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What is the common origin of these and similar phrases, and how are they used? I've seen them in both silly and serious contexts.

  • If guns get outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
  • If freedom gets outlawed, only outlaws will be free.
  • If evolution gets outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.
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3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

“If [X] gets outlawed, only outlaws will [X′]” is what you might call a snowclone:

A snowclone is a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as "a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants"

Classic examples of snowclones are “[X] is the new [Y]” (like “gray is the new black”) and “If Eskimos have [N] words for snow, [X] surely have [Y] words for [Z]”.

I searched using the Google Books Ngram Viewer for “outlawed only outlaws” and found this saying had no examples until the late 1960s. The examples shown from that period are invariably the version of the phrase with guns. Further expanding the search in Google Books search to “outlawed * only outlaws” I antedated the saying to a science fiction publication in 1955:

Outlawing it would be as futile as outlawing ambition; if it is outlawed, then only outlaws would have its advantages, and lawful people would be helpless.

Astouding science-fiction: Volume 56, Issue 1, 1955

It is not clear from the snippet what the context of “it” is, but this is clearly an example of this phrasal template. An even earlier citation, from 1930, anticipates the phrasal template with respect to firearms, but doesn’t quite match it:

No one has a constitutional right to carry a concealed pistol or other such weapon. The right to bear arms has nothing to do with pistol carrying when the pistol is outlawed. Only outlaws will carry it. It became interwoven with our ...

Hearings, 1930

We can guess from this that the original use of the phrase relates to guns. The first examples in the Google Books corpus which match the template are from 1968, and clearly reference guns:

If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

— From a publication by Christian Nationalist Crusade, 1968.

By 1969, this trope is regarded as a well-known standard argument about gun-control legislation:

Several forms of this argument state that gun-control legislation simply is not an effective way of reducing crime and violence: (i) Guns don't kill people, people kill people; (ii) when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns ...

Science, Volume 164

Since the late 1960s, the phrase has enjoyed some usage, as shown by this Ngram graph:

Books Ngram Viewer graph of "outlawed only outlaws"

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That's a great Wiki link, nohat, and a fascinating linguistic phenomenon. Your other citations confirm my suspicion, too, that the creation of the phrase "if guns are outlawed ..." predates Reagan's use of it. –  fortunate1 Feb 16 '11 at 1:29
    
@fortunate1 WAAAAY before Reagan –  nohat Feb 16 '11 at 1:37
    
Yes, that's what I meant to convey -in contradistinction to Manoochehr's take. –  fortunate1 Feb 16 '11 at 1:50
2  
Yep, almost anyone’s claim to knowing first instance of a saying can be disproven using Google Books these days. Google Books has brought antedating to the masses. –  nohat Feb 16 '11 at 1:53
    
Thank you for this very extensive answer, and for showing a couple of antedating methods. –  Tim N Feb 16 '11 at 10:34

For your further edification and amusement, I will mention that the figure of speech involved here is a chiasmus:

In rhetoric, a verbal pattern (a type of antithesis) in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. Essentially the same as antimetabole. Adjective: chiastic.

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Each of those phrases is rooted in one of the received myths of the national psyche -in this instance, that Americans are naturally (and justifiably) resistant to the dictates of a central authority. Each phrase opens with the sort of ukase that a clueless bureaucrat might issue from over the horizon and, in closing, exposes it as a false syllogism, negating the commonweal until it's reductio ad absurdum (and negating intellectual integrity, too, although that's another debate.)

I confess only to have heard of the first of your examples, but I'm sure the rest are employed somewhere in the blogo-sphere. All of those you quote would be construed as conservative by nature, since the conclusions the reader would draw from them are congruent with conservative principles and shibboleths.

[EDIT: grammatically, they'd be better phrased as "if [or 'when'] guns are outlawed; if freedom is outlawed; if evolution is outlawed."]

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2  
Why would "is" be better? –  Tim N Feb 16 '11 at 10:57
    
See here for a longer answer. –  fortunate1 Feb 16 '11 at 12:26

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