Since I am a philosopher and am often cast as a liberal, people are sometimes surprised to find out that I am not anti-gun. After all, those seen as good liberals are supposed to be against guns as are folks in academics. In the light of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and in Colorado, it might seem even more odd to not be anti-gun.
In terms of how I feel (as opposed to think) about guns, the explanation is rather easy. When I was a kid, I grew up around guns and hence they were something quite normal to me. When I was old enough to handle a gun, I went shooting and hunting with my father-after being properly trained in gun safety. I remember well the lessons I learned about how to handle a gun safely and the great responsibility that comes with carrying and firing a weapon.
My personal experiences involving guns have, at least so far, been positive: hunting with my dad, target shooting with friends, and learning about historic weapons. I have not had any personal experiences involving gun violence. None of my friends or relatives have been harmed or killed by guns (other than in war). Naturally, I have been affected by the media coverage of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and elsewhere. However, the impact of what a person sees in the media is far less than the impact of personal experience-at least in terms of how one feels (as opposed to how one thinks) about a matter. In contrast, I have had friends hurt or killed by vehicles, drugs (legal and illegal), and other non-gun causes. I have had complete strangers try to hurt (or kill) me with their cars while I was biking, walking or running-but I have never been threatened with a gun. As such, I generally feel more negatively towards cars than I do towards guns.
Obviously enough, how a person feels about a matter is no indication of what is true or moral. Feelings can easily be distorted by a lack of sleep, by drugs (legal or illegal), by illness or by other temporary factors. As such, attempting to feel ones way through a complex matter such as the topic of guns is a rather bad idea. As such, while I generally have a positive feeling towards guns, this is no evidence for the claim that I should (morally) not be anti-gun.
In my last post I considered the stock argument that civilian gun ownership is necessary as a defense against the tyranny of the United States federal government. As I argued, the radical changes in weapon technology has made the idea that civilians can resist the onslaught of the entire United States government backed by the military rather obsolete. Back when the black powder muzzle loading cannon was the most powerful battlefield weapon it made sense to believe that plucky civilians armed with muskets could stand against regular army soldiers with some hope of not being exterminated. However, the idea of fighting against tanks, Predator drones, jet fighters and so on in the blasted ruins of American towns using AR-15s is absurd. I ended this post noting that there are other arguments for civilian gun rights that have actual merit.
From the standpoint of reason, the main reason I am not anti-gun is because of my acceptance of the classic right of self-preservation (as laid out by Thomas Hobbes) and self-defense (as argued for by John Locke). While it is rational to rely on the state for some protection (which is what Locke, Hobbes and other classic thinkers argued for) it would be irrational to rely completely on the state. This is not because of a fear of tyranny so much as because of the obvious fact that the state cannot (and should not) be watching us at all times and in all places. Should a person be pulled back into the state of nature, she will only have herself (or those nearby) to rely on. If she is denied the gun as a means of self-defense, then she is terribly vulnerable to anyone who wishes to do her harm in those times when the state’s agents are not present (such as while she is in her home). I find this argument to be compelling and hence I am not anti-gun.
It might be countered that if the state was guarding us at all times and in all places, then there would be no need for the individual to have a right to a gun as a means of self defense. While this might be true, the obvious concern would be the price paid in privacy and liberty to enable the state to guard us so thoroughly. While I value my safety and I do not take foolish risks, I also value my liberty and privacy. My pride also motivates me: I am not a child that must be guarded at all times. I am an adult and that means that I must take responsibility for my safety as part of the price of liberty and privacy. On my system of values, the price is worth what I gain in terms of freedom and privacy. Others might well wish to be enveloped in the protective embrace of the state and thus live as perpetual children, unable to make the transition to the risks and rewards of being an adult.
Another, more reasonable, counter is that the cost in blood and life of allowing private citizens to possess guns is too high and thus one should be morally opposed to them. While restricting guns would mean that people would be more vulnerable, it can be argued that the harms done to the unarmed will be vastly exceeded by the reduction in, well, harms done to the unarmed. That is, fewer people will be killed because they lack guns relative to those being saved because of the restrictions on guns.
Even if it could be shown that such controls would be effective and also worth the cost, I would still not be anti-gun. After all, the fact that tens of thousands of people die because of vehicles does not make me anti-vehicle. Rather, I am anti-harm and anti-death.
The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.
When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.
On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt. That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.
In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.
On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do. Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.
One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.
On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.
It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.
Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.
It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.
As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.
It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.
However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.
To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.
The terrible shootings in Colorado on July 20, 2012 stirred up the gun control debate once again. Not surprisingly, some folks pointed to this horrific event as evidence that there is a need to make changes regarding gun control. Also not surprisingly, other folks tried to quickly head off attempts to use the event in this manner. As might be imagined, the matter of gun control is one well worth considering.
While people often regard it as odd that an allegedly liberal philosophy professor would be pro-gun, this is the case. The psychological explanation for this is easy enough: I was shaped by my pro-gun upbringing. I learned to shoot as soon as I could hold a gun, I hunted for years, and I am still a gun owner. I enjoy shooting and I feel comfortable with guns (although people with guns but without a proper grasp of firearm safety worry me). Naturally, how I feel about guns is no indication of what I should think about guns and gun control. As such, I will turn now to actually arguing about the matter.
Gun control, the limiting of gun ownership, can be supported by a very reasonable utilitarian argument. By restricting gun ownership, the likelihood of people getting injured or killed by guns is reduced. While denying people the right to own guns can be taken as a harm, this is supposed to be offset by the greater reduction in harms to the potential victims of guns (or people with guns).
