In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a push for the idea of “no fly, no buy.” This is the sound bite slogan for banning people on the No Fly List from buying guns. There are two main versions of this proposal. One, backed by Democrats, is that the No Fly List data would become part of the background check to purchase a firearm and would prevent a person on the list from buying a gun legally. The other, backed by Republicans, gives the government a limited time frame to establish probable cause for banning a person on the list from buying a gun. For the sake of this discussion, I am oversimplifying the fine distinctions between the various lists. Fortunately, the general discussion does not require such fine distinctions.
Both parties agree with the fundamental justification for the proposal: guns should be kept out of the hands of terrorists. This is often described in the media as a “no brainer.” While I agree that it is best if terrorists do not have guns, this justification is something of a deceit: being on the No Fly List is not the same as being a terrorist. Rather, being on the list means that a person (might be) suspected of having some connection to terrorism. To use the obvious analogy, it is a “no brainer” to want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals—but it is another matter to want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are suspected of maybe having some connection to crime. As such, the “keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists” is a rhetorical point that has a very limited connection to the actual facts. This leads to my concerns about using the No Fly List as a no-buy list.
The first point of concern, one shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be poorly managed. The reason this is a problem is that a person can end up on the list who actually has no connection to terrorism at all. Since the program is secret, the mechanics of ending up on the list are known only to a few—but it has been clearly established that the list is “riddled with errors.” Using such a flawed list is clearly problematic. This could, of course, be addressed by improving list management.
The second point of concern, also shared by the ACLU, is that the No Fly List seems to be a clear violation of the right to due process. As such, the list itself seems to be unconstitutional. It was, of course, accepted as part of the grand sacrifice of rights to the delusion and illusion of security following 9/11. Unfortunately, the fires of fear are relentlessly stoked, making addressing these violations unlikely. Obviously enough, using an unconstitutional process as the basis for forbidding people from buying guns is problematic. This could be addressed by revising the process to follow due process or amending the constitution to change due process.
The third point of concern is that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is as an individual right to keep and bear arms. A look back at the history of the Second Amendment shows that this has not always been the case; but what matters legally is the current interpretation. Given that the No Fly List is flawed and seems to be unconstitutional, to deny a person his Second Amendment rights on such a basis would be unacceptable. To use an analogy, imagine that in addition to “no fly, no buy” there was a proposal for “no seating, no tweeting.” On this proposal, people on the No Fly List would be banned from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. This would be absurd. By parity of reasoning, using the list to violate the Second Amendment right would be just as absurd.
It could be objected that the danger presented by guns is far greater than the danger presented by words. While this does have some appeal, the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” exists for a reason. While it is true that guns can kill, words have great power—after all, when people discuss terrorism they often focus on the process of radicalization—and expression (propaganda in various forms) is a large part of this. There is also the fact that, once again, being on the No Fly List is not the same as being an actual terrorist—so a person’s rights would be denied on the basis of an unreliable violation of due process.
It could be objected that there should not be an individual right to keep and bear arms. That is, the Second Amendment should be repealed or reinterpreted. While this could be done, it does not address the actual issue at hand. After all, the issue is not about what the Second Amendment should be, but about whether or not the “no fly, no buy” proposal is a good one or not. If no one could buy, then the “no buy” would make “no fly, no buy” pointless.
Another objection is the “low impact” counter. This is a general tactic in which it is argued that a proposal is acceptable because it would not really have much of an impact. In the case of “no fly, no buy”, people point to the fact that of the 192,956,397 background checks between February 2004 and May, 2016 there have been 2,477 matches with a watch list and only 212 denied transactions. As such, the argument goes, there should be no real objection to “no fly, no buy” because it will almost certainly have a miniscule impact on citizens.
There are two easy and obvious replies to the “low impact” counter. The first is that just because a policy is likely to have low impact, it does not follow that it is thus acceptable. As argued above, the “no fly, no buy” proposal is highly problematic and the fact that it will not deny too many people their rights is hardly good grounds for accepting it.
The second is that the “low impact” shows that the proposal will not be very effective at achieving the results that are supposed to motivate its acceptance. To be specific, the proposal would seem to have little or no impact on gun violence in the United States. As it stands, it seems that there have been no mass shootings that would have been prevented by “no fly, no buy.” While the Orlando shooter was on a list, he was removed—so the proposal would not have prevented that shooting. Unless, of course, there was also a proposal passed into law that would prevent people from being removed from the list or imposing a permanent gun buying ban on anyone who is ever on the list. These would certainly be problematic.
