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.