Columbia, Maryland (and rights, gun control, and arguments from analogy)

I have refrained from writing on the controversial topic of gun control but I feel now that I must address it as today’s shooting in Columbia mall is literally too close to home for me to not comment – my father goes to a new age church in Columbia, Maryland, and I have friends who live there. (The Navy Yard shooting was too close to home as well, as many family friends are government contractors, but I was not yet blogging at the time of that tragedy.) I want to consider whether there is a moral right to own a firearm, as I am unimpressed by the second amendment by itself, as I think that rights given by social contract only have legitimacy if they are backed by real moral rights, in the sense of a moral realists’ account (this is of course due to my suspicion of the epistemological justification provided by constructivist views in metaethics). The strongest argument I know for a right to firearms is provided by Michael Huemer, a philosopher I respect immensely and whose defense of non-natural moral realism I have referenced frequently on this blog.

Huemer takes pains to articulate the concepts he is using and to develop multiple reasons for gun ownership, but the central and most convincing part of his argument can be roughly stated as: there is a fundamental right to life, such that there is a derivative prima facie right (meaning that it can be overweighed by other relevant facts) to gun ownership if the harm caused by denying persons the ability to defend their right to life is not outweighed by the harms caused to non-gun owners. Huemer argues that denying persons the ability to defend their right to life through the use of firearms would cause more harm then the amount of harm that is caused in society now by gun ownership. The case is made through an argument by analogy to show that it would be morally wrong to ban gun ownership.

In the first scenario, “A killer breaks into a house, where two people—“the victim” and “the accomplice”—are staying. (The “accomplice” need have no prior interaction with the killer.) As the killer enters the bedroom where the victim is hiding, the accomplice enters through another door and proceeds, for some reason, to hold the victim down while the killer stabs him to death.” To Huemer, there is no moral difference between this case and a case where, “As in example 1, except that the victim has a gun by the bed, which he would, if able, use to defend himself from the killer. As the killer enters the bedroom, the victim reaches for the gun. The accomplice grabs the gun and runs away, with the result that the killer then stabs his victim to death.”

Huemer’s point is that the government banning the possession of firearms is analogous to the government running off with the firearm and leaving the former gun owner to be murdered, such that a ban on firearms would be to deny persons the ability to defend their right to life.

One must be careful with arguments from analogy because, though they can be cogent, they are fallacious if there is a difference between the cases that is relevant to the intuitions we draw from them. I believe there is such a relevant difference between the scenarios, and that the difference is relevant to the intuitions we draw from the scenarios. I think it is obvious that in the first case the accomplice does deny the victim of the right to life because they actively and positively (in the philosophical sense of presence) exert their influence into the order of events in such a way that the victim is prevented from defending themselves and their right to life. By contrast, in the scenario where the gun is removed by the accomplice, the accomplice does not actively prevent the victim from defending themselves, they only remove one way of defending their right to life. If someone was coming at me with a knife I wouldn’t just give up due to thinking that the only adequate way to defend myself is with a gun. Surely not! I would grab the nearest object that I might use to defend myself, perhaps throwing a glass cup at them, or (if I’m being honest) whip out my swiss army knife from the bedside table (not out of paranoia, I just keep random items in there). The point is that while holding someone down so that they cannot escape is certainly the act of preventing someone from defending their right to life, removing one potential means of defending oneself does not constitute the same abhorrent rights violation. So, the argument from analogy fails, and it does not follow that banning firearms constitutes the severe rights violation that is holding someone down to be murdered. That these scenarios are analogous is patently false.

Huemer’s overall argument is that the good that firearms do for self-defense, and to a lesser extent, the recreational pleasures of firearm possession, is not outweighed by the harms that firearms cause when used for crime. Perhaps this was true in 2003, when the article was first published, but it seems that the frequency with which mass shootings occur now should cause us to think that the harms caused by criminal use of guns outweigh the good they cause, as the good they provide through self-defense could be met by other objects.

As evidence that self-defense could be performed in other ways, consider some alternative scenarios to the ones provided by Huemer. Imagine a situation wherein a murderer enters a house with a firearm to murder an armed person. It seems much more likely that one or both persons will be murdered in this situation than in a scenario where a murderer enters a house armed only with a knife (due to a ban on firearms) to kill someone who is also armed with a knife. The potential victim is far more likely to survive; perhaps they may fend off the murderer long enough for the police, who do possess firearms, to arrest the potential murderer. Thus, that we may defend ourselves in other ways than with firearms suggests that even if we have a right to defend our lives, we do not necessarily have a right to firearms, because this right to life can be protected by other means, means that are less capable of being misused to take peoples’ rights to life. That, of course, is the contradiction of gun ownership – we must be able to kill people so that other people will not be able to kill us.

Now that public, indiscriminate shooting sprees have become the norm, the harm caused by gun ownership is so great that it cannot be outweighed by concerns for self-defense, which I have argued can be met through other means. Let me note that I am all for taking drastic steps to provide persons with mental illnesses with psychiatric and medicinal aid, but that of course will not defeat the threat posed by gun violence. (Also, the same people who say we need to treat mental illness rather than imposing gun control think that Obamacare must be struck down, leaving us to wonder where persons with mental illness would get treatment if things went the way of these commentators. These people also seem to forget that murders are more often perpetrated by what we consider mentally stable people.)

Many people die everyday from gun violence without that gun being in the hands of a person with a mental disability – think of children who find their parent’s gun and accidentally discharge it into their playmate’s chest, or the very real issue of gang violence and petty crime, which is perpetrated by persons not with mental illness but desperation. There are many areas of policy that we must address to reduce the numbers of needless deaths from guns, and all of these areas should be addressed, but the quickest way to implement change is to implement stringent gun control laws. After all, against Huemer, I have argued that there is no real moral right to gun ownership, as this right is derived from a right to life that can be met in other ways than gun ownership, such that banning the possession of firearms for the general public would not violate any real rights.

