Gun Control and Military History

Recently I asked myself: Should we arm our military with kitchen knives?

The advantages of doing so are obvious. The U.S. Department of Defense currently spends a good chunk of the federal budget (about $600-$700 billion a year) funding the U.S. Armed forces and equipping roughly a million and a half active duty military personnel with (among other things) machine guns, tanks, laser-guided missiles and aircraft carriers. If we give each of these service members a good kitchen knife valued at $100, we can arm them all for a mere $150 million (that’s roughly equal to the cost of one F-22 Raptor).

Now, some people might worry that our armed forces — wielding only kitchen knives instead of machine guns, tanks, laser-guided missiles and aircraft carriers — would be less effective. That’s certainly a fair objection.

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But some critics of gun control apparently think it’s a wrongheaded objection. How many times have you heard someone shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and Texas A&M, that gun control laws are pointless, because evil, violent people are always going to find a way to harm others?

Not all gun rights advocates make this argument, but many of them do. They say that outlawing guns is ridiculous, akin to blaming an inanimate object for the harm committed by people. But, if that were the case, then why wouldn’t we outfit our military with kitchen knives? After all, people who are truly dedicated to defending their country will find a way to do so, whether it’s with an Apache helicopter or a Ginsu steak knife. Let’s not be so silly as to credit or blame inanimate objects for the performance of our armed forces: Their success or failure is determined by their character, not their supplies.

But, of course, that’s ridiculous. No member of the armed service, no matter how resourceful or patriotic, would trade in our military technology for a kitchen knife, because they know how much easier that technology makes it for them to do their job. That’s why gunpowder was developed and refined and produced so abundantly over the years, because it gave its user an advantage. Guns make it easier to kill people. Easier than with knives. To suggest otherwise is to contradict centuries of military history.

But that’s what’s going on when (again, some, not all) gun control critics offer up the “evil people are going to find a way to cause harm, with or without a gun” argument. Yes, they might. But they’ll have a harder time of it.

Some people object that making guns illegal only keeps guns out of the hands of the law-abiding and that the result will be that only criminals will have guns, giving them an advantage over their defenseless victims. But, is there really no point making anything illegal, including drugs or murder, because criminals don’t obey the law? RPGs and howitzers are illegal, and I don’t hear any news stories about criminals obtaining (let alone using) them. Making something illegal doesn’t eliminate it, but it does often make it harder to obtain, right?

Others object that the 2nd Amendment gives us the right to own guns. However, although the 2nd Amendment recognizes “the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” it has frequently been interpreted in a way that prohibits people from owning things that are clearly armaments — for instance, RPGs, howitzers, and such — I assume because these arms are so dangerous that letting them circulate among the general public would do more harm than good.

Having a gun increases your ability to kill. That can be good and bad. The presence of more guns may have prevented some of these mass shootings. But the presence of guns may also have transformed some nonfatal altercations into fatal ones. And that’s a central question in the debate about gun control: What happens to rates of violence if we restrict or expand gun ownership? It’s not clear. Some countries with more restrictive gun laws than the U.S. have lower rates of gun violence (Nicholas Kristof notes the drop in firearm homicides in Australia after a ban and buy-back of assault weapons in 1996); some countries have lower rates of gun violence than the U.S. even though they are also permissive about gun ownership (columnist David Paul Kuhn notes that Switzerland issues rifles to citizens, yet has fewer homicides than England even though England has fewer guns, and has an assault rate half that of the U.S.).

I’m not an advocate of gun control, I believe people should be allowed to own guns. But what we have in this particular argument for gun rights is a reductio ad absurdum. That is, we should reject the proposition — people are going to kill just as much with or without a gun — because it has absurd implications — our military would be just as effective armed with kitchen knives.