Jeff Snyder’s title essay, originally published in 1993 in the Public Interest, provoked Newsweek columnist George F. Will to rush into print with well-timed second thoughts about his own earlier suggestion that the Second Amendment be repealed. The essay soon became a regulation piece in the well-stocked armories of hundreds of pro-gun websites.

Crime is rampant, Snyder writes,

because the law-abiding, each of us, condone it, excuse it, permit it, submit to it. We permit and encourage it because we do not fight back, immediately, then and there, where it happens. Crime is not rampant because we do not have enough prisons, because judges and prosecutors are too soft, because the police are hamstrung with absurd technicalities. The defect is there, in our character. We are a nation of cowards and shirkers . . . Most people readily believe that the existence of the police relieves them of the responsibility to take full measures to protect themselves. . . . If, however, you understand that crime can occur at anywhere, anytime, and if you understand that you can be maimed or mortally wounded in mere seconds, you may wish to consider whether you are willing to place the responsibility for safeguarding your life in the hands of others. . . . How can you rightfully ask another human being to risk his life to protect yours when you will assume no responsibility yourself? . . . If you believe it reprehensible to possess the means and will to use lethal force to repel a criminal assault, how can you call upon another to do so for you?

In the 15 essays that follow, Snyder analyzes the delusions underlying the victim-disarmament movement. In an address entitled “The Ethics of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” Snyder has his audience conduct mental exercises designed to illuminate the illogic underlying the arguments that urge capitulation to criminals. Since, for reasons of personal safety, authorities counsel accession to criminals’ demands, why should we object to a law prohibiting any resistance whatever on the part of the victim, if it could thereby guarantee that all such encounters would be injury-free? Snyder’s rebuke is characteristically-pungent:

[W]hy should criminals respect our lives or our liberty, when we ourselves do not value them highly enough to assume the responsibility to defend them, and do not hold them worth fighting for? . . . [W]hy, if the criminal is not to be met with immediate, outraged resistance, would a criminal believe that what he is doing is actually wrong? Because laws make it so? Then his crime is solely against the state, not against the person of the victim.

Snyder scrutinizes the creation of new classes of crimes against the state for the purpose of preventing crimes against citizens. Passing laws prohibiting acts that are not inherently wrong (buying or selling a gun across state lines, or without a waiting period: owning a military-style “assault rifle”) in the attempt to prevent actual crimes to which they may eventually be linked is a process which, by denying any need for responsibility or self-control on the part of the public, embodies an inner logic that has no rational end-point.

We live in a time when millions among us have grown accustomed to thinking the hitherto unthinkable, to shedding the fond illusion that “it can’t happen here,” and to wondering what, precisely, the political conditions are that would justify organized armed resistance to a tyrannical government.

In his final essay, “The Line in the Sand,” Snyder focuses on his deepest concern—the character and ethos of the American people—to answer this question. Drawing upon classical republican wisdom, he offers a reply that is as prudent in counsel as it is disturbing in diagnosis: Only when the body of the people as a whole has awakened to the full extent of the usurpations and injustices perpetrated among them does armed resistance become anything more than suicidal martyrdom. In a time when sheep-like contentment and dependence on the total state are matched by a willful blindness before eroded liberties, we need to admit that we are nowhere near that point, and we must concentrate instead upon educating and forging links with our fellow citizens, persuading the open minds among us, and mounting challenges in the courts to laws that deny our constitutional liberties.


[Nation of Cowards: Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, by Jeff Snyder (St. Louis: Accurate Press) 174 pp., $24.95]