Book Reviews

Firmin DeBrabander, Do Guns Make Us Free?: Democracy and the Armed Society, Yale University Press, 2015

Many critics of American gun culture and policy argue that the public health benefits of stricter regulations compensate for the associated loss of freedom: a bit less freedom is an acceptable cost for the expected gains in public safety. By contrast, gun advocates sometimes claim that freedom to own guns underlies all other important freedoms and therefore deserves priority over considerations of public health. In this volume, philosopher Firmin DeBrabander takes a distinct critical approach, denying any significant loss of freedom associated with gun control. Widespread gun ownership in the context of lax regulation makes Americans—and anyone else similarly situated—less free.

In developing his case for this thesis, DeBrabander argues more specifically that strong gun rights and widespread gun ownership (1) do not liberate us from fear, (2) don’t protect us from tyranny, (3) serve as a diversion for those in power, and (4) constitute a threat to free speech and assembly. The book offers a political and cultural analysis of the gun rights movement in the United States. Although the author’s tone is highly critical of the status quo, he mentions in the Preface that he does not oppose gun ownership with wise regulations (xv). The book supports gun control rather than a ban on private gun ownership.

Chapter 1, “The Culture of Fear,” provides a helpful overview of American gun culture, featuring lax regulation along with high rates of gun ownership and gun violence. DeBrabander notes that gun violence is disproportionately experienced by urban African Americans and that the strongest support for gun rights comes from suburban and rural whites, who are least in need of armed self-defense. The discussion illuminates the gun lobby’s strategy of dichotomizing law-abiding citizens and those intent on doing them harm, identifying “bad guys” and the mentally ill—rather than easy access to firearms—as the chief cause of gun tragedies. The emphasis on dangerous people, according to the author, has been part of a general strategy of cultivating fear in prospective gun owners, and may help to explain why Americans tend to believe that violent crime has increased in recent decades when in fact it has declined.

Chapter 2, “Guns, Government, and Autonomy,” addresses gun ownership in relation to law, political philosophy, and freedom. Like many scholars who favor stronger gun regulations, DeBrabander is critical of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court asserted that the Second Amendment grounds a right to individual gun ownership. He also criticizes the NRA’s slippery slope reasoning—that new gun regulations will unacceptably increase the risk of sliding to gun bans and confiscation—while deftly demonstrating that John Locke’s political philosophy does not support the gun lobby’s agenda. Locke and his intellectual brethren opposed the vigilantism that is encouraged by the NRA and Stand Your Ground laws, whose bias in favor of shooters and against victims DeBrabander does a great job of exposing. Don’t citizens need to be armed to protect themselves against tyranny? No, the author argues. Not only would arms prove useless against the power of the U.S. military; brandishing arms against government personnel who harbor unjust intentions would probably increase one’s chances of getting killed.

Chapter 3, “The Face of Oppression,” argues that the gun rights movement, contrary to its public image of hostility towards government, actually consolidates government power. In an interesting discussion of Machiavelli’s notoriously underhanded advice to political rulers, DeBrabander argues that congressional leaders’ hostility toward even the most sensible gun regulations cannot be explained by lobbying power alone. Rather, part of the explanation must be in terms of a shrewd political calculation: that one can keep the masses relatively happy with guns and the accompanying illusion of freedom. By contrast, if a government shows that it does not trust citizens to own and handle guns, it unflatteringly lumps ordinary individuals with felons and the mentally ill. The present strategy works all the more if government officials and politicians portray the government itself as untrustworthy and incompetent, as Republican leaders have been wont to do. In this way, many Americans come to believe that voting is useless, since the system is rigged, whereas gun ownership makes an individual more powerful, respected, and free.

