This short book presents a series of philosophical essays written in response to gun violence in the United States. While the matters of guns, violence and rights are often met with emotional responses, my approach has been to consider these matters from a philosophical standpoint. This does not involve looking at them without emotion. Rather, it involves considering them in a rational way and this requires considering how our emotions affect our views of these vital matters.
The book contains the following essays:
- Gun Control
- Costas & Guns
- When is it Time to Discuss Gun Violence?
- High Capacity, High Powered Semi-Automatic
- Mental Illness, Violence & Liberty
- God and Sandy Hook
- Mental Illness or Evil?
- Video Games, Movies & Violence
- Background Checks
- Dr. King & Guns
- Gun Rights & Tyranny
- Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?
- Is there an Obligation of Self-Defense?
- On Not Being Ant-Gun
- The Founders, the Future, the First & the Second
- Are Cars Analogous to Guns?
In the discussion over guns and gun control, one interesting approach is to note that the authors of the Second Amendment wrote in a time in which the most advanced weapons were muskets, sailing ships and muzzle loading cannons. Folks who take this approach usually contend that because of the radical difference between the weapon technology of the 1700s and now, the Second Amendment needs to be considered within the modern context. A common interpretation from such folks is that the right to keep and bears arms should thus not be taken to apply to high capacity magazines and assault rifles. Some folks also attempt to predict what the founders would say about modern weapons. Naturally, the folks who support additional gun laws sometimes put forth the view that the founders would clearly oppose civilian ownership of weapons with high capacity magazines and assault rifles. Presumably the founders would modify the amendment as follows:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. This right does not apply to high capacity magazines, assault rifles and scary looking arms in general.
Naturally, folks who favor guns are quite confident that the founders would consider modern arms to be arms and thus fall under the amendment.
There is, obviously enough, considerable risk in speculating what the founders might or might not think about modern weapons. On the one hand, Ben Franklin was visionary enough to consider the possibility of airborne troops and thus it is not hard to imagine the founders envisioning the possibility of weapons more advanced than those of their own time. On the other hand, perhaps they could not have envisioned the fire power provided by today’s weapons and might have restricted gun rights if they had. However, we will never know what they would think about the guns of today since they are long dead. As such, we rather have to go with what was written.
Naturally, what was written can be, as folks have claimed, taken as not applying to modern arms because of the change in technology. However, this would seem to be a problematic approach. After all, suppose that the principle is accepted that the constitution only applies to the technology available at the time it was written (and amended). While this would entail that modern weapons do not fall under the Second Amendment, it would also entail that all the advances in technology beyond the 1700s would not be covered by the First Amendment. As such, First Amendment rights would no apply to film, blogs, television and so on. Given this absurd result, it seems sensible to reject that principle and accept that just as the First Amendment applies to today’s technology, so does the Second.
In the course of discussing guns control, gun rights and related issues my friend Doug raised the question “is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?” Since this is an interesting question, it seems worthwhile to attempt to address it.
Before the question itself can be addressed, a working definition of tyranny is required. A rather extreme view of the matter is put forth by the philosophical anarchists, such as Goldman. In general, anarchists of this sort regard all government as tyranny. As such, this sort of anarchist would consider a denial of gun rights by the state as tyranny. Thus, the question is easily answered by those who accept anarchism of this sort. However, accepting this sort of anarchism would require rejecting that the state has any legitimate role to play, which seems to be a rather implausible view. Fortunately there are other accounts of tyranny.
A rather reasonable account is put forth by John Locke in his writings on government. He defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right, which none have a right to” and this involves an official “using power, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” Locke also adds that “where law ends, tyranny begins, if the law is transgressed to another’s harm.” This view can be disputed, but I will assume it for the sake of the discussion that follows.
Turning now to the matter of gun rights, I am inclined to take the view that gun rights (if there are such things) would fall under the more general right of self-defense (if there is such a right). As with any talk of rights, one useful way to address the matter is to make use of the classic approach of considering rights in the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government).
Thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke argue that people have the right to self-defense in the state of nature. Hobbes even goes as far as to contend that a person is obligated to preserve herself. He notes that without a right to the means of self-preservation, the right to engage in self-defense would be useless. Because of this, he contends that in his version of the state of nature everyone has a right to all things. So, on Hobbes’ view, if guns were around in the state of nature, everyone would have the right to be armed (and anyone with any sense would be armed). Attempting to deprive someone of her gun in the state of nature would not be tyrannical or even unjust—after all for Hobbes there is no justice until the state of nature has been replaced with civil society. In the state of nature depriving others of their guns would generally be the sensible thing to do—and something that would presumably result in numerous fatal shootouts.
While Locke presents a much nicer state of nature (complete with rights to life, liberty and property) he does allow for the use of violence and force against wrongdoers. On his view, people would presumably have the right to be armed in the state of nature. After all, he argues that the rights need to be enforced by what amounts to vigilante justice and hence if guns existed, then people would need them to defend themselves and others against the people who would violate rights. Since there are no police in the state of nature, everyone would need to be armed—or risk being an easy victim.
While Locke and Hobbes take rather different views of the state, they both argue that when the transition is made from the state of nature to the state of civil society each person gives up her individual right to act as a vigilante, judge, and executioner. This would then place a limit on gun rights (on the assumption people had guns in such a state).
In Hobbes’ case, the sovereign sets the laws and enforces them by the use of force. While the individual retains the right of self-preservation, all other rights are set by the Hobbesian sovereign. Thus, on Hobbes’ view the denial of gun rights would be just, provided that the state was able to enforce its laws. Naturally, if the sovereign were to be gunned down and replaced by a new sovereign that supported individual gun rights, then that would be right—at least until the next sovereign took over.
In Locke’s case, people set aside the role of vigilante in order to create a society with a legal system. As such, people would lose the gun rights that allowed them to dispense justice from the barrel of their own guns. However, Locke explicitly addresses the matter of self-defense. As Locke seems to see it, if someone is threatened and the agents of the state are not available to act in her defense, then she and the person threatening her are effective returned to a state of nature and potentially a state of war. In this state, the person’s right to act as the enforcer of the rights to life, liberty and property return in full. Given that this right is retained even in civil society, it would seem to follow that on a Locke style system that restricting gun rights would impose on this right of self-defense and this could qualify as tyranny. After all, an official would not seem to have the right to deny a person the means to self-defense.
Of course, the obvious counter is that Locke sees the main purpose of government as serving the good of the people. More specifically, this involves protecting life, liberty and property. Given this, it would seem that some limitations on the right of self-defense could easily be justified in terms of protecting the life and property of others. To use a somewhat silly example, this could be justly used to deny people the right to possess weapons capable of doing significant accidental (and intentional) property damage (like grenades, rocket launchers, cannons and bombers). To use less silly example, it would also seem to allow the denial of rights to weapons when doing so would do more to protect people from harm (that is, protect the right to life) than would allowing people to possess such weapons. This could be used to justify the denial of the right to simply walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon. This would, of course, need to take into account the legitimate right of self-defense. As such, Locke’s view would seem to protect self-defense rights (and presumably gun rights), provided that those rights did not create a threat to the right to life. As such, the state could impose on certain rights (such as the rights to have certain weapons) in a way that would not be tyrannical—that is, acting within the legitimate functions of the state.
The murders that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary focused America’s attention on the matters of guns, violence and mental illness. The attention has faded substantially, as it always does after terrible events. However, politicians, pundits, and interested parties have remained focused on these matters.
As might be imagined, there is a renewed will to pass new laws regarding guns. For the most part, the focus has been on the usual suspects: assault rifles, large capacity magazines, and the “loophole” that allows citizens to sell guns to people without background checks. I have written about semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines before, so I will focus on the loophole in question.
In general, when a person goes to a gun store to buy a gun, she has to pass a background check. This process is fairly quick, so a person can usually walk into a Walmart or other place that sells guns and walk out with a shotgun or rifle. Pistols typically require a waiting period, which has always struck me as a bit odd. I’ve actually worked in a gun store and have bought guns, so I have seen this process from both sides. I have never seen anyone fail the background check, but that is most likely because folks who would fail the check generally know they will do so. Also, some of the folks who would fail a background check can probably just get guns through illegal channels. However, no doubt some people do fail the check and are denied the gun they want to buy.
