Fighting Fire With Fire

by Clayton Cramer

Solve the problem of arson with more fire? Are you crazy? But setting a firebreak is a reasonable solution to a fire already out of control. Fire isn't the problem; criminal intent is the problem.

Similarly, if someone suggests the solution to criminals misusing guns is more guns, people similarly question your sanity; but again, it isn't the tool, but how it's used. If the recent murders in Killeen, Texas, had been tried in 1870, or in a number of counties in California today, the results would have been very different, because one or more of the customers would have shot the madman dead.

A madman bent on dying, with lots of unwilling company, is not a problem of too little gun control, but of too much gun control. By the Act of April 12, 1871, Texas became the first American state to deny its citizens the right of self-defense; the carrying of deadly weapons was prohibited. [1] That statute remains in effect today -- only a police officer may carry a gun for self-defense in Texas. There's never a cop when you need one; in Killeen, Texas, the police arrived, performed admirably, but ten minutes too late.

Laws banning the carrying of deadly weapons are relatively recent. California had no laws regulating the carrying of deadly weapons until 1917 [2] , even open carry was legal until 1967 (though seldom done in the larger cities) [3] ; in Minnesota, open carry was legal until 1975. [4] Vermont still has no statute prohibiting the concealed carry of pistols, unless "with the intent or avowed purpose of injuring a fellow man." [5] There are a number of Western states (Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, most of Nevada) where it is still legal to openly carry a gun.

In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published On Crimes and Punishments; his revolutionary ideas included the abolition of torture, and reduced use of the death penalty. His ideas took both Europe and North America by storm. [6] Among the many reforms which On Crimes and Punishments promoted, and which were taken up by the Framers [7] :

A person who intends suicide after mass murder, will not be deterred by any law. (In the absence of guns, one man with $1 worth of gasoline successfully murdered 87 people in New York City two years ago.) A criminal who intends murder, is unconcerned about the minor punishment of carrying a concealed weapon. Only the law-abiding person, with no criminal history, is deterred by such laws.

This is a radical idea -- that law-abiding people should be able to defend themselves from murderous attack in public. It's not necessary for us to return to complete laissez-faire, like Vermont; a dramatic expansion of the number of concealed weapons permits provides an easy way to make self-defense legal again, while still verifying that a person carrying a gun isn't mentally ill, a criminal, or incompetent. Oregon [9] , Pennsylvania [10] , and Florida, have all made dramatic changes to their concealed weapons statutes in the last few years, and the effect in each has been to dramatically expand the number of permits. Oregon's murder rate, already falling, fell again during 1990.

In a society where savages use guns, knives, baseball bats, and gasoline, it is time for radical rethinking of the right to self-defense.


Clayton Cramer is a software engineer with a Petaluma manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. He is currently writing a history of the Second Amendment.


1. English v. State, 35 Tex. 473 (1872).

2. Assembly Office of Research, Smoking Gun: The Case For Concealed Weapon Permit Reform, (Sacramento, State of California: 1986), 5.

3. Assembly Office of Research, 6.

4. Application of Atkinson, Minn., 291 N.W.2d 396, 397 (1980).

5. Vermont Statutes, y 4003.

6. Marcello Maestro, Cesare Beccaria and the Origins of Penal Reform, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press: 1973), 134-138.

7. Maestro, 141; Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed, (University of New Mexico Press: 1984); reprinted by The Independent Institute, Oakland: 1984), 35, 209.

8. Cesare Beccaria, trans. by Henry Palolucci, On Crimes And Punishments, (New York, Bobbs-Merrill Co.: 1963), 87-88.

9. Oregon Revised Statutes (1989), 166.291.

10. Pennsylvania Crimes Code (1989), y 6109.


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