Should there be stricter gun-laws?

The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting has reinvigorated the gun-control debate in America. The debate centers around this question: How ought we – as makers and members of this democracy – respond to this tragedy? Some have called for a change in gun-laws. Others have suggested that the root cause of these events is our “violent culture” and that this must change if we are going to avoid future tragedies. Still others think that “the solution” is an increase in school security.

I think that the current – and past – state of the conversation about gun control is itself tragic. I think that the way in which we “debate” this issue reflects a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the question at hand. Insofar as we are members and makers of this democracy, our lack of careful thinking about this issue is culpable. People have died in part because we have been intellectually lazy. Moreover, the “debate” seems to have shown some of us to be more interested in drawing lines in the sand than in actually having a fruitful conversation. I worry that because of the poor state of our national conversation, that we may fail to respond sensibly to this unthinkable event.

To be sure, I too have been guilty of failing to think carefully about this issue and I have also reacted to this event with my emotions, by simply taking up a side rather than contributing to conditions under which my conversation with others could be useful. (This is why I used the collective pronouns “we” and “our” in the above paragraph.) It is my intention in what follows to take steps towards remedying these failures. After all, I think that having a careful and reasonable and sympathetic conversation is of the utmost importance, for these conversations are the starting points of change for the better. In a word, this situation calls for some good philosophy, and I am here inviting you, the reader, to participate in some (hopefully) good philosophy and thereby in the remedying of my aforementioned failures.

Let us begin by characterizing two views we might have about how to respond to Sandy Hook. Some say that the right way to respond to this tragedy is stricter gun laws. Let’s call this the “liberal view.” Others think that the right way to respond to this tragedy is to leave gun laws as they are and to instead hold individuals responsible. Let’s call this the “conservative view.”

Now, what might be said in favor of the conservative view? One phrase that might immediately come to mind is this: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Let’s look at this claim.

It is not always clear exactly what people mean when they say “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” However, I think that they might be making the following claim: the root cause of gun-violence is people acting inappropriately. When I say that something is the “root cause” of some event, I just mean that the event could not have happened without that root cause. Thus, when people say “Guns don’t kill people. People do,” they might be saying that people’s poor behavior is a necessary link in the causing of gun violence; guns don’t just hop of the table and start shooting people. This is something, I think, that everyone can agree on. In fact, this statement seems trivially true.

Presumably, people mean to say more than this trivial truth when they claim that “People kill people.” Maybe they mean to say that because people are the root cause of gun violence, we do not need stricter gun control laws. If this is what people mean, however, they seem to be making a mistake in reasoning. To see this, let’s examine this “People kill people” argument closely.

The “People kill people” argument says that

(1) People are the root cause of gun-violence.

and

(2) Therefore, we have no obligation to enact stricter gun-control laws.

This is, I think, an invalid argument. (2) does not follow from (1). Even if (1) is true, (2) is not necessarily true.

I think that we can all agree that this is an invalid argument if we consider the following facts. We currently have some gun control laws. We do not, for example, give weapons to people who are mentally ill or people who have a criminal background. Presumably, we have these laws because we believe that although people are the root cause of gun violence, we ought to take sensible steps to prevent further gun violence from occurring. We think that taking these sensible steps means that we should make it illegal and difficult for both the mentally ill and for criminals to obtain weapons.

Here is another example. It is true that the root cause of vehicular manslaughter is people. It is true, in other words, that “Cars don’t kill people. People kill people.” Despite this truth, we regularly take steps to try and prevent car accidents. One of the ways we do this is by making people take tests to get their license. We also make sure that people obey certain traffic laws.

To be sure, there are important dis-analogies between driving cars and shooting guns. Moreover, just because we already restrict people’s usage of vehicles does not automatically mean that we ought to have stricter gun laws. My point here is just that the “People kill people” argument is a bad one. It is a bad argument because, as these two examples show, we all already agree that even if people are the root cause of some problem, this does not mean that we have no reason to try to prevent this problem. Even if people kill people, this does not mean that we should not keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. Even if people kill people, this does not mean that we should have no traffic laws.

