A Philosopher's Blog

No Fly, No Buy

Posted in Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on July 6, 2016

Departing BFI as BOE008 Heavy

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.”

 

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A Six-Gun for Socrates

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 23, 2013

Six-Gun for Socrates - Michael LaBossiereThis 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?
    • Conclusion

Available now on Amazon.

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The Founders, the Future, the First & the Second

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 4, 2013
Summer's End. Lexington Green, 11 September 20...

Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2013
Hello

Hello (Photo credit: ZORIN DENU)

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.

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On Not Being Anti-Gun

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 25, 2013
no guns required

no guns required (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I am a philosopher and am often cast as a liberal, people are sometimes surprised to find out that I am not anti-gun. After all, those seen as good liberals are supposed to be against guns as are folks in academics. In the light of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and in Colorado, it might seem even more odd to not be anti-gun.

In terms of how I feel (as opposed to think) about guns, the explanation is rather easy. When I was a kid, I grew up around guns and hence they were something quite normal to me. When I was old enough to handle a gun, I went shooting and hunting with my father-after being properly trained in gun safety. I remember well the lessons I learned about how to handle a gun safely and the great responsibility that comes with carrying and firing a weapon.

My personal experiences involving guns have, at least so far, been positive: hunting with my dad, target shooting with friends, and learning about historic weapons. I have not had any personal experiences involving gun violence. None of my friends or relatives have been harmed or killed by guns (other than in war). Naturally, I have been affected by the media coverage of the terrible murders at Sandy Hook and elsewhere. However, the impact of what a person sees in the media is far less than the impact of personal experience-at least in terms of how one feels (as opposed to how one thinks) about a matter.  In contrast, I have had friends hurt or killed by vehicles, drugs (legal and illegal), and other non-gun causes. I have had complete strangers try to hurt (or kill) me with their cars while I was biking, walking or running-but I have never been threatened with a gun. As such, I generally feel more negatively towards cars than I do towards guns.

Obviously enough, how a person feels about a matter is no indication of what is true or moral. Feelings can easily be distorted by a lack of sleep, by drugs (legal or illegal), by illness or by other temporary factors. As such, attempting to feel ones way through a complex matter such as the topic of guns is a rather bad idea. As such, while I generally have a positive feeling towards guns, this is no evidence for the claim that I should (morally) not be anti-gun.

In my last post I considered the stock argument that civilian gun ownership is necessary as a defense against the tyranny of the United States federal government. As I argued, the radical changes in weapon technology has made the idea that civilians can resist the onslaught of the entire United States government backed by the military rather obsolete. Back when the black powder muzzle loading cannon was the most powerful battlefield weapon it made sense to believe that plucky civilians armed with muskets could stand against  regular army soldiers with some hope of not being exterminated. However, the idea of fighting against tanks, Predator drones, jet fighters and so on in the blasted ruins of American towns using AR-15s is absurd. I ended this post noting that there are other arguments for civilian gun rights that have actual merit.

From the standpoint of reason, the main reason I am not anti-gun is because of my acceptance of the classic right of self-preservation (as laid out by Thomas Hobbes) and self-defense (as argued for by John Locke). While it is rational to rely on the state for some protection (which is what Locke, Hobbes and other classic thinkers argued for) it would be irrational to rely completely on the state. This is not because of a fear of tyranny so much as because of the obvious fact that the state cannot (and should not) be watching us at all times and in all places. Should a person be pulled back into the state of nature, she will only have herself (or those nearby) to rely on. If she is denied the gun as a means of self-defense, then she is terribly vulnerable to anyone who wishes to do her harm in those times when the state’s agents are not present (such as while she is in her home).  I find this argument to be compelling and hence I am not anti-gun.

It might be countered that if the state was guarding us at all times and in all places, then there would be no need for the individual to have a right to a gun as a means of self defense. While this might be true, the obvious concern would be the price paid in privacy and liberty to enable the state to guard us so thoroughly. While I value my safety and I do not take foolish risks, I also value my liberty and privacy. My pride also motivates me: I am not a child that must be guarded at all times. I am an adult and that means that I must take responsibility for my safety as part of the price of liberty and privacy. On my system of values, the price is worth what I gain in terms of freedom and privacy. Others might well wish to be enveloped in the protective embrace of the state and thus live as perpetual children, unable to make the transition to the risks and rewards of being an adult.

Another, more reasonable, counter is that the cost in blood and life of allowing private citizens to possess guns is too high and thus one should be morally opposed to them. While restricting guns would mean that people would be more vulnerable, it can be argued that the harms done to the unarmed will be vastly exceeded by the reduction in, well, harms done to the unarmed. That is, fewer people will be killed because they lack guns relative to those being saved because of the restrictions on guns.

Even if it could be shown that such controls would be effective and also worth the cost, I would still not be anti-gun.  After all, the fact that tens of thousands of people die because of vehicles does not make me anti-vehicle. Rather, I am anti-harm and anti-death.

