Is gun control consistent with classical liberalism? Can a classical liberal case be made for restricting this liberty?
**Gun control - just what are we talking about ?'
Many of us assume that we must either oppose or support gun control. Not so. We have a range of alternatives. Even this way of speaking oversimplifies our choices since there are two distinct scales on which to place alternatives. One scale concerns the degree (if at all) to which guns should be abolished. This scale moves from those who want no abolition (NA) of any guns, through those who want moderate abolition (MA)— that is, to forbid access to some subclasses of guns—to those who want absolute abolition (AA). The second scale concerns the restrictions (if any) on those guns that are available to private citizens. This scale moves from those who want absolute restrictions (AR) through those who want moderate restrictions (MR) to those who want no restrictions (NR) at all. Restrictions vary not only in strength but also in content. We could restrict who owns guns, how they obtain them, where and how they store them, and where and how they carry them. Our options are further complicated by the union of these scales. On one extreme no private citizen can own any guns (AA, which is functionally equivalent to AR), while at the other extreme, every private citizen can own any gun with no restrictions (NANR). But once we leave those extremes, which few people hold, the options are defined by a pair of coordinates along these distinct scales. While most people embrace positions on the ‘‘same’’ end of both scales, others embrace more exotic mixtures: some will want few weapons available to private citizens but virtually no restrictions on those guns that are available (MANR), while others may prefer making most guns available but want to seriously restrict them (NAMR). (Hugh LaFollette, 'Gun Control', Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp. 263-281 : 263.)
It isn't clear which option you prefer. I will take it (for the sake of argument) that you want few guns available to private citizens. This raises the questions, not answered here, 'how few' and on what basis of permission ?
'Classical liberalism - what are we talking about ?
'Liberalism', on its own or with prefix or suffix, has no single, essentialist meaning. But I hazard that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is a text many would have in mind when they refer to Classcial Liberalism. (Actually I think Mill was a rather complex kind of liberal.) The liberty and harm principles in On Liberty fit the bill for a widespread understanding of what (at least in part) Classical Liberalism involves :
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with[Pg 18] any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm.)
A Millian case for gun control
This 'one very [not so] simple principle' might appear to provide adequate support for gun control. Widespread gun-ownership certainly concerns others since it is a potential and often real harm to others. This argument could be expanded. This is the best 'classical liberal** case I know a classical liberal for restricting the right to bear arms, to own a gun but the situation is more complicated than Mill's principle can handle. This is because what causes harm, is likely to cause harm, and how harm can most efficiently be prevented are matters that ethics and political theory cannot settle on their own. Empirical considerations have to be brought to bear :
Ethics, political theory and the facts of the matter
The assumption motivating most calls for bans on private possession of guns ['few guns available to private citizens' : GT] is that a causal relationship exists between the number of guns in the private sector and the number of victims of violent crime: an increase in the number of guns (in some sense) causes an increase in violent crime. This view has a special sort of plausibility in the United States, where violent crime has (or at least seems to have) escalated in tandem with gun ownership. Of course, the government has a legitimate interest in protecting the health and safety of its citizens, and reducing crime is necessary to that end. Surely, one might conclude, the government ought to take measures to take firearms out of private circulation if that will curb criminal activity and foster the health and safety of the population. To date, nearly the whole of the controversy about bans on firearms has centered on this argument and on the causal connection it alleges. On the one hand, common sense and a good deal of scholarly research seems to support the idea that increases and decreases in gun owner- ship, respectively, cause increases and decreases in lethal crime. On the other hand, criminologists have amassed a considerable amount of statistical evidence suggesting the relationship is weak or nonexistent. Perhaps their most impressive arguments so far rest on evidence that possession of guns by law-abiding citizens, the potential victims of crime, has the same effect that possession of guns by the police has: that of deterring crime. (Todd C. Hughes and Lester H. Hunt, 'The Liberal Basis of the Right to Bear Arms', Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 1-25 : 1-2.)