While all states allow for concealed carry, schools have generally been areas of exemption. As this is being written, my adopted state of Florida is considering a bill that would make concealed carry legal on the campuses of the state’s public universities. Some other states have already passed such laws. While I have written about concealed campus carry before, my focus here is on professors who refuse to allow guns in their classrooms and offices.
While I am not a lawyer, I am inclined to believe that professors lack the legal authority to impose such bans. This is, presumably, something the courts will be hashing out in upcoming lawsuits—perhaps including suits alleging a violation of a constitutionally protected right. Since I am not a lawyer, I will leave the legal matters to the experts. Instead, I will focus on the moral aspects of the subject.
One moral argument that could be made in favor of the professors is that they have the right to ban things they regard as morally offensive from their classrooms and offices. So, a professor who is morally opposed to guns could refuse to allow them. This is analogous in some ways to religious freedom arguments used to justify a business not providing coverage of contraception or those deployed against allowing same sex-marriage. The idea in all these cases is that the moral interest of one person or group overrides that of another, thus justifying the freedom of one over another. In the case of guns, it is the right of the professor to teach and hold office hours in a gun-free environment that overrides the right of others to carry guns.
One reply to this argument, as is used in the religious freedom cases, is that the right of the professor to restrict the right of the students is not justified. That is, their right to carry a weapon trumps her right to be in a weapon free zone. This would be somewhat similar to how the right of a same-sex couple to marry trumps the right of religious people to live in a same-sex marriage free country.
Another reply to this argument is to draw an analogy that is aimed at showing the absurdity of such a professorial ban. Imagine a professor who has a deep and abiding moral opposition to birth control and wants to ban them from her classroom and office. This includes birth control that is being “concealed” in the body (for example, a woman on the pill)—while the professor cannot see it, the mere presence is morally intolerable to her. While the professor has the right to keep students from fornicating in class, she would not seem to have the right to ban the presence of birth control. A similar argument could be made with smart phones: a professor can forbid their use in class because they can be disruptive and be used to cheat, but he cannot refuse to allow students to have them in their backpacks or pockets. As such, professors do not seem to have the right to ban guns simply because they are morally offended by them.
A better moral argument is based on the matter of safety: a professor could be concerned about people being shot (intentionally or accidentally). Colleagues of mine have also spoken about the chilling effect of allowing guns on campus: people, it is claimed, would be afraid to discuss contentious issues. It is also claimed that some professors would be inclined to grade easier to avoid getting shot.
There certainly are legitimate safety concerns about allowing guns on campus. However, there are two obvious points worth considering. The first is that guns are already allowed many places and people do not seem generally inclined to avoid contentious discussions or to not do their jobs properly because someone might shoot them with a (up to the murder attempt) legally carried gun. As such, unless campuses are simply special places, this concern does not warrant a special ban on campus carry. Put another away, if guns are allowed almost everywhere else, then without a relevant difference argument, they should be allowed on campuses. The second, as I point out to my colleagues, people can very easily carry guns illegally on campus. If someone intends to kill a professor over a bad grade or a heated discussion (which has happened) they can do so. Campuses are generally quite open and I have never seen anyone checked for weapons at any university. A professor ban would certainly not provide a greater degree of safety—even if the professor was able to enforce such an almost certainly illegal ban.
Interesting, the state legislatures who pass concealed carry on campus laws generally forbid people to bring guns to the legislature. While this shows inconsistency, it does not show the law is wrong. It does, however, point towards a relevant difference argument—perhaps the campus is relevantly similar to the legislature.
My view is that there is not really a compelling reason to walk around campus with a gun and I am concerned about safety issues. However, I do not have the moral right to ban guns from my classroom or office. In fact, I would plan on carrying one myself.
After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.
The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.
Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.
It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.
One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.
This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.
An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.
It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.
One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.
The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.
It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.
In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.
Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.
As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.
I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.
In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.
While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).
In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.
Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.
It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.
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.