The rules are rather different when a person is buying a gun from a private citizen (that is, someone who is not selling firearms as a dealer). If I have a gun I want to sell and Calamity Jane wants to buy it, I can sell it to her with no waiting period and no background check. That is, she could just saunter over to my house, toss down some cash, and saunter away with the gun. This is, currently, perfectly legal.
This “loophole” is sometimes called the “gun show loophole” because individuals often go to gun shows to sell or trade firearms. While dealers still need to make checks at gun shows, individuals do not. It is, not, however, limited to gun shows.
While this might seem odd, it actually is not that much different from other businesses. For example, if I want to run a business, I would typically need a license and I would face various regulations and restrictions. However, if I want to sell my truck, laptop, or dog to someone, I can do that with little in the way of regulation as long as I am acting as an individual and not as a business owner. The idea that a person has a right to sell her property in this manner is rather well-established and is a key part of the rights of property that are fundamental to a free society (in which almost nothing is free).
Getting back to the sale of guns by private individuals, a restriction on this would seem to violate this basic right. After all, guns are not illegal and hence reselling a gun would not be comparable to an individual dealing in an illegal product like heroin or chemical weapons. However, some folks are rather concerned about this right.
The obvious concern is that someone who would not pass a background check, such as someone with the wrong sort of criminal record, would be able to bypass the check by buying a gun from another individual. Thus, by allowing individuals to sell (or give away) guns without a background check, the background checks become all but useless since they can be easily avoided by anyone who can find someone who will sell him a gun. As some folks see it, the solution is to not allow guns to be sold without such background checks.
Since private citizens generally lack the means to run such checks (and it would be a violation of privacy to simply allow everyone to check on everyone else), this would entail that all gun sales would have to be conducted in a way that would allow such a check to take place, such as by having the transaction occur through a licensed dealer. Presumably this would also have to extend to gifts and inheritances-after all, those are also ways a person could get a gun without having a background check. This would, of course, be somewhat inconvenient. However, it might be worth it, provided that it had a significant impact on crime.
On the one hand, it would seem that it would have at least some effect. After all, it would make it somewhat harder for people who could not pass a background check to get a gun via legal means.
On the other hand, the effect might be rather limited. After all, anyone who knew about the law, was law-abiding and would pass a background check would go through this process to get a gun. But they are the sort of people who could just buy a gun directly from a dealer and also the sort of people who are unlikely to commit gun crimes. Those who would not pass the check could still acquire guns in other ways, such as the various illegal ways (theft, illegal gun sales, and so on). Another rather important concern is that the murders that have served to refocus attention on gun laws would not have been prevented by closing this “loophole.” After all, the killer at Sandy Hook would not have been prevented from getting those guns by a closing of this loophole. However, it is worth determining what impact such a law would have on violence. If it would reduce crime, then it might be worth the inconvenience. Likewise, making tougher restrictions on driving (such as not allowing people to drive when they could walk, bike or run) could save lives-but the question is whether we think it is worth the inconvenience.
After the murders at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, a standard script was followed by the media and the pundits on various sides. Part of this script is that people who are against guns typically demand more gun control and some people who are pro-gun counter by claiming that the time after such a terrible incident is not the time to discuss changes in law.
My focus in this essay is to address the matter of when it is time to discuss gun violence and, in particular, changes in laws or policies regarding guns.
On the one hand, those who claim that the matter of gun laws should not be discussed right after a tragedy do have a reasonable point. After all, people reason even more poorly than usual when they are experiencing strong emotions. There is, of course, an abundance of fallacies that are “fueled” by the power of emotions to lead people astray from good reasoning. Examples include the classics such as appeal to anger, appeal to pity, and appeal to fear. In these fallacies, the general idea that something that creates an emotional effect (anger, pity or fear) is used as a substitute for an actual reason to accept a claim. As might be imagined, people are even more likely to commit such fallacies when they are in emotional states.
