Eugene Volokh and a correspondent discuss Max Weber’s views on the state and legitimate violence, and between them make a common error:
I was corresponding with a friend of mine—a very smart fellow, and a lawyer and a journalist—about concealed carry for university professors. He disagreed with my view, and as best I can tell in general was skeptical about laws allowing concealed carry in public. His argument, though, struck me as particularly noteworthy, especially since I’ve heard it in gun control debates before: “Forgive me, but I’m old-fashioned. I like the idea of the state having a monopoly on the use of force.”
I want to claim that this echo of Weber (who said “Today … we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”) is utterly inapt in gun control debates, at least such debates in a Western country.
He goes on to give a string of alleged counterexamples: “Every jurisdiction in America has always recognized individuals’ right to use not just force but deadly force in defending life … Use of deadly force for self-defense has always been allowed in public places as well as in private places … many non-state organizations even maintain private armed staff—armed security guards …” The examples actually make Weber’s point. Weber said that a distinguishing feature of the modern state is that it “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory … the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.”
It’s the legitimacy point that’s key. The state claims the right to regulate who can and cannot do things like own weapons, shoot people, run some kind of armed organization or what have you, and under what circumstances and with what restrictions. Which is precisely what Volokh’s examples show: jurisdictions allow, laws recognize, and so on. It is this legitimacy claim that is behind the state’s labeling certain groups as terrorists, for example. Volokh goes on to say that his “point is simply that this Weber quote is of no relevance to the question of private gun possession for self-defense.” Weber won’t resolve any detailed policy questions in that department, though his definition does make it clear that in a modern state the private ownership of weapons is something the state will certainly claim the right to regulate.
Update: To clarify, as I wrote this in a bit of a rush: (1) Volokh’s counterexamples rebut effectively the idea that the state has a monopoly on the commision of violent acts (especially armed violence). (2) This is not what Weber meant by “monopoly on legitimate force.” (3) It seems to be what his correspondent thought Weber meant, however, and so (4) Between them they end up propagating a common error about Weber, though it’s not Volokh’s intent to discuss Weber’s ideas specifically. I’ve changed the title of the post to forestall misinterpretation.