Philosophy and Gun Control

I ran across a comment by the philosopher Jeff McMahan on gun control recently, and I have been thinking about it for the past few weeks. I should probably do some research and see where he was going with it, but I haven’t had time. Instead, this is a bit of thought that has been going on in the background since I heard him. He said (roughly, I heard it, and as I said I haven’t had a chance to look it up) that generally philosophers don’t bother to discuss gun control as philosophy, because we assume that the weight of the facts alone will show that no rational person would support gun ownership. That gave me pause for two reasons: first, he is right, I assume that the facts are enough to show that owning guns is generally a bad idea, and second, that it may be a huge moral mistake for the simple reason that while gun ownership seems like a private matter, it clearly isn’t. As I mentioned, I don’t know where he was headed with the topic, but he is certainly implying that it is a mistake to pass up the opportunity to think philosophically about gun control.

So how exactly do we think about gun control in a philosophical manner? My first reaction is to simply break it down to its basic components and then look for assumptions and relationships.

One of the most obvious arguments for gun ownership is for sport. This doesn’t actually seem to be a very good argument. Lets assume that there is indeed a right to own a firearm, and that the reason for ownership is sport, that is target practice or hunting. Given that we have mountains of evidence that having a gun in the home is an increased risk to everyone in the home, sport is a good reason for the existence of guns, but not their ownership. Imagine that we have a sport that is enjoyed by many, but that is inherently risky. Not because of the sport itself. Hunting, though it has some risk, is hardly dangerous enough to restrict it severely based on that small amount of danger alone. Target shooting is even less dangerous on a controlled range. Rather the gear itself is the danger. Imagine that skiing, while it has minor dangers, is actually very safe, yet simply having a pair of skis in the home could kill you. (It is a thought experiment, the concept is the point, not the mechanism with which skis in the home kill) In a rational society we would still allow skiing, we would simply require that all skiers borrow their skis at the site of the practice of the sport. The freedom to partake in the sport remains, but the danger is removed. Very straightforward.

The analogy implies that if our primary purpose for guns is sport, then individual ownership should be discouraged or even outlawed. The sport should remain but also be controlled.

However that is not the only or perhaps even primary reason given for gun ownership.

One of the more popular reasons given for gun ownership (especially when Godwins Law also applies) in America is to prevent or combat tyranny of some kind. Now the history is easily understood. America became a nation by throwing off what they considered to be a tyrannical government, and they did so in part by raising a militia from the common people, who brought their own weapons to the battlefront. There are a number of issues here that deserve to be addressed. First and foremost there is the simple fact that while personal weaponry in the time of the American revolution was close enough to the capabilities of larger artillery like cannons that a couple of foot soldiers might well take out a cannon unit. Today advances in military technology have changed that balance. Any modern day gun owner who thinks his personal rifle, even with an extended clip and full automatic capability, is a match for a B2 bomber is not really someone we should take seriously. In fact it is an open question whether or not even in the time of the American revolution this was a fair comparison. It could be easily argued that all the muskets in the world would have proven ineffective if the diplomacy of people like Ben Franklin had failed to bring the might of the French Navy into play.

Indeed, we could use the power shown by Ben Franklin to point out that in todays world it might well be easier to overthrow an oppressive government with words (or Twitter) than with bullets. Overthrowing governments is simply not a practical reason for allowing gun ownership. It simply, despite the opinion of of some survivalist mentality groups, is not going to happen.

Which brings us to self-defense. Again, the issue needs to be broken down to basic components. I think it is fair to ask, “do you have a right* to self-defense?” To many of us, this seems to have an obvious answer. How can we not have a right to protect ourselves? But I think that is an assumption that is helping to mask a deeper issue.

It may very well be that we do not have a right to self-defense, but rather we have a right to personal safety. What is the difference? A right to personal safety would be more basic, and thus the cause of, a right to self-defense. It may well be that I have a right to not have bodily (and perhaps other) harm done to me. This might be thought of as an extension of a right to existence and self determination. I have a right to be here, and further to be safe in my existence.

The reason that we should understand this as a more basic and fundamental right is precisely that one right contains the other. I do not have a right to self-defense because there is something basic in the ability to return acts of violence, or because I act only from selfish ends. Rather, I have the right to exist as a self determined being, and that right further implies the possibility of self-defense if the need arises.

It might be helpful to think of a very young baby to illustrate the point. A child that is too young to defend itself has not given up a right to exist simply by way of not having the capability to defend itself. It maintains the right to exist by simple nature of being a living being. This may need to be cached out slightly differently for various moral theories, so I leave those details aside for now. Suffice to say that whether the child has rights by way of teleology, social existence, utility, or other means, its right to exist safely is not determined by its ability to defend itself.

Instead, self-defense stems from the right of personal safety. This also demonstrates the fact that self-defense is not the only means, but only a possible means. Personal safety can be achieved through rules, laws, social constructs, moral systems, religious edicts, third parties, etc. The key issue is personal safety, not a right to harm others “before they can harm you” as it were.