Overall, “no fly, no buy” seems to be a case of political theater—the illusion of trying to address a very real problem in a way that actually fails to address that problem while also violating rights. As such, I am against “no fly, no buy.”
Judging from the news coverage, it would be natural to think that mass shootings with assault rifles are the most common form of gun violence. As is often the case, the extent of media coverage is no indicator of the true facts of the matter—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to the spotlight fallacy. While mass shootings are all too common, the number of people killed per year in such events is only a small fraction of deaths involving guns. The vast majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted: 21,334 of the 33,599 known gun deaths in 2014 were suicides. Of the remaining deaths, homicides accounted for 10,945, accidents 586 and police interventions resulted in 464 deaths. The death tolls in these three categories has been stable since 2000, but gun suicides increased significantly during this time. As should be expected, there have been various attempts to address this problem.
When attempts to prevent successful suicide focus on guns, a common counter is to repeat the saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Put in non-slogan form, the argument is that there is no reason to focus on guns because doing so will have no significant impact on suicide rates. Those who are intent on killing themselves will merely find some other means of doing so, be it hanging or pills. This is analogous to the response to other proposals to address gun violence. For example, when gun regulation is raised as a means of addressing mass shootings, the response is that people will simply use something else, such as homemade bombs.
This counter can be addressed by considering some key facts about guns and suicide. The first is that research indicates that a person will typically start planning a very short time before the attempt (often less than an hour). That is, there is typically a limited window of vulnerability. The second, and the most relevant, is that guns are very effective suicide machines: 85% of suicide attempts with guns succeed, followed by 69% for hanging. The use of poison succeeds 2% of the time. This is hardly surprising: guns are designed to kill effectively and quickly. At this point, an objector might contend that the effectiveness of guns is not really relevant—a person will just keep trying if they fail with a low success method. This leads to the third fact.
While it seems reasonable to believe that a person who tries to commit suicide and fails will keep trying, the evidence seems to show that the vast majority of people who fail do not try again. As such, if the first attempt fails, there probably will not be another—especially if there is an intervention on behalf of the person. As such, if a suicidal person did not have access to a gun, then his chance of not dying would be significantly better than if he did. This is not to ignore the other means of committing suicide; it is merely to consider the facts of the success rate.
While a lack of access to a gun would significantly reduce the chances a person will succeed in a suicide attempt, there is the problem of making this a reality. Some countries have addressed gun violence by very strong restrictions on gun ownership, thus reducing all forms of gun violence (including suicide). As a matter of political reality, this is not an option in the United States. As such, the challenge of suicide by gun must be addressed in other ways.
One approach, which is analogous to one of many proposals for addressing mass shootings, is a requirement to confirm the mental health a person purchasing a gun. In the case of suicide prevention, the mental health issues of concern would tend to be different from those involved with mass shootings or other forms of gun violence. Though this is reasonable, it does have two significant gaps. The first is that it does nothing about guns that are already owned. The second is that it requires that the person have an established and known history that would indicate a likely attempt at suicide.
In regards to guns already owned, the main solution is for the guns to be made inaccessible to the person. This could be done by the person themselves, by friends/relatives or by the authorities in certain cases. The main problem here is that suicide, as noted above, tends to not be planned well in advance—so there may be little or no time for an intervention. There are also the legal and practical challenges in taking a person’s guns away without their consent. If the person has proven themselves a danger to themselves (or others), then there are procedures for this. However, if a person is merely suspected of having the potential of committing suicide, there is the problem of justifying taking the person’s guns. Given that gun ownership is taken as a basic right, the authorities would have no legal right to take away a person’s guns without adequate justification. Friends and relatives, of course, would not need legal justification to intervene—but taking a person’s guns without his consent would be theft (not to mention the potential risk). This is analogous to attempts to prevent mass shootings by taking away guns from people who might engage in such behavior—the problem is that until they act or make clear threats, there is little legal basis for such action.
