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].