Is There a Relationship between Guns and Freedom? Comparative Results from Fifty-Nine Nations

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Is there a relationship between firearm ownership in a nation and the level of freedom? Many people have thought so.

The American founding generation thought that the relationship was positive. James Madison spoke of "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation," and contrasted the United States with "the several kingdoms of Europe," where "the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms."1 Two centuries later, Senator Hubert Humphrey affirmed the same idea:

Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms .... The right of citizens to bear arms is just one guarantee against arbitrary government, and one more safeguard against tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.2

Other people argue that there is a negative relationship between guns and freedom. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stated:

The proliferation of small arms, ammunition and explosives has also aggravated the violence associated with terrorism and organized crime. Even in societies not beset by civil war, the easy availability of small arms has in many cases contributed to violence and political instability.

These, in turn, have damaged development prospects and imperiled human security in every way.3

Proponents of both theories can readily cite examples. Widespread ownership of firearms helped Americans win independence from Britain in the American Revolution and preserve that independence in the War of 1812.4 The well-armed Swiss were able to deter Nazi invasion during World War II, even though Joseph Goebbels thought Hitler might eventually be known as the "Butcher of the Swiss."5 Conversely, guns in the hands of warlords and terrorists have played a major role in harming civil society in modern nations such as Lebanon and the Ivory Coast.6

Increased United Nations attention to the gun control issue in the 1990s and the early 21st century has resulted in much greater academic interest in international firearms issues.7 It is now possible to use a large panel, consisting of fifty-nine nations, to test for a relationship between increased gun density and various measures of freedom.8

Using data on per capita firearm ownership from the Small Arms Survey,9 this Article examines the relationship between per capita firearm rates and several measures of freedom. These measures are:

* Freedom House's ratings of political rights (such as free elections) and civil liberty (such as freedom of religion).

* Transparency International's ratings of government corruption levels.

* Heritage Foundation's ratings of economic freedom.

* World Bank's ratings of economic success.

Part II of this Article describes these data sources. Part III reports the findings from the comparative analysis. Part IV discusses various ways in which higher levels of firearms density might work to increase or decrease different aspects of freedom.

II. DATA SOURCES

A. Freedom House's Ratings of Political Rights and Civil Liberty

Founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and others concerned by the threat of fascism, Freedom House is a leading voice against political and civil oppression, regardless of the ideology of the oppressor.10 Every year Freedom House publishes a monograph titled Freedom in the World, in which each country is given a rating for two categories: political rights and civil liberty. Freedom in the World defines these categories as follows:

Political rights enable people to participate freely in the political process, including through the right to vote, compete for public office, and elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate. Civil liberties allow for the freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state. …