June 25, 2022

Gun Control Comes from a Place of Privilege

Assuming we know what’s best for others is rarely a good idea.

The concept of privilege gets a bad rap in many circles, and understandably so. Many have taken it way too far, using it as a means of bullying their political opponents into submission. But while the excesses of this rhetoric are certainly problematic, I don’t think we should do away with the concept entirely. Behind all the moral grandstanding lies a kernel of truth, one that can provide some valuable insights if applied correctly.

The principle, essentially, is that certain people have unearned advantages, and those advantages can shape how they see the world. Affluence, for instance, can make someone blind to the needs of the poor. Likewise, those with an above average aptitude, intelligence, or physical appearance might find it difficult to relate to those who were not equally endowed with those gifts.

The problem with this blindness is that it can easily lead to hubris, that is, unwarranted self-confidence. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of privilege is thinking we know the best course of action for a given situation when we really don’t.

The classic example of this is the story of a famous French princess who, upon hearing that the peasants had no bread, simply replied, “then let them eat cake.” She was so unfamiliar with their circumstances that the solution she dismissively prescribed was positively laughable. Another example of privilege was when the lockdown elite told us to “just stay home,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that staying home is simply unfeasible for many working class people.

Now, progressives are typically pretty good at pointing out places where privilege is leading to blindness and hubris (indeed, they often see privilege even where it doesn’t exist). But there’s one occurance of privilege that always seems to get a pass, and that is the privilege associated with gun control.

Out of Touch

Consider, for example, someone who’s from a wealthy, safe neighborhood. They know very little about what it’s like to live in a high-crime area. They have probably never been robbed or threatened with violence from a total stranger. And if they do face threats, they have no qualms with calling the (armed) police who are usually responsive and happy to help.

Now compare that to the experience of someone from a rougher part of town. First, the cops there are probably not as responsive. What’s more, the cops can often become antagonistic, poking their nose where it doesn’t belong (see below) and sometimes arresting the very people they arrived to help. 

Unsurprisingly, confidence in police is noticeably lower in these communities.

So what do you do if you live in a high-crime area where you can’t trust the police to help you? For many, the answer is to buy a gun. Indeed, 88 percent of gun owners cite crime protection as one of the main reasons they own a gun, and people who have been recent crime victims report higher rates of gun ownership than those who have not been recent victims.

This brings us to the point about privilege. To many people who grew up in these rough neighborhoods, saying “just call the cops” is like saying “let them eat cake.” It isn’t actually helpful advice. It just demonstrates how little we know about their circumstances and how unqualified we are to speak to their issues.

To be sure, the people in these communities are often divided over the issue of gun control themselves. Even so, if someone is buying a gun, there’s a good chance it’s because they don’t feel safe without it. So before we tell them they are better off disarmed, perhaps we should take stock of how privileged we are to not need guns ourselves.

A Decades-Old Problem

The connection between gun control and privilege may sound new to many, but it’s actually an issue that goes back decades. In 1978, for instance, the economist and libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard drew attention to this problem in his book For a New Liberty. To make his point, he quotes an article written by Don Kates for the Cato Institute’s Inquiry Magazine. Kates, for his part, pulls no punches.

“Gun prohibition is the brainchild of white middle-class liberals who are oblivious to the situation of poor and minority people living in areas where the police have given up on crime control,” Kates writes. “Such liberals weren’t upset about marijuana laws, either, in the fifties when the busts were confined to the ghettos. Secure in well-policed suburbs or high-security apartments guarded by Pinkertons (whom no one proposes to disarm), the oblivious liberal derides gun ownership as ‘an anachronism from the Old West.’”

Kates goes on to highlight exactly what kind of people are being impacted by gun control policies. Citing a 1975 national survey, he notes that the leading subgroups who owned a gun only for self-defense were blacks, the lowest income groups, and senior citizens. “These are the people,” Kates eloquently warns, “it is proposed we jail because they insist on keeping the only protection available for their families in areas in which the police have given up.”

Four decades later, FBI data showed African Americans were still disproportionately impacted by anti-carry laws, accounting for 42 percent of all possession charges even though they accounted for just 13 percent of the overall population.

Of course, none of this will make gun control any less contentious. There is no silver bullet here. But perhaps this paradigm can at least give us a lesson in humility. Namely, don’t assume you know what’s best for someone if you haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.

This article, Gun Control Comes from a Place of Privilege, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.