This does not in itself imply that gun control is a solution that should be pursued. If one citizen prefers to protect themselves while another prefers to seek protection through laws, and still a third prefers a combination of laws and third parties (such as a police force) assigned to protect them, who are we to say which derived right is the proper method for achieving personal safety. Assuming that is that all other concerns remain equal.

Which means that we must concern ourselves with whether or not other matters do in fact remain equal.

Some have made the observation that gun rights look something like a prisoners dilemma. A prisoners dilemma is a case popular in game theory, where the rational self interested action taken by two people ends up damaging both people by way of their relationship. In the classical case, two friends commit a crime, and the police catch them, but only have proof for a much lesser charge. The police question them separately, hoping to get one to “rat out” the other.

The dilemma arises because it is in the interest of each individual to rat his accomplice out to the police. If I turn on my partner, I get a very small (almost non-existent) jail stay. Much smaller than if I remain faithful and take the lesser charge for which the police have us evidence against us. However then my partner does the full time. The total time served if I turn on my partner is much worse than if we both simply take the rap for the lesser crime.

In other words, it is better for me to turn on my partner, but better for the team if we both take the lesser charge.

This is compared to gun ownership because people have pointed out that while it may be in my best interest to own a gun, it is vey often a danger to others. It may pay off for me, but it is a net loss to society at large. Which becomes a problem for me because you may well wish to own a gun too. That ownerships pays off for you, but is a danger to me. Individually we are both better off owning guns. Collectively we are both worse off.

There seems to me to be two problems with this thinking. And both are of serious concern.

In the first case, it seems to me that we make a mistake to compare gun rights to a prisoners dilemma. Instead I think that we need to consider the case to be a multiple player form, or extended tragedy of the commons. In a tragedy of the commons, rather than two prisoners, we can have 3, 4, 8, 29, 4000, or any other number of people involved. Further, because the “good” is simply something held in common rather than a specific punishment, you don’t have to participate to be harmed by others choices. Imagine a a prisoners dilemma where an innocent bystander can get 5 years in jail based on the selfish choice of the questioned prisoner. Despite not being involved in the crime, suddenly I have a stake in the outcome.

The tragedy of the commons describes a “commons” or publicly held good that anyone can choose to use or damage. Imagine a field that 4 farmers all have access to, and none of them own. if each farmer has 25 cows on the field, the field remains healthy and can continue to be reused by all 4 farmers. However it is in each farmers best self-interest to over use the land. I only lose 1/4th of a cows value if one cow worth of over grazing is done, but if the cow is mine, I gain one cow in value. Therefore grazing 26 cows nets me 3/4ths of a cow in profit. Grazing two gets me a 1 and 1/2 profit, etc…

Further, if the land is a true commons, a fifth person, not a farmer but some other profession in the same village, loses out on any benefit of the public land that she could enjoy, when the farmers destroy the field. I may not have cattle, but I might still get benefit from the vegetables that grow in their pasture.

Personal safety makes for a comparable commons. As has been pointed out before, man is a social animal. It may or may not be true that you can’t displace a grass blade without disturbing a star, but it is demonstrably true that what is done to others has an effect on each of us. Social interaction alone is enough to ensure that a rape in New Delhi or a murder in Newton has some effect on the butcher in Queens and the baker in Auckland. While the damage done is necessarily mitigated by the distance (social rather than physical) from the primary injury, the damage is none the less real. In a very definite sense, your personal safety is a positive resource to me, and vice versa.

The personal self interest to own and use a firearm is therefore seemingly rational to the one using the firearm, but it does harm to everyone else who has access to the goods of the personal safety commons. Which in the case of our interconnected world is well over 7 billion people. It is no longer a case of your choice harming a partner, but of your choice harming all other living human beings to some extent.

Which leads to the second problem. In the case of the prisoners dilemma, the numbers for jail sentences ensure that it is a personal rational self interest choice to turn on your partner. Or, transferring to the gun question, to personally own a firearm. However the use of “seemingly” in the above paragraph is purposeful. For here is where facts intrude on the philosophy. Numerous studies and reams of data have shown that in fact personal gun ownership (despite the NRAs claims) does nothing to further personal safety, and in fact you are far more likely to be injured or killed if you are a gun owner than not. Higher gun ownership coincides with higher murder rates, a more aggressive society, higher likelihood of threats on personal safety, higher risk of accidental death, higher suicide risk, and a higher likelihood of being killed by a firearm in an assault. It also increases your odds of being murdered if you are a female in an abusive relationship. Far from “self-defense” the facts show that guns are one of the surest ways to cause yourself harm.

In short, gun ownership has all of the negative effects of the tragedy of the commons, but without the upside.

At which point it becomes obvious that Jeff McMahan has caused me some problems. I used to think that gun ownership was defensible, but slightly foolish. A bad idea if taken too far, but something that should be perfectly allowable within reason. Background checks? Yes. But that is a reasonable restriction to a reasonable personal right.

The more I consider the philosophical side of the issue however the more clear it is that nothing short of a full prohibition on gun ownership is the only moral answer.

