A free society respects each individual’s right to pursue happiness. If our rights have been transgressed through some act of violence or fraud, it is the role of government to hold offenders accountable in a court of law, its rulings enforced by police officers and prison guards.
But an officer of the law will not be available in a moment of crisis; he will only make a report after the fact. Each individual should provide for his own immediate protection. Our legal tradition recognizes each person’s right to keep and bear arms for precisely this reason.
Before the introduction of professional police forces it was considered one’s civic duty to answer the “hue and cry.” Armed freemen were expected to assist in the apprehension of felons, with their privately owned weapons.
Regular militia musters ensured that the able-bodied were sufficiently armed and trained to suppress riots or resist invasion. Again, these individuals were expected to supply their own guns, and those who could not might be provided one at public expense. The historian G.G. Coulton observed, “Every man was his own soldier and his own policeman.”
In the United States today there are tens of millions of gun owners, and Gary Kleck, an award-winning criminologist, estimates that anywhere from 800,000 to 2.5 million times per year Americans use firearms defensively. John Lott argues that increasing the number of law-abiding citizens who carry handguns discourages violent criminals. Active shooters are stopped by armed citizens.
Armed citizens still join in collective efforts to maintain law and order. A group called the Deacons for Defense fought with the KKK and guarded civil rights marches in the 1960s. Armed business owners united to discourage looters during civil unrest in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 ad hoc militias patrolled abandoned neighborhoods, engaging in at least one lengthy gun fight with a criminal gang. Volunteers protected private property in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of an armed populace is the power to check an oppressive government. During the 20th century tyrannical regimes in Russia, China, Germany, Guatemala, Chile, Cambodia, and many African countries murdered tens of millions of people who were first disarmed or had their access to firearms severely restricted. With no means to resist, these innocent people were at the mercy of savage governments, some of which were democratic in nature before the rise of a vicious faction.
To maintain freedom and better provide for the security of individual citizens the Framers of the U.S. Constitution added what became the Second Amendment, with its promise that the “right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Libertarians oppose restrictions on the private ownership of firearms because individual citizens, to be truly free, require protection against criminals and politicians alike.