In regards to the established and known history of mental illness, the problem (as with the case of some mass shootings) is that before a person actually takes action, her background is very often the same as people who will never engage in gun violence. This is the general problem of prediction—one that is rather difficult in the case of suicide. There are also the ethical and legal problems associated with acting on mere predictions. This is based on the fact that gun ownership is a legal right in the United States as well as the usual moral arguments in favor of gun ownership as a moral right.
There do not seem to be many technological options to addressing the use of guns in suicide. After all, the requirement of a safety feature that prevents a gun from being fired at humans would never pass in the United States, even if such a feature was a technical possibility. A feature that prevented a weapon from firing at designated person (such as the owner) might have some appeal (and is a feature of some science fiction weapons)—but even if it were possible, a person could bypass this feature or get another weapon. The solution, obviously enough, must be a human one.
Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.
Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.
Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.
Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.
Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.
Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.
While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.
Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.
Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.
While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.
While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.
Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.
Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.
When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.
While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.
While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.
When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).
Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.
I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.
That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.
After each eruption of gun violence, there is also a corresponding eruption in the debates over gun issues. As with all highly charged issues, people are primarily driven by their emotions rather than by reason. Being a philosopher, I like to delude myself with the thought that it is possible to approach an issue with pure reason. Like many other philosophers, I am irritated when people say things like “I feel that there should be more gun control” or “I feel that gun rights are important. Because of this, when I read student papers I strike through all “inappropriate” uses of “feel” and replace them with “think.” This is, of course, done with a subconscious sense of smug superiority. Or so it was before I started reflecting on emotions in the context of gun issues. In this essay I will endeavor a journey through the treacherous landscape of feeling and thinking in relation to gun issues. I’ll begin with arguments.
As any competent philosopher can tell you, an argument consists of a claim, the conclusion, that is supposed to be supported by the evidence or reasons, the premises, that are given. In the context of logic, as opposed to that of persuasion, there are two standards for assessing an argument. The first is an assessment of the quality of the logic: determining how well the premises support the conclusion. The second is an assessment of the plausibility of the premises: determining the quality of the evidence.
On the face of it, assessing the quality of the logic should be a matter of perfect objectivity. For deductive arguments (arguments whose premises are supposed to guarantee the truth of the conclusion), this is the case. Deductive arguments, as anyone who has had some basic logic knows, can be checked for validity using such things as Venn diagrams, truth tables and proofs. As long as a person knows what she is doing, she can confirm beyond all doubt whether a deductive argument is valid or not. A valid argument is, of course, an argument such that if its premises were true, then its conclusion must be true. While a person might stubbornly refuse to accept a valid argument as valid, this would be as foolish as stubbornly refusing to accept that 2+2= 4 or that triangles have three sides. As an example, consider the following valid argument:
Premise 1: If an assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence, then congress should pass an assault weapon ban.
Premise 2: An assault weapon ban would reduce gun violence.
Conclusion: Congress should pass an assault weapon ban.
This argument is valid; in fact, it is an example of the classic deductive argument known as modus ponens (also known as affirming the antecedent). As such, questioning the logic of the argument would just reveal one’s ignorance of logic. Before anyone gets outraged, it is important to note that an argument being valid does not entail that any of its content is actually true. While this endlessly confuses students, though a valid argument that has all true premises must have a true conclusion, a valid argument need not have true premises or a true conclusion. Because of this, while the validity of the above argument is beyond question, one could take issue with the premises. They could, along with the conclusion, be false—although the argument is unquestionably valid. For those who might be interested, an argument that is valid and has all true premises is a sound argument. An argument that does not meet these conditions is unsound.
Unfortunately, the assessment of premises does not (in general) admit of a perfectly objective test on par with the tests for validity. In general, premises are assessed in terms of how well they match observations, background information and credible claims from credible sources (which leads right to concerns about determining credibility). As should be expected, people tend to accept premises that are in accord with how they feel rather than based on a cold assessment of the facts. This is true for everyone, be that person the head of the NRA or a latte sipping liberal academic who shivers at the thought of even seeing a gun. Because of this, a person who wants to fairly and justly assess the premises of any argument has to be willing to understand her own feelings and work out how they influence her judgment. Since people, as John Locke noted in his classic essay on enthusiasm, tend to evaluate claims based on the strength of their feelings, doing this is exceptionally difficult. People think they are right because they feel strongly about something and are least likely to engage in critical assessment when they feel strongly.
