he offers a reply that is as prudent in counsel as it is disturbing in diagnosis: Only when the body of the people as a whole have awakened to the full import of the usurpations and injustices perpetrated among them does armed resistance become anything more than suicidal martyrdom. And – do we need reminding? – at a moment when a sheeplike contentment in the face of dependence on the total state is matched by a willing blindness before eroded liberties, a habit reinforced by the amnesiac, relentlessly modernizing liberalism at the root of both our economy and our politics since the day when we threw off the world’s most venerable monarchy and surveyed a boundless frontier – we are not near that point, and can only rely upon educating and forging links with our fellows, persuading the open minds among us, and mounting challenges in the courts to laws which defy our constitutional liberties.


     Those unaccustomed to believing in the existence of inalienable rights among men, and whose response to the rapacity of the centralizing state is rooted in the gathering of statistical data, electoral fashion or party spirit, may never be persuaded by a case as uncompromisingly moral and existential as that mounted with such force and amplitude on every page of Jeff Snyder’s NATION OF COWARDS. The rest of us, though, unsettled by the spread among us of late-affluent materialist and pagan heresies that the increase in scientific knowledge alone can never vanquish, will find in its author as clear-eyed an ally as anyone currently writing. Whether or not the right to keep and bear arms regains full respect within our lifetimes, seizing the offensive against the delusion of gun control in our day is its own reward: for it is a delusion whose paladins see sedition in self-defense – and a sanctuary in a slaughterhouse.


Scott Lahti 

July 24, 2001