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Cesare Beccaria on the Right to Bear Arms

Disarming Citizens "Encourages Rather Than Prevents Murder"

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Cesare Beccaria

A sketch of the great Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), whose work had a profound influence on the Founding Fathers and may have inspired the Eighth Amendment.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Most of the Founding Fathers justified the right to bear arms on the basis of potential government corruption, and the need for revolution. This fact has led some historians to believe that the "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" argument is a relatively recent development, but such is not the case. Cesare Beccaria, an 18th-century Italian philosopher whose work had a considerable influence on the development of U.S. law, flawlessly outlined the idea in his masterpiece Of Crimes and Punishments (1764), published a full quarter-century before the Second Amendment was proposed:
A principal source of errors and injustice are false ideas of utility. For example: that legislator has false ideas of utility who considers particular more than general conveniencies, who had rather command the sentiments of mankind than excite them, and dares say to reason, `Be thou a slave'; who would sacrifice a thousand real advantages to the fear of an imaginary or trifling inconvenience; who would deprive men of the use of fire for fear of their being burnt, and of water for fear of their being drowned; and who knows of no means of preventing evil but by destroying it.

The laws of this nature are those which forbid to wear arms, disarming those only who are not disposed to commit the crime which the laws mean to prevent. Can it be supposed, that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, and the most important of the code, will respect the less considerable and arbitrary injunctions, the violation of which is so easy, and of so little comparative importance? Does not the execution of this law deprive the subject of that personal liberty, so dear to mankind and to the wise legislator? and does it not subject the innocent to all the disagreeable circumstances that should only fall on the guilty? It certainly makes the situation of the assaulted worse, and of the assailants better, and rather encourages than prevents murder, as it requires less courage to attack unarmed than armed persons.
However one feels about gun rights and gun control, gun rights advocates can take some comfort in the fact that the authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were quite familiar with the argument most frequently used against gun control today.
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