If the purpose of guns were to kill, cops would not be allowed to have them because, in civilized countries contrary to James Bond movies, they don’t have a license to kill.

A tool or instrument, observed Friedrich Hayek, cannot be defined outside of human purposes. For example, the definition of a hammer must include what most people want it for, that is, as the online Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us, “for pounding.” In his 1942 Economica article “Scientism and the Study of Society” (reproduced in his The Counter-Revolution of Science), Hayek noted:

Take the concept of a “tool” or “instrument,” or of any particular tool such as a hammer or a barometer. It is easily seen that these concepts cannot be interpreted to refer to “objective facts,” that is, to things irrespective of what people think about them. … If the reader will attempt a definition he will soon find that he cannot give one without using some term such as “suitable for” or “intended for” or some other expression referring to the use for which it is designed by somebody. And a definition which is to comprise all instances of the class will not contain any reference to its substance, or shape, or other physical attribute.

An automobile is, to quote Merriam-Webster again, an “automotive vehicle designed for passenger transportation.” People use it to go from point A to point B. Under this general purpose lie many specific ones. For many, A will be mainly their homes and B, their workplaces. Some, no doubt, will use their car to go and commit a bank robbery, and escape afterwards. For terrorists, the space between point A and point B may be any place where there are pedestrians to crush. Collectors and museums may even dispense with the transportation function, although the original purpose remains part of the attraction.

Now, consider a gun. The most general definition of Merriam-Webster is “a device that throws a projectile.” Some individuals may use the projectile-throwing power to kill—a killer-for-hire or a terrorist, for example. But most will use it for another purpose: to assure their own self-defense or to defend others against criminals, or even to protect their property or their customers’ property. Armored truck personnel carry guns as a disincentive to would-be robbers. When they own or carry a gun, some individuals are buying peace of mind, knowing that they have an efficient means of self-defense in case they ever need it. Collectors do not even use a gun to throw a projectile, but instead to showcase it.

The purpose of a gun is not generally to kill. A handgun is designed for self-defense at short distances. Hitting a target farther than 100 feet or even just 50 feet is difficult: by then, the bullet has lost much of its speed and energy, and dropped significantly. Although a handgun may kill or maim an aggressor, its purpose is to stop him, to stop the threat. Hence the discussion of the “stopping power” of caliber (diameter of the bullet) versus velocity.

Criminals use handguns to commit aggressions, as they can use cars to travel where their victims are. But killing is not the (general) purpose of a car, nor is it really that of a handgun. If one is intent on killing, a long gun (rifle or shotgun) is more convenient. In the state where I live (as I suspect in many other states), one may carry a loaded handgun in a car but not a long gun. The reason is that a long gun is not efficient for self-defense, especially in a confined place, while it would be very effective at ambushing somebody (or indiscriminately shooting people).

Even in the case of long guns, it is at misleading to state that the purpose is to kill—at least to kill another human. For many if not most owners of long guns, the purpose is to hunt animals or for protection against four-legged predators such as brown or white bears. Even if many owners of long guns probably think that they could come handy during civil (or government) disturbances, the main purpose would remain to stop the threat, not necessarily to kill the threatening individuals.

Thus, the purpose of guns is not to kill, except in particular, and often criminal, circumstances. The purpose of a gun is to neutralize threats and deter aggressors. Even if we assume that allowing guns results in more murders than banning them (which I don’t think is supported by available evidence), it does not follow that government should ban them, whether abruptly or stealthily. We encounter here the general problem of cost-benefit analysis: What allows us to say that preventing the possible killing of some unknown Mr. and Mrs. X in the future is worth more than prohibiting a known Miss Y from owning or carrying a gun for self-defense hic et nunc?

Moreover, it does not take much imagination to include in the calculus the detrimental consequences of raising children in a society where the idea prevails that state agents have rights that their subjects don’t have.

The mantra that “the purpose of a gun is to kill” is used by those who think that ordinary citizens should be prevented from having guns because they don’t have the right to defend themselves, that such rights belong exclusively to government agents. The British and Canadian experience shows that the ultimate purpose of most gun control proponents is to disarm ordinary people and abolish their right of self-defense—and, perhaps unconsciously, the underlying sentiment of self-reliance and independence. Once this becomes clear, one realizes how crucial is the Second Amendment in defining America, an exceptional land where ordinary citizens (and all legal residents) have the right to own and, in many cases, to carry guns just like government agents do. In truth, government agents have a moral right to carry guns only because private individuals have it.