I often disagree with The Economist, but I read the venerable British magazine because their opinions are generally well argued and supported by credible studies and documented facts. There is one area, though, where they become as irrational as a bull in front of a red rag: guns in the hands of ordinary individuals instead of government agents. I was reminded of this by their article “More Americans Are Trying to Take Their Weapons on Planes: Loose Gun Laws Lead to More Interceptions at Airports,” August 11, 2022.

Consider two polar models of the state. On one side, you have a Hobbesian-like state, which needs to be all powerful to control its subjects, perhaps for their own good. The latter are disarmed and Leviathan comes as close to a practical monopoly of force as humanly possible. My late friend George Jonas went to visit Hungary as a tourist two decades after fleeing the country. One night, as he was walking with his woman companion in the pitch-black Grand Boulevard of Budapest (pitch-black was the color of the night in Eastern European capitals), she became apprehensive. George recalled in his memoirs (Beethoven Mask: Notes on My Life and Times [Key Porter Books, 2005], pp. 263-264):

She reached for my hand and huddled closer to me. “Relax,” I said. “You’re in Hungary. Here you’ve nothing to worry about, until you see a policeman.

On the other side, consider a model similar to what Anthony de Jasay calls the “capitalist state.” It does not interfere in the activities of its citizens except to prevent illegitimate violence among them, protect their property, and enforce their contracts. It does not “govern” but only prevents any takeover, foreign or domestic, by a more invasive state. It does not have all the guns. Indeed, the existence of “private force” enforces the limits of the capitalist state. As far as guns are concerned, this state might vaguely remind us of New York City in the mid-19th century, where there was no restriction on the carrying of guns by private individuals. Professor Frank Morn wrote about the 1844 professional reorganization of the New York City police somewhat along the London model (“Firearms Use and the Police: A Historical Evolution of American Values,” in Don B. Kates, Ed., Firearms and Violence: Issues of Public Policy [Ballinger/Harper & Row, 1984], p. 500):

At one party in 1845, it was reported that four fifths of the gentlemen present were armed with pistols for protection against thieves, yet for nearly a decade of its formative years the New York police was neither uniformed nor armed. In 1853 the officers were officially uniformed, but gun carrying was still forbidden. The truncheon was the official weapon.

In the article cited above, the Economist‘s underlying theory is, perhaps unconsciously, much closer to the first than to the second model of the state. It reports with alarm on the number of Americans caught at airports with guns they mistakenly brought in their hand luggage. These errors, it is suggested, happen more in the South because of “loose gun laws”:

They crop up far more often in states with loose gun laws. People in Georgia or Texas often carry a gun as others carry their keys.

In April Brian Kemp, Georgia’s governor, signed a “constitutional carry” law, allowing people in the state to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.

The magazine fears that someday, a gun will get on a airplane and accidentally discharge because (can you imagine?) people usually carry their pistols loaded (instead of, I suppose, carrying them in little bundles of disassembled parts). I suspect it did not cross our usually imaginative journalists’ minds that, if people could board planes armed, the terrorists on the 9/11 highjacked flights might have been stopped at low or lower cost. And note that air marshals do carry loaded pistols on flights, for a purpose.

The Economist ignores that the right of ordinary citizens to carry guns is not an eccentricity of the American South. I would recommend that its senior editors and its American correspondent read about their own home country where, until about a hundred years ago, ordinary individuals could carry concealed handguns without a permit. They could start with Colin Greenwood’s Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), and Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Guns: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (Harvard University Press, 1994). It is interesting that, for part of the 19th century until the early 20th century, the freedom to own and carry guns was generally better protected in the UK than in the US. That violent crime was already lower than in the UK suggests that Americans are more violent, with or without guns.

For all their critical spirit and investigative prowess, the journalists at The Economist are also unaware of some important differences between southern states and other more liberal places in America. One of these is that significant handgun controls appeared first in southern states after the Civil War and were largely meant to prevent freed blacks from being armed. Many tricks were used so that whites or Klansmen could themselves remain armed—the police deputizing them was one way. (See Don B. Kates, Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out [North River Press, 1979], pp. 12-20.)

In fact, constitutional carry for all, also called “permitless carry,” came very late in the South (as defined by the federal government), when it came at all. Here are the dates:

  • Alabama, in force in 2023;
  • Arkansas, 2013;
  • Delaware: no constitutional carry;
  • Florida: no constitutional carry;
  • Georgia, 2022;
  • Kentucky, 2019;
  • Louisiana, no constitutional carry;
  • Maryland, no constitutional carry;
  • Mississippi, 2015;
  • North Carolina, no constitutional carry;
  • Oklahoma, 2019;
  • South Carolina, no constitutional carry;
  • Tennessee, 2021;
  • Texas, 2021;
  • Virginia, no constitutional carry;
  • West Virginia, 2016.

Compare with more liberal states—for example:

  • Vermont, 1791;
  • Alaska, 2003;
  • Maine, 2015;
  • New Hampshire (2017).

In Maine, where I live, like in many liberal states, obtaining a carry permit was easy before constitutional carry. There are very few exceptions where an American resident older than 21 may carry a handgun, openly or concealed, in Maine: federal government buildings, schools and universities, state parks strangely (but the federal equivalents are not restricted), and private property where the owner visibly posts that guns are not allowed. These privately restricted places are very rare. For example, I visit my bank armed. (I just made a quick calculation, obviously too simple to provide a reliable proof of anything: in Maine, in 2020, there were 12 bank robberies per 100,000 inhabitants; in California, the number is 113, nearly 10 times more.)

Perhaps the journalists of The Economist should revisit America (and their own country) after reading the books recommended above, especially those of Greenwood and Malcolm? It would at least help them ask the right questions.

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P.S.: Warning about the featured image of this post: Don’t hold your pistol like the person on the image does, except if our are ready to shoot immediately. If this is not meant to describe the situation of the pictured woman, she should keep her index finger off the trigger. The apparent position of her other index finger is also questionable.