On Civilian Gun Ownership
What, if any, are the moral tradeoffs of gun ownership?
The ease with which birds and beasts, men, women and children, can now be shot into sudden oblivion is breathtaking. If the murderer had nothing but his hands, he could kill only a few on a single outing, if lucky. But a victim might fight back, and win. What a limitation, a frustration, for the poor murderer. But with a Kalashnikov – joy! – all such frustration vanishes. In a few seconds dozens of human beings can be left twitching and bleeding on the ground, their possibilities, hopes, loves and endeavours abruptly and arbitrarily obliterated, their families drowned in shock and grief. How satisfying for the murderous of mind; how fulfilling; and all thanks to those who make and sell guns.
—A. C. Grayling, Life, Sex, and Ideas: The Good Life Without God (2002), Chapter 32, "Guns"
If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them... Mr. and Mrs. America, turn 'em all in, I would have done it. I could not do that. The votes weren't here.
—Dianne Feinstein, interview with CBS-TV 60 Minutes (2/5/1995)
Recently, in my hometown, Sacramento, CA, a shooting in the downtown area left six people dead, and another twelve injured. Such events are commonplace in American life, so much so that many people hardly give them any notice—especially with many other issues on people’s minds, currently, like spiking inflation, and food and gas prices. However, such events, especially when they strike close to home, do prompt one who is paying attention to consider the ethics of civilian gun ownership. (This isn’t, of course, to deny that the issue of government violence doesn’t prompt difficult moral questions too, but we are putting that aside for this column).
In the gun control and prohibition1 debate, advocates often appeal to consequentialist reasons to justify their position. Consequentialism is a moral theory about what makes actions right and wrong: actions are right if they maximize good consequences, and actions are wrong if maximize bad consequences. There are other moral theories, like deontology, which appeal to things like duties and rights to establish moral obligations. You can often tell the difference on the basis of how people argue for their view: if they appeal to outcomes—e.g. number of deaths—they are relying on a consequentialist moral theory. However, if they appeal to things like duties or rights—e.g. theft is wrong because it violates one’s right to their property—they are relying on a deontological moral theory. Before we get into the ethical weeds over the gun control debate, and how that relates to overreach in ethics, we should clarify that the function of moral theories is to guide action by telling us what morality requires of us in various situations.
In the gun control debate, the pro-control side often cites the bad consequences of widespread gun ownership: the widespread availability of guns results in a higher level of shootings and death than would otherwise be the case if guns were heavily restricted or banned outright, and they point to nations with lower homicide rates and greater restrictions on guns as part of the evidence for their claim. We may think of owning a gun as a safety measure, and that may be for individuals, but if their widespread availability makes things less safe for society in aggregate, then gun ownership would be bad overall.
A Rough Consequentialist Argument
Some philosophers argue since handgun ownership and homicide by handgun strongly correlates, and that we find lower homicide rates in nations with more severe restrictions on gun ownership, this strongly suggests the causal contributor to higher homicide levels, especially in the United States, is ease of ownership and access to guns, especially handguns. As the philosopher Nicholas Dixon argues:
My reason for singling out handguns for prohibition in the United States is that they are, in this country, the firearm of choice of criminals, being used in at least 72.2 percent of firearms homicides in the years 2006–2010. Substantially reducing the number of handguns in the U.S. will very likely substantially reduce the rate of total homicide. This prediction is based not only on the noted statistics, but also on the following considerations, which constitute a rudimentary causal theory. First, a large proportion of these crimes is currently committed with handguns. Since 1970, approximately one-half of the homicides in the U.S. have been committed with handguns. In 2006-2010, an average of 6,909 homicides (48.7 percent of all homicides) was committed per year with handguns. Second, because of their cheapness, concealability, ease of use, and lethality, handguns are ideally suited to the commission of crimes and criminals are highly unlikely to be able to commit as many violent crimes by switching to alternative weapons.2
Later Dixon acknowledges that under a regime that bans civilian ownership of handguns, there would be citizens who were killed, who wouldn’t have otherwise if they had access to a gun. Since citizens have a right not to be shot too, it would be better for everyone’s right to life and self-defense if civilian handgun ownership were prohibited. So while Dixon acknowledges that one has right to self-defense—where using a gun would be justified—if we look at the suffering that widespread handgun ownership causes in aggregate across a society, it looks like the harm may greatly outweighs the benefits.
Let us begin by assuming for argument’s sake philosophers like Dixon are right about their causal story: a high-rate of gun ownership, especially handguns, causes a high-rate of murder, suicides, and violence crime; without access to guns, criminals wouldn’t be as violent because they would have less effective means to perform that violence. Even if the phrase ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ is right, guns are often used to do the killing. And assume too, again for argument’s sake, prohibiting or severely controlling access to guns would reduce murder, violence, and suicide enabled by widespread gun availability.