Which will cause the gun fetish types to explode in what they think is righteous anger. Unfortunately I can’t much help that. Unless there is some philosophical step I am over looking that makes guns no longer act as a social evil when the tragedy of the commons is brought into play, as it now stands, I feel they are only justified in cases where no social or political rule systems are in place that can be used instead to preserve personal safety. We have those systems, and can and should use them. The single biggest factor in the failure of those systems to protect us is the tool we are justifying the use of when we claim the social and political systems don’t work.

In short, the only excuse left for owning a gun is that they seem like a way to protect us from all the damn guns. There is no rational defense for that kind of thinking.

*I am going to use the term “rights” even though I find it problematic for reasons that simply don’t matter enough to go into here at this time.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on April 21, 2013 - 11:28 am

    If hunting with firearms is a “sport,” then it’s the most dangerous “sport” there is. For people as well as animals. About a thousand people get shot by hunters every year, with approximately 100 fatalities.

    Hunting Accident Reports Center

    Also, it is a well-established fact that a gun in the home is far more likely to lead to an accidental shooting, homicide or suicide than to the much-touted defensive gun use (e.g. R. Lee Ermey reaching for his Glock instead of calling 911).

    Dangerous Gun Myths

    For every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.

    • #2 by brewski on April 21, 2013 - 8:14 pm

      False, look it up.

    • #3 by Shane Smith on April 21, 2013 - 9:55 pm

      Well Richard, part of the issue with hunting is that the people who hunt sign on for risk in an implicit manner when they participate in the sport. If the only gun risk was to hunters, then they could risk their own necks. Fine.

      The real problem is your later point. Every gun owner is not endangering themselves, but everyone around them. The facts show they are a risk to all of society. That is where the trouble comes in.

      • #4 by Sean C on April 26, 2013 - 3:34 am

        Nope. Exactly how are gun owners a “risk to all society”
        Simply owning a gun does not instill a mystical urge in the owner to go out and shoot someone. I don’t know what it is with these people who repeatedly imply it like its some kind of truth.
        Proponents of free speech are a risk to all society, it should be restricted because people can easily be offended, some more than others, and this offense can lead to conflict. Just look at the violent reaction to that Florida dogmatist pastor disowning the Quran before holding a Quran burning ceremony. Clearly the only solution is an authoritarian council of censors who make sure that you don’t say anything politically incorrect.

        • #5 by Shane Smith on April 27, 2013 - 9:10 am

          Studies show that everyone living in a house where a gun is owned are several times more likely to die by a gun than those not in such a house hold. You risk of early death also goes up in cities with higher gun ownership, states with higher ownership and countries with higher ownership. Guns are more than 4 times as likely to be stolen and used in another crime then to be used to stop a crime. Owning a gun dramatically increases the likelyhood that domestic violence becomes deadly.

          So yes, simply having guns in a society increases the risk to all of society.

          This research was very clear, but the NRA managed to defund much of it. You can find a good deal more at the mother jones website.

  2. #7 by cav on April 26, 2013 - 7:54 am

    Well Sean C, neither does the ownership of an automobile instill the mystical urge to hit the road. It just happens. That’s the truth. As a society is structured, so goes the individuals (or at least some of them) – Drivers and gun owners are no less compelled to utilize their tools than are the holders of vocal chords – similarly, only some of these are internally compelled to exercise that ‘right’, and only some of those are pathologically inclined to shout fire in the crowded theater. But, it is undeniable that those individuals will drive, trigger, and shout even when the consequences are deplorable.

  3. #8 by SB on May 2, 2013 - 11:06 pm

    Shane what I just read was an extraordinary effort. But it reads nearly identically to rationale I’ve seen over the years for things like the prohibition of Homosexuality, the moral case for the removal of freedom of speech, cessation of nearly all abortions, and on and on. In fact, with only a little effort in changing around some words and concepts I think you could launch an effective argument about it being immoral to own bathtubs.

    What you really should have answered is this question:
    Do I (you) have the right to tell other people what to do? If I (you) do, who gave me that ability?
    Why do others not have a right to tell me (you) what to do with issues that bother them?
    How far does my (your) ability to tell others what to do go? (pick a spot on the line where you would say, enough is enough)
    Example: In communism the ruling elite class would of course have guns and those they allow, but the rest would be forced not to have guns by threat of loss (bodily harm, economic harm, etc…)
    In Anarchy no one can tell anyone anything so you may or may not have a gun but there’s also no group protection, universal rules, structure and efficiency that comes with governance.

    And finally, make the moral case that a man who lives alone on a 200 acre farm in the middle of nowhere wyoming should not be allowed to own a firearm.

    Disclaimer: I do not like guns.

  4. #9 by getfreight on July 9, 2013 - 9:57 pm

    The issue in the logic involved is starting with preconceived notions of Guns and gun ownership. Making assumptions on pseudo facts from sites and Organizations known to be suspect invalidates the logical progression in the article. Mainly due to a lack of data from both sides.

    The most difficult part of using logic, philosophy and other means to analyze a subject is gathering all the facts. This article was clearly written with a pre-determined outcome in mind. This is not consistent with philosophy, logical analysis or any other method.

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