[Update: in a newer entry I argue that it might be morally wrong to own a gun even if it is not morally bad].


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  1. #1 by jmeqvist on January 27, 2014 - 10:37 pm

    First of all I want to express my sincere condolences for the deaths that have just occurred within Colombia, Maryland.

    I agree with you that the costs of lenient gun rights outweigh their purported benefits, and that the right to gun ownership cannot be grounded in a right to self-defense.

    Furthermore, as always this was a well articulated and clearly written post.

    However, one question that came to my mind as I read this, and as all of these other shootings have occurred within the United States over the past couple of years is what has caused the great increase in these sorts of shootings? Mental illness in conjunction with lenient gun rights does not seem to be able to account for it in itself, as these are two problems that have been around far longer than the current crisis of shootings within the states, Similarly, if anything mental illness has been destigmatized over the past 20 years, so one would think this would benefit the treatment of mental illness, rather being detrimental to it. Furthermore, many of these shootings have been perpetrated by middle class people. Consequently economic depression does not seem to be a good explanation for the increase in these shootings. I have yet to come across a good explanation of this increase, and while I think that stricter gun laws and better access to treatment for mental illness would help prevent such shootings from occurring, there still seems to be a deeper problem in that a seemingly increasing minority of people in America want to perpetrate these sorts of public massacres. And I am not sure this problem can be solved by simply increasing access to treatment for mental health, or through tighter gun laws.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 28, 2014 - 7:53 pm

      Well said, and let me note that I agree with you: there is some other factor at work. I have wondered if it’s related to the “copy-cat murderer” phenomenon, at least in the sense that these persons see that others commit these heinous acts and then have a moment of fame. In that sense I worry that it is caused by people who feel unnoticed in the world and want to assert themselves, and they see on television that this is the only way home. Anyways, these explanation has crossed my mind, but I don’t want to claim any real plausibility to this; I really can’t imagine the hidden factor, but like you, I think there is one. I think we should tend to the visible factors if we are not sure of invisible ones, and I’m sure you agree with me on that. Thanks for your comment, and for the kinds words.

      • #3 by jmeqvist on February 2, 2014 - 7:12 pm

        Yes, I certainly agree that we should tend to the visible factors, if we are not sure of the invisible ones.

  2. #4 by guymax on February 4, 2014 - 7:34 am

    I would have thought an hour watching US-made computer games, TV dramas and films would have settled the matter of the additional causes of these mentally-deranged atrocities. If the industry had set out to deliberately poison the minds of young people they could not have done better. Yet everyone talks about guns. I do not think guns are the problem. A ban on gun ownership, while it seems an eminently rational idea, would be dealing with symptoms, not the underlying illness.

    But this is just an inexpert opinion from across the pond.

    • #5 by ausomeawestin on February 4, 2014 - 1:06 pm

      I appreciate you sharing your view, I make no claim to being an expert either.

      Tracing causal chains is difficult, but I think more direct causes are evidence of stronger causal efficacy. In other words, if along the causal chain, one event comes between two others, then it should seem to us that that intermediary event is necessary for the latter event to occur, while the first event might be an irrelevant background event that does not explain the latter event. If indeed there is a culture of violence, the illness you allude to, then it will always be in the background of our investigation, that is, it can always be said that it was a part of the causal chain. But if this is so then this event doesn’t provide any real explanatory power for why events unfolded as they did, and thus, we should be skeptical of the causal influence of a culture of violence. Many persons live among a culture of violence, myself included (my favorite type of movie is the crime drama — mobster flicks and heist movies), without perpetrating violence in the public or private sphere. So we have to look to causes that are closer in the causal chain to the actual event of violence, because these will be the events where causal forces are strongest. What is the common event that allows gun violence among the immediately preceding events? Gun ownership, plain and simple. Thus, the most direct way to fight gun violence is to tend to the most direct causes of gun violence, which is first and foremost gun ownership.

      Here I advanced two claims.
      1. That gun ownership is the immediate cause of gun violence, such that gun ownership is the illness that creates the symptom of violence as illnesses cause symptoms.
      2. That appealing to a culture of violence does not explain why violence is perpetrated. Cultures are lived in, such that if ‘culture of violence’ had meaning we could apply it to any action, such as “the cultural of violence causes people to drink coffee”. The same people that live in the culture of violence live in a culture that drinks coffee, so if the culture of violence explains gun violence then it should also explain why people drink coffee. But it is a vacuous concept and thus does not explain anything about our actions because it is far too theoretical to fit into real causal chains of action, coffee drinking, gun-massacre staging, or otherwise.

  3. #6 by guymax on February 5, 2014 - 6:51 am

    Each to his own I suppose. For myself I can’t see how a culture of casual violence and disrespect for life can have no impact on the behaviour of people growing up as members of that culture, but I’d agree that there must be a variety of factors at work here.

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on February 5, 2014 - 7:33 pm

      I don’t mean to deny that the culture of violence has no impact on persons; it likely does. Gun ownership is an immediate cause of gun violence, and so bans on gun ownership would be a more direct and effective way of combatting gun violence.

  4. #8 by guymax on February 6, 2014 - 5:28 am

    Fair point.

  1. Law and Morality (Columbia MD, gun rights, consequentialism, Kantianism, and client counseling) | ausomeawestin
  2. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, POTUS, Secrecy and Inequality | ausomeawestin

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