 

 

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Gun Rights & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2013
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common approach to arguing in favor of civilian gun rights is to claim that such rights prevent, deter or at least provide a defense against tyranny. In general, the idea seems to be that the people in power will be less inclined and less able to impose tyranny if the civilian population possesses the right to keep and bear arms. In the United States, this is presented in terms of the members of the government deciding to impose tyrannical rule over the people.

On the face of it, this justification does have some appeal. After all, if the government has to overcome armed civilians, then it would obviously be harder than using force against unarmed civilians. Also it could be argued that politicians might fear that they would be assassinated by armed patriots if they started acting in tyrannical ways.

People also point to the American Revolution and claim that the fact that the civilian population was armed was an important factor in the American victory over the British tyranny. Those with some science-fiction leanings also present counter-factual scenarios in which one is asked to imagine what would have happened in Germany if the Jews and anti-Nazi Germans had possessed the right to keep and bear arms (or were at least armed). Stalin and other dictators are also often brought up in this context. The idea is, of course, to appeal to the intuitions of the audience and persuade them that if only the Germans had had their own Second Amendment, then Hitler might have never been able to come to power and the Holocaust might not have happened.

The idea that the cowardly politicians who dream of tyranny are kept in check by red-blooded Americans exercising their constitutional right to keep and bear arms does have a certain emotional appeal. So too does the thought of armed plucky rebels defending America from tyranny. In fact, such scenarios would no doubt make for successful Hollywood films. But what is appealing and what might make a blockbuster film are not the same as what is, in fact, true.

Naturally enough, the general idea of the role of civilian armaments in deterring tyrants can be debated extensively. This is, of course, a worthwhile debate and would be a rather interesting project for historians to sort out. However, what is under discussion here is the rather specific matter of whether or not the right to keep and bear arms is warranted by the deterrent value of this right against tyranny. This, obviously enough, involves some key matters of fact.

One obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not gun rights frightens politicians with tyrannical intentions—that is, whether worries about assassination keep them in check.

As argued above, it makes sense to think that a politician would be less inclined to do something if she believed doing so would result in people attempting to kill her. Naturally, if the population has easy access to firearms, then an assassin could easily acquire a gun. If there were strict controls on guns, then politicians would have less to worry about in terms of assassins drawn from the ranks of the general population. They would just have to worry about the military and police forces (and anyone who could make a bomb or wield a knife). Obviously, even in a state with strict civilian gun control, the politicians would need to win over the majority of the military and police forces to their tyrannical agenda—or their attempts at tyranny would end rather quickly. In the United States, this would require winning over the national forces (the military, FBI, and so on) as well as the state (National Guard and state police) and local forces (police and sheriffs).

Interestingly, democratic states with stricter gun control than the United States, such as the United Kingdom, do not seem to have fallen into tyranny. This suggests that it is not fear of assassination by citizens exercising their guns rights that keeps a democratic state from tyranny, but rather other factors. But perhaps they are just biding their time and the United Kingdom will soon be back under an absolute monarchy.

A second obvious matter of fact is the issue of whether or not civilian gun ownership would deter the military and police forces from imposing tyranny on the people at the behest of the tyrant(s). This, of course, assumes that the tyrant(s) has won over the majority of the military and police forces to her plot of tyranny and that there is no significant opposition from the military and police forces that are not in on the tyrannical take over. That is, the tyrant has won over the American citizens in the military and police forces to the degree that they would be willing to throw aside the Constitution and turn their weapons against the general population—including their friends, family, spouses, and children.

In such a scenario, it would seem that civilian weapons would be of little use. After all, the military and police forces of the tyrant would have military weapons (tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, artillery, ships, nukes and so on). Handguns, rifles and shotguns would be of rather limited use against such forces. Back in the time when civilian weapons and military weapons were essentially on par (muskets) and the most destructive military weapons were very limited (muzzle loading cannons) an armed civilian population would reasonably be regarded as a deterrent. However, it is hard to imagine suburban Americans battling successfully against tanks, Predator drones, and Hellfire missiles using AR-15s and .38 specials. That said, there is something to be said for an honorable death fighting against impossible odds.

Of course, the civilians could turn to the sort of tactics used by insurgents and terrorists to resist the military and police of the tyrant—but this would not be a case of the right to keep and bear arms deterring tyranny. However, the main thing that seems to defeat tyrants is a lack of support-without that a tyrant is a just a single man.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that civilian arms could be used to resist a small scale tyrannical incursion (perhaps a takeover in a small town). However, in such a scenario the tyrant would soon be dealt with by the police or military of the state. Also, the main deterrents against American tyrants grabbing American towns would seem to involve not guns but other factors—like an unwillingness to go along with a tyrant.