Because of the utilitarian argument, I do accept that gun control laws can be morally justified. However, there is still the question of the extent to which guns should be controlled. There are, of course, varying degrees of possible gun control which range from none at all (which can be seen as a state of nature in the sense of Locke or Hobbes) to complete gun control in which no private citizen is allowed to own a gun.
In the United States, people are often inclined to view gun control as a special sort of matter rather than being a matter of general principle about the legitimate extents of liberties and limitations. On the right, gun ownership is sometimes venerated and defended with zealous devotion. On the left, guns are sometimes seen as inherently terrifying (perhaps even as mechanical monsters whose very existence threatens life and limb). I, however, prefer to approach the matter of guns by attempting to follow a general principle that can be used to sort out what should be allowed and what should restricted.
As noted above, the main argument for restricting specific gun liberties or rights is to reduce or prevent harms that would be more likely to occur without restrictions. This is, obviously enough, based on the more general principle that rights or liberties can be restricted under the justification of preventing or reducing harms. As such, it would seem useful to discuss the matter of gun control in this more general context.
Given that the goal of gun control is to reduce or prevent harm, it might be tempting to argue in favor of complete gun control or, at least, incredibly strict restrictions. After all, if such a level of control could be established over the entire population, then the amount of harm involving guns would be greatly reduced. The general principle at work here would be, obviously enough, that a complete ban or incredibly strict restrictions would be justified by the fact that they would significantly reduce the harms that involved guns. While this has a certain appeal in regards to guns, it seems rather less appealing when applied to other things.
If the goal is simply to reduce the number of deaths, then gun control would be rather low on the priority list of things that need to be strictly controlled. After all, far more people perish due to automobiles, tobacco, alcohol and obesity than die in incidents of gun violence. As such, if guns can be severely restricted under the justification that doing so would reduce the number of deaths, then it would follow that automobiles should be subject to the same level of restrictions because they generate a significantly greater death toll. Also, the causes of obesity should be addressed by very strict laws regulating what foods people can purchase, consumption volumes and exercise. While some do advocate for such restrictions, most would see these as absurd. However, if banning Big Macs and cars is absurd, then banning guns would also seem absurd.
It can, however, be argued that there are relevant differences between strict gun control and such things as strict automobile and obesity control. In the case of obesity, it can be argued that a person who is obese is primarily hurting himself (although general obesity does impose some harm on society as a whole). Assuming that people have a right of self-harm (a right I do accept) while not having the same liberty to harm others, then the distinction is easy to make. Except, obviously enough, for gun deaths resulting from suicide—if slow suicide by obesity should not be restricted, then it would seem that quick suicide using a gun would also be a liberty. At the very least, suicide deaths involving guns should be regarded as morally distinct from homicides involving guns.
In the case of automobiles, it might be tempting to argue that automobile deaths are accidents while gun deaths are intentional. However, there are accidental deaths involving guns and intentional deaths involving automobiles. Obviously enough, a vehicle can be used as a very effective weapon, albeit one that is hard to conceal.
A more plausible line of argument is to take a utilitarian approach: while severely restricting automobiles would significantly lower death and injury tolls (not to mention reducing pollution and perhaps encouraging exercise), the utility of the automobile provides an adequate offset against the harms arising from automotive liberty.
Unlike cars, it could be argued that guns lack adequate utility to morally justify the harms they cause. After all, guns are mainly used for entertainment such as hunting and target shooting. While they are sometimes used for survival hunting or protection against animal or human threats, these benefits are offset by the harms of allowing gun rights or liberties.
Naturally, when making the calculation of harms and benefits, if the entertainment value of guns is to be discounted or dismissed, then the same must be done for automobiles and anything else. This would include pool ownership. While pools are mainly for amusement, they cause numerous drowning deaths every year. This would also apply to tobacco—which has no practical benefit and is used solely for pleasure, despite the fact that it harms the user and those exposed to the second hand smoke. It could even apply to junk food, snacks and desserts—these are consumed for pleasure rather than any health benefit, yet are major contributors to obesity. It could even be argued that these harmful products are inflicted on people (by advertising and subsidies that make them cheaper than healthy food) and thus they could be seen as a form of attack.
Interestingly, if the restriction of guns is based on arguing that they are primarily entertainment and lack suitable utility, then the same line of reasoning can be used to restrict automotive rights. After all, if the enjoyment of target shooting does not justify the liberty to use a gun for this purpose, then the enjoyment of driving would not justify the liberty to drive for this purpose. As such, if automotive liberty is warranted in the face of death and injury on the basis of the utility of the automobile, then it seems reasonable to restrict automotive usage to matters of utility, such as transporting heavy items over a long distance. Merely driving around for amusement or to go someplace to be amused, such as a movie, would surely not warrant putting oneself and others at risk of death and injury.
Of course, gun defenders would tend not to concede that guns are primarily for amusement. Rather, they would point to the defense value of guns. After all, people are less inclined to attempt to commit crimes against those who are armed and being armed enables a person to mount a more effective defense against attackers. There is also the argument that private ownership of guns provides a balance against the compulsive power of the state. An unarmed population is only free at the discretion of the armed, which is a rather uncertain sort of freedom.
The stock counter to this is that people are, in fact, safer without guns and that the state can generally be trusted not to oppress the people to a degree that would necessitate armed resistance. These are, of course, factual matters—but not uncontroversial ones. After all, at the same time the terrible shooting was in the news so too was coverage of the Syrian state attacking its own people, people who had to turn to the force of arms to hold back the slaughter. Naturally, it can be said that it would be a better world without any weapons at all. This is true, but it would also be a better world if no one was willing to hurt anyone else and both of these seem about equally likely to come about.