Let us consider another interpretation of the claim that “People kill people.” Perhaps folk who say this mean to emphasize the importance of freedom and personal responsibility. On this interpretation, they might be claiming that because certain people are the root cause of gun violence, those people and those people alone ought to be held responsible for their acts and that for people who use weapons appropriately, there is no reason to restrict their freedom, their right to purchase firearms.

This seems like a sensible claim. Why should anyone be forced to give up something that they enjoy simply because others cannot behave? Although this claim seems sensible, I do not think that it can justify the claim that there should not be stricter gun-laws. Again, let’s look at the argument:

(3) People’s inappropriate behavior is the root cause of gun-violence.

(4) I enjoy purchasing and firing guns.

(5) If my purchasing of fire arms is not the root cause of gun-violence, then there is no reason for anyone to restrict my freedom in this way.

(6) Therefore, I, or anyone else who so desires, ought to be able to purchase guns, provided that we will use them properly.

This argument certainly seems more plausible than the first one. Let’s call this argument the “argument from freedom.” Before we examine this argument, I want to consider one objection someone might have to the way in which I’ve formulated the argument from freedom.

Someone might say that (4) is too weak. They might say, “Its not just that I enjoy purchasing fire arms. It is my right to bear arms.” Perhaps this person might here appeal to the constitution to justify his or her right to bear arms. I think that in this case such an appeal would be irrelevant. Appeals to the constitution cannot settle moral issues. The constitution is not God. It is merely a document that specifies how our democracy works. No one thinks that appeals to the constitution could have settled the issue of whether slavery was morally permissible and we have no more reason here to think that the constitution can settle the matter about gun control.

Alternatively, someone might complain that we have a moral right to bear arms, a moral freedom to do so. On this view, (4) is too weak because we have a moral right to bear arms as opposed to merely a legal right. But what is it for someone to have a moral right to something? It seems to me that to say that someone has a right is just to say that the person is entitled to have that right respected; it is to say that we ought to let someone exercise a certain freedom.

But this is precisely the thing we are trying to determine. We are trying to figure out whether people ought to be able to own weapons or certain kinds of weapons. We cannot therefore simply assume that people have a moral right to bear arms without begging the whole question. We cannot assume that we have a moral right to bear arms, but we might argue for it. So, let us return to the argument from freedom.

(5), the claim that if my purchasing of firm arms is not the root cause of gun-violence, then there’s no reason to enact stricter gun laws, might follow from a more general principle that we might find plausible, a principle that J.S. Mill called the “Harm Principle.” Roughly, the principle states that

(7) I should be allowed to do as I please, provided that I am not hurting anyone.

So, maybe people think that (5) is true because they think that (7) is true.

Actually, if we are careful, we will see that people don’t actually think that (7) is true, although they do think that something close to (7) is true. Moreover, we will see that we should not think that (7) in this unqualified form is true. In qualifying (7), it will be helpful to introduce a weird philosophy term. Sometimes we think that we have what philosophers call a “prima facie” duty to do something. A prima facie duty is a duty that we have, provided that there are no other duties that are more important. For example, we think that we have a prima facie duty to tell the truth, but many of us do not think that we have a duty to tell the truth if doing so would lead to the death of others. (The classic case is one in which Nazis knock on your door and ask if you are hiding any Jewish people. You are in fact hiding Jewish people in your attic. Maybe people think that you should lie in this case.)

With this term introduced, we can say that instead of believing (7), we actually believe something like

(8) Prima facie, I should be allowed to do as I please, provided that I am not hurting anyone.

This just means that unless there are important moral duties that outweigh my moral freedom, I ought to be able to do as I please. In order to see that we believe (8) instead of (7), consider the following example. (This example is borrowed from Peter Singer) Suppose that I am