The reasonable concern is, of course, that people will make poor decisions regarding laws or policies while under the influence of their emotions and that these decisions can have negative consequences or, at the very least, lead to ineffective “solutions.” Presumably better decisions would be made after the emotions have cooled and, of course, we should endeavor to make laws and policies when our reasoning is at its best.
On the other hand, there are reasonable concerns that waiting to discuss such matters could be problematic. First, there is the worry that concern about gun violence will simply fade away as people are distracted by other things and forget about the murders at Sandy Hook. As such, a delay could result not in a more reasonable discussion of gun laws and policies but in no real discussion at all. This seems to be a common cycle: the media focuses on a terrible event involving guns for a few days and then the matter just fades away until the next incident. As such, it seems reasonable to push for serious discussion now when people are paying attention.
Second, there is the worry that the push to wait is not really a call to wait until we can have calm reflection on the matter but a considered tactic on the part of certain people to take advantage of the media’s and the public’s short attention span. That is, if the discussion can be held off long enough, people will forget about the matter (as noted above) and the status quo will continue.
While I certainly favor a rational discussion of the matter, I think that this can be done without waiting until people have mostly lost interest in the matter. As such, I think it is certainly time to discuss the matter seriously.
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.
As those who are concerned about gun right (pro or against) know, the Supreme Court recently ruled against Chicago’s handgun ban. Given what the Constitution says, this ruling seems to be dead on.
In response, the city council voted unanimously for a new ordinance. Though the council cannot ban gun ownership, the ordinance places rather extreme restrictions on gun ownership. First, a household can have only one “operable firearm.”More guns can be on the premises, but these must be locked up.
This strikes me as a rather odd sort of restriction and raises an obvious question about what this limit is intended to do. While it is a good idea to keep guns secured, this seems like it might be intended as a mere annoyance law or even an act of spite (“fine, have your damn guns…but you have to pick your favorite and lock up all the rest!”).
Second, gun owners need to get a state permit. While this also seems intended to be an annoyance factor, it does seem Constitutional. After all, it does not deny ownership-it merely adds a legal step to the process. Of course, it can be seen as an intrusion into a basic Constitutional right. Obviously enough, this will not have any real impact on illegal gun possession or crime. After all, someone who is inclined to commit crimes with a gun is hardly going to balk at an ordinance requiring a permit.
Third, gun owners have to register their guns with the police. While I have an emotional distaste for the idea of registering guns with the state,this seems no more onerous that registering a car. However, it also seems to be yet another annoyance factor that will have no significant impact on crime or violence.
Fourth, gun owners will be required to receive training. While this is also an annoyance factor, I do agree that such training is an excellent idea. Having a fair amount of experience at shooting ranges and while hunting, I know that some people own guns who have no real understanding of basic safety. Just as people are required to received training to operate a car, I think that people should be expected to receive at least some basic safety training when it comes to guns. While I would prefer to rely on personal responsibility (in my own case, my dad taught me about safe gun handling), that can be an uncommon commodity.
Fifth, assault weapons are banned. This, as a friend of mine always says, is a “fear ban.” Assault weapons are no deadlier than other guns, but they look “scary” (like military weapons). While they can hold more rounds than other guns, all modern style weapons are rapid fire and hold multiple rounds (typically 5 for a hunting rifle and 15 for a semi-automatic pistol). Hunting weapons also tend to be more powerful than assault rifles. In any case, criminals can easily get weapons elsewhere and bring them into the city, presumably as they did during the ban.
Sixth, the ordinance also bans gun shops within the city. This is, of course, an annoyance factor (“you can have your damn gun, but you’ll have to drive to get it!”).
Given that the complete ban seemed to do nothing to reduce the number of crimes in Chicago, it seems unlikely that this ordinance will have any meaningful impact. To state the obvious, crime is not caused by guns. When I grew up in Maine, almost everyone I knew had guns. As a kid, I owned a .410, a 20 gauge shotgun and a .22 rifle. My dad had all sorts of rifles, pistols and shotguns. Yet, Maine is an extremely low crime state. As such, it makes sense to consider other causal factors. Focusing on gun bans and restrictions merely seems to try to address a tool that some people use in crimes. This does not, however, address the root causes of crime. As such, it is not surprising that despite the ban, Chicago was awash in violence.