While deductive logic allows for perfectly objective assessment, it is not the logic that is commonly used in debates over political issues or in general. The most commonly used logic is inductive logic.
Inductive arguments are arguments, so an inductive argument will have one or more premises that are supposed to support a conclusion. Unlike deductive arguments, inductive arguments do not offer certainty—they deal in likelihood. A logically good inductive argument is called a strong argument: one whose premises, if true, would probably make the conclusion true. A bad inductive argument is a weak one. Unlike the case of validity, the strength of an inductive argument is judged by applying the standards specific to that sort of inductive argument to the argument in question. Consider, as an example, the following argument:
Premise 1: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of automobiles.
Premise 2: Tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of guns.
Premise 3: The tens of thousands of deaths by automobiles are morally acceptable.
Conclusion: The tens of thousands of deaths by gun are also morally acceptable.
This is a simple argument by analogy in which it is argued that since cars and guns are alike, if we accept automobile fatalities then we should also accept gun fatalities. Being an inductive argument, there is no perfect, objective test to determine whether the argument is strong or not. Rather, the argument is assessed in terms of how well it meets the standards of an argument by analogy. The gist of these standards is that the more alike the two things (guns and cars) are alike, the stronger the argument. Likewise, the less alike they are, the weaker the argument.
While the standards are reasonably objective, their application admits of considerable subjectivity. In the case of guns and cars, people will differ greatly in terms of how they see them in regards to similarities and differences. As would be suspected, the lenses people see this matter will be deeply colored by their emotions and psychological backstory. As such, rationally assessing inductive arguments is especially challenging: a person must sort through the influence of emotions and psychology on her evaluation of both the premises and the reasoning. Since arguments about guns are generally inductive, it is no wonder it is a mess—even on the rare occasions when people are sincerely trying to be rational and objective.
The lesson here is that a person needs to think about how she feels before she can think about what she thinks. Since this also applies to me, my next essay will be about exploring my psychological backstory in regards to guns.
The June, 2016 mass shooting in Orlando has thrown gasoline on the political fire of gun control. While people on the left and right both agree that mass shootings should be prevented, they disagree about what steps should be taken to reduce the chances that another one will occur.
As would be expected, people on the left (and broad center) favor efforts focused on guns. While this is normally called “gun control”, this is a phrase that should no longer be used. This is not as a matter of duplicity, to present proposals under a false guise. Rather, this is because “gun control” has become so emotionally charged that the use of the phrase interferes with a rational discussion of proposals. If a proposal is labeled as “gun control”, this will tend to trigger immediate opposition from people who might otherwise support a specific proposal, such as one aimed precisely at preventing criminals and potential terrorists from acquiring guns.
Coming up with a new phrase might be problematic. “Gun safety” is already taken and deals with the safe handling of weapons. “Gun regulation” is a possibility, but “regulation” has become an emotional trigger word as well. The phrase should certainly not be a euphemism or sugar coated—doing so would certainly open the usage up to a charge of duplicity. Since I do not have a good enough phrase, I will continue to use the loaded “gun control” and hope that the reader is not too influenced by the connotation of the phrase.
Positions on gun control are largely set by emotions rather than a logical analysis of the matter. In my case, I am emotionally pro-gun. This is because, as a boy in Maine, I grew up with guns. All my gun experiences are positive: hunting with my dad and target shooting with friends. I am well aware that guns are lethal, but I have no more fear of guns than I have of other lethal machines, such as automobiles and table saws. No close friend or relative has been a victim of gun violence. Fortunately, I have enough empathy that I can feel for people who loath guns because of some awful experience. But, as with all complicated problems, one cannot feel a way to a solution. This requires rational thought.
Being a professional philosopher, I have some skill at considering the matter of gun control in rational terms. While there are many possible approaches to gun control, there are currently to main proposals. As is always the case, these proposals are arising from the specifics of the latest incident rather than a broad consideration of the general problem of gun violence.
The first type of proposal involves banning people on the no fly list from purchasing guns. This has been proposed because of the belief that the Orlando shooter was on this list and if this proposal had been enacted, then the shooting would have not taken place. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: people who are evaluated as too much of a threat to fly would seem to also be too much of a threat to buy guns. There are, however, a few problems with this proposal. The first is that the no fly list has been a mess, with people ending up on the list who should not be there. This can be addressed by improving the quality of list management—though there will always be mistakes. The second problem is a matter of rights. While there is no constitutional right to fly, there is the Second Amendment and banning a person from buying guns because they have been put on such a list is certainly problematic. It could be countered that felons and mentally incompetent people are denied the right to buy guns, so it is no more problematic to ban potential terrorists. The problem is, however, that a person can end up on the no fly list without going through much in the way of due process. That is, a basic constitutional right can be denied far too easily. This can, of course, be addressed by making the process of being on the list more robust or developing an alternative list with stricter requirements and far better management. There would still be the legitimate concern about denying people a right on the basis of suspicion of what they might do rather than as a response to what they have actually done. There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun violence in the United States is committed by people who are not on that list. So, this proposal would have rather limited impact.
The second type of proposal is a return to the ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips (what a friend of mine calls “the ‘scary gun’ ban”). This proposal is based on the belief that if only the Orlando shooter had not been able to acquire a semiautomatic assault rifle and high capacity clips, then the casualties would have been far less.
For those not familiar with weapons, a semiautomatic fires one round with each pull of the trigger and will do so until the magazine is exhausted. Each shot “cocks” the gun again, allowing rapid fire. This is in contrast with, for example, a bolt, pump or lever action weapon. These weapons require the operator to manually move a round from the magazine to the chamber for each shot. These weapons fire considerably slower than semiautomatics, although a skilled user can still fire quite rapidly. There are also weapons that fire in bursts (firing a certain number of rounds with each trigger pull) and those that are fully automatic (firing for as long as the trigger is held and ammunition remains).
While many people believe otherwise, it is often perfectly legal to buy an automatic weapon—a person just has to go through a fairly complicated process including a thorough background check. I know people who own such weapons—legally and above board. The strict process of acquisition and high cost of such weapons generally keeps them out of hands of most people. As such, this could serve as a model for placing stronger limitations on other weapons.
While many people fear what are called “assault rifles” because they look scary to them (merely firing one gave timid journalist Gersh Kuntzman PTSD), the appearance of a gun does not determine its lethality. The typical assault rifle fires a 5.56mm round (though some fire the 7.62mm round) and they are less powerful than the typical hunting rifle. This is not surprising: assault rifles were developed to kill medium sized mammals (humans) and many hunting rifles were designed to kill larger mammals (such as moose and bears). While assault rifles are generally not “high powered”, they do suffice to kill people.
Assault rifles are more of a threat than other rifles for two reasons. The first is that the assault rifle is semi-automatic, which allows a far more rapid rate of fire relative to lever, bolt and pump action weapons. The slower a person fires, the slower they kill—thus allowing a greater chance they can be stopped. However, there are also plenty of semiautomatic non-assault rifles, which leads to the second factor, magazine size. Assault rifles of the sort sold to civilians typically have 20 or 30 round magazines, while typical hunting rifle (non-assault) holds far less. Maine, for example, sets a legal magazine limit of 5 rounds (plus one in the chamber) for hunting rifles.
A ban on semiautomatic rifles sales could have an impact on mass shootings, provided that the shooter had to purchase the rifle after the ban and did not already have access to a semiautomatic weapon. While some hunters do prefer semiautomatic weapons, it is possible to hunt as effectively with pump, lever and bolt action weapons. When I went duck hunting, I used a pump shotgun (which I actually prefer, having seen semiautomatic shotguns jam from time to time) and for deer hunting I used a bolt action rifle.
The main impact of such a ban would be that shooters who have to acquire new weapons for their shooting would have weapons with a lower rate of fire. They could still kill many people, but the kill rate would be slower—thus the death toll should be lower in such cases.
A ban on high capacity clips would also have an impact on the kill rate of shooters who have to buy new clips for their mass shooting. If magazines were limited to 10 rounds, a shooter would need to reload more often and reloading time would afford a chance to stop the shooter.
Combining the two bans would mean that shooters who had to acquire new weapons for their mass shooting would be limited to low capacity, slower firing weapons. This could significantly reduce the death toll of future shootings.
As has been noted, these sorts of bans would only affect a shooter who had to acquire a new weapon or clips. Shooters who already have their weapons would not be impacted by the ban. As such, what would be needed would be to remove existing semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips—something that seems politically impossible in the United States.
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?