The force of these arguments rests on the consequences of allowing civilian handgun ownership versus prohibiting it. If prohibition saves more lives overall than widespread access, then we should prohibit gun ownership. We often think consequences matter, but few among us think only consequences matter; there are other moral factors, like rights and fairness, which we often factor into our moral thinking. Even if a doctor could save five patients, each one in need of a different organ to live, by killing a single healthy patient—who happens to be a match for the five patients who need organs—we would likely think it seriously wrong to kill the one to save the five, even stipulating the consequences would be good overall. The same kind of problem faces prohibiting or severely restricting civilian handgun ownership: it rests only on the overall consequences and proceeds from there.
The Bad Overreach Objection
However, there is a more fundamental problem with the argument: it badly overreaches. If saving more lives overall justified a policy, there are many things we should ban that even the gun control folks would likely think too extreme. The obvious candidate is alcohol. As the philosopher, Donald Bruckner, points out:
We should certainly like to have some empirical evidence that regulating alcohol can save lives. Alcohol is causally linked with many diseases, including liver disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Given the high percentage of homicides linked to alcohol and the disproportionate number of traffic fatalities involving alcohol-impaired drivers, evidently there are causal links there as well. So if alcohol were much less readily available and if BAC [blood alcohol content] tolerances for drivers were lowered and penalties increased for deterrence, the number of deaths caused by alcohol would decrease. The restrictions and regulations are justified given the sheer number of deaths caused by alcohol3.
But of course it is one thing to ban civilian ownership of handguns, and quite another to restrict the sale of alcohol; even people who are sympathetic to the former, will often oppose the latter. However, if we frame these respective positions in terms of the overall consequences—number of deaths, injuries, and so forth—we face a moral parity: if the consequences support a ban on handguns—or even severe restrictions—they do the same with respect to alcohol. And in terms of the consequences, it’s not even close. We could save a lot more people, and prevent a lot more injury, if we ban or severely restrict the purchase and use of alcohol.
So far we examined a basic consequentialist argument against civilian ownership of guns, and an objection that such logic can go too far—the same line of reasoning could be used to ban, severely restricted, or limit at the margins practices like the sale of alcohol, or putting downward pressure on how much we drive, i.e., driving can be a necessity, but it is unlikely that the average American needs to drive as much as they do. These measures, however, would likely strike many of us as unjustified; so we should be doubtful about the consequentialist logic against guns.
There another reason to worry: it looks unfair to folks less physically capable of defending themselves to either ban or severely restrict gun ownership.
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The Fairness Objection
Some philosophers argue that we can ground the right to a gun in a fundamental right to self-defense4—everyone has the right to reasonable self-defense, and by extension, the means to exercise that right via the right to own a gun5. When thinking about gun control, it is often easy to focus on the downsides of widespread handgun ownership—to imagine a world without guns would be, on the whole, better than a world with guns.
The popular author and podcaster, Sam Harris, nicely makes this point in his essay on the riddle of the gun:
A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want. […] There have been cases of prison guards (who generally do not carry guns) helplessly standing by as one of their own was stabbed to death by a lone prisoner armed with an improvised blade. The hesitation of bystanders in these situations makes perfect sense—and “diffusion of responsibility” has little to do with it. The fantasies of many martial artists aside, to go unarmed against a person with a knife is to put oneself in very real peril […] A world without guns is a world in which no man, not even a member of Seal Team Six, can reasonably expect to prevail over more than one determined attacker at a time. A world without guns […] is one in which the advantages of youth, size, strength, aggression, and sheer numbers are almost always decisive. Who could be nostalgic for such a world?6
An ardent critic here may point out that even though this look unfair to remove guns from those who are less physically capable of defending themselves without the use of a firearm, the consequences of a world without easy access to guns, and the ability of nearly anyone to take the life of another—especially given the numbers, in the United States, of people murdered with guns—is a moral consideration we cannot completely ignore because of overreach or fairness.
There is no doubt something to this point: just as with nearly anything else in life, we face tradeoffs. The choice to go to law school is a tradeoff, for many, to not go to medical school—our lives, cognitive abilities, and resources are finite, so by making some choices, we preclude others. To paraphrase an infamous conservative economist: rarely are there solutions, but mostly only tradeoffs7. And we find that it is often no different in the moral domain: we face a tradeoff between consequences, on the one hand, and overreach and fairness considerations, on the other. This isn’t to favor one tradeoff over another, but simply to highlight them.
Many of the points we’ll make about gun control apply to gun prohibition too. However, we will mostly just focus on the gun control issue because it tends to have wider support among (American) voters.
Nicholas Dixon (2011). Handguns, Philosophers, and the Right to Self-Defense. International Journal of Applied Philosophy 25 (2): 151-170, p. 152.
Donald W. Bruckner (2018). Gun Control and Alcohol Policy. Social Theory and Practice 44 (2): 149-177, p. 152.
Sam Harris (2013). The Riddle of the Gun. Found at: https://samharris.org/the-riddle-of-the-gun/