Chapter 4, “Guns and the Threat to Democracy,” continues the author’s challenge to the idea that guns protect our rights and democratic values. Whereas the emphasis in chapters 2 and 3 was on the relationships between individuals and their government, the emphasis in chapter 4 is on individuals in relation to each other. NRA official Wayne LaPierre claims that gun rights are foundational to the exercise of other rights such as freedom of speech and free assembly. Criminologist John Lott contends that “shall issue” (nondiscretionary concealed carry) laws, by exploiting the deterrent effects of guns, offer the most cost-effective way to reduce crime (Lott 2010, 164-166). In response, DeBrabander argues that such deterrence is highly unlikely in the most crime-ridden urban neighborhoods and that society needs to focus on the real drivers of crime such as poverty, lack of opportunity, and drug addiction. He also presents an excellent, well-documented critique of Lott’s scholarship without bogging the reader down with arcane methodological points and statistics. Rebutting the claim that guns are women’s great equalizers against domestic batterers, he points out that battered women are more likely to get shot in domestic disputes if there are guns in the house. In response to the NRA’s appeals to a dangerous world in which guns afford necessary personal protection, he makes the good point that the NRA has—through its effective lobbying—helped to create this dangerous world. The true motive of the campus carry movement, he suggests, is to help make guns more familiar and acceptable to the mainstream middle class. As for the growing trend of people arriving at protests (e.g., against the Affordable Care Act) heavily armed, he notes that the visible presence of arms intimidates opposing voices. Rather than guaranteeing or protecting the right to free speech, guns in public inhibit speech and reasoned, open discussion. What protects free speech and other rights is not a heavily armed citizenry, DeBrabander argues, but respect for the rule of law. Such respect allows police and courts to perform their functions and obviates the vigilantism encouraged by the guns right movement.

Continuing with several of these themes, chapter 5, “Power and Democracy,” makes the case that gun rights arguments lead to the threat of armed rebellion against government, contrary to the American ideal of orderly transfers of power. While the gun rights movement encourages fear of Obama and his allies, who are said to be advancing a socialist agenda, it simultaneously encourages the proliferation of guns in public, thereby threatening the rule of law and a peaceful society. The more the gun lobby has its way, the more we move away from civil society and towards a Hobbesian state of nature. DeBrabander does an excellent job, again without overloading the reader with technicalities and jargon, exposing some of the most dubious features of current American gun policies—for example, that the ATF cannot share gun trace data with local law enforcement, crippling efforts to identify and investigate corrupt gun dealers and traffickers. Near the end of the book, he offers this comment:

In Jefferson’s view, our republic requires official, sanctioned methods for radical change. The violence of revolution is destructive of, not conducive to, freedom. The gun rights movement fails to grasp this—or chooses to ignore it. Much like the nonviolent movements led by King and others, Jefferson aims to enable radical change within the rule of law. Once rule of law is undermined, so are all possibilities for political freedom. (233)

Do Guns Make Us Free? combines excellent scholarship with accessibility. I am persuaded by its case that private gun ownership tends to make us less free. (Disclosure: I am an applied ethics scholar who has written in favor of substantial gun control.) Although I am not always persuaded by the cultural and political analysis—for example, I suspect that lobbying alone can account for Congress’s pitiful inaction with regard to gun safety (see above)—the analysis is deep, perceptive, and powerful. The author’s engagement with such political philosophers as Locke, Machiavelli, de Tocqueville, Rousseau, and Jefferson is highly illuminating and frequently succeeds in undermining gun advocates’ efforts to ground their ideas in those of great thinkers. One of the book’s most impressive achievements is all too scarce in books authored by philosophy professors: being engaging while presenting a great deal of salient factual information.

This reviewer would be remiss if he did not register a few points of disagreement or complaint. First, an explicit analysis of the concept of freedom would have been welcome. The author does pretty well relying on the reader’s likely intuitions about what is compatible with freedom and what is not. But it is possible that what he includes under the penumbra of freedom—including freedom from fear—exceeds some gun advocates’ more libertarian understanding of liberty as the absence of external constraints. Second, the chapters contain several (of what struck me as) digressions, discussions that distractingly remove the reader from the main thread of argument. (See, for example, Chapter 1’s discussion of drones and perceptions of war and Chapter 3’s discussion of Obama’s claimed right to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process.) Third and finally, the author commits a stylistic faux pas that I urge my philosophy students to avoid at all costs: stating that some author asserts such-and-such without indicating one’s own attitude toward the assertion. Too many paragraphs begin with the likes of “In his book Living with Guns, Craig Whitney argues that…” (59), or “Greewald says of the surveillance state…” (138). The problem with such attributions without critical appraisal is that they either (1) reflect a book report mode, describing literature rather than doing independent analysis, or (2) commit the fallacy of appeal to authority, as if the mere fact that so-and-so asserted such-and-such provided reason to believe such-and-such. Fortunately, the book as a whole leaves no doubt as to DeBrabander’s views about guns’ threat to freedom and the basis for his views.

David DeGrazia
George Washington University
Washington, DC, USA


Lott, John. 2010. More Guns, Less Crime, 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.