It would thus seem that civilian gun ownership would be little, if any, deterrence or defenses against a serious tyrant. It is also interesting to note that if such armaments provided considerable power against the state, there would be the fear that they would be used by a segment of the population to impose their own tyrant on others.

In light of the above, the defense against tyranny argument would seem to provide little in the way of justification for civilian gun rights. This should not be terribly shocking—after all, the second amendment does not justify the right to keep and bear arms in terms of having an armed population ready to shoot it out with other armed citizens.

There are, however, good reasons for gun rights, but these are beyond the intended scope of this essay.

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Controlling Guns

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 1, 2012
M16A1, M16A2, M4, M16A4, from top to bottom

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Guns

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 20, 2011
3 Muzzles

Image by ZORIN DENU via Flickr

Newsweek recently published “2,405 Shot Dead Since Tucson” that focused on gun issues. While I am not going to analyze the article, it did get me thinking about guns once more.

My own feelings (and I do mean feelings rather than thoughts) are decidedly positive towards guns. I grew up shooting, I have many good memories involving guns, and I must confess that I simply really, really like weapons. I appreciate the designs of fine weapons and the skill required to make and use them. Being a philosopher, I am well aware that how I feel about guns has no bearing whatsoever in terms of arguments relating to gun issues.

Of course, my feelings are not purely positive. When I hear of yet another senseless incident of violence involving guns, I feel (as all sane people do), rather bad. However, my bad feelings are not directed at the guns. They are, after all, mere things and not moral agents who can bear blame. I do, however, understand the fear and dislike that some people direct towards guns. But, being a philosopher, I am well aware that how they feel about guns has no bearing whatsoever in terms of arguments relating to gun issues.

Since my feelings are pro gun, I have to be very careful when considering arguments relating to guns. After all, these feelings can easily cause me to accept flawed arguments in favor of gun rights and reject good arguments for placing limits on gun rights.

As a general rule, I am wary of legislation aimed at limiting gun rights. After all, the right to be armed is a basic right and a key part of the right of self-defense. Of course, rights always seem to come with a price. For example, the right to drive costs us tens of thousands of deaths each year in the United States.

As with all rights, it is well worth asking if the right is worth the price and whether or not limits on the right are worth imposing.

For example, banning all private vehicles would greatly reduce the number of traffic fatalities. However, that step would be regarded by almost everyone as too extreme and too problematic. However, we do accept limits on who can drive and these presumably help keep the death toll down to levels that people are willing to accept. As such, we are willing to tolerate tens of thousands of deaths each year for the convenience of being able to drive to Starbucks when we crave a latte.

Banning all guns would, of course, reduce the number of fatalities involving guns. However, that seems to be something rather unacceptable (and unconstitutional). However, just as with driving there seem to be excellent grounds for limiting certain gun rights.

One matter that people have brought up is the restriction of certain types of guns (like assault rifles) or certain accessories (like 30 round clips). In support of this, people point to how the shooter in Tucson was able to fire off so many rounds because he had 30 round clips. It is assumed that if he had been limited to 15 (or 10) round clips, he would have been able to harm fewer people. People have also argued that there seems to be no legitimate reason to have such high capacity clips. After all, people do not need all that magazine capacity for hunting or self-defense.

This reasoning does have a certain appeal. After all, being able to fire more shots does increase the amount of damage a person can inflict without having to reload or switch weapons. However, it is worth considering how much of an impact such a ban would have in terms of saving lives. Naturally, it can be argued that since there is no compelling need for high capacity clips, even if their being banned saved only one life, it would be worth it.

If such a ban would save lives, then it would seem reasonable. After all, having to reload more often at the range seems to be a small price to pay for this. Also, with a little practice a person can learn to swap clips very quickly, thus making the lower capacity clips only a minor inconvenience. Of course, anyone who plans on going on a rampage can also practice swapping clips (or guns), thus making such a ban far less effective than some people might imagine.

Another matter that people have brought up is being more strict about gun sales. While there are already laws in place that are intended to keep people who are mentally ill or who have criminal records from getting guns, these restrictions are often not properly enforced or can often be easily bypassed. There is also the fact that even the best limitations and restrictions are not perfect. To give one obvious “weak” point: someone who has not done anything that would legally allow their right to purchase a gun  to be taken away can still buy a gun-perhaps the very gun they will use to commit murder. Of course, this “loophole” would be rather hard to close. It is comparable to the “loophole” that allows people to buy cars and get drivers licenses even though they might kill someone by driving drunk.  As such, short of banning all gun (or car) sales, there is no way to guarantee that someone who should not have a gun (or car) will not get one.

Of course, it would be foolish to expect a perfect system. However, this does not mean that we should not push for a better system. I do agree that the current system does need significant improvements and I am in favor of those that would do a better job of keeping guns away from criminals and the mentally deranged.

Of course, focusing on guns is merely to focus on the tool rather than the actual cause of the problem. We clearly need to do more than just restrict guns, we need to address the factors that create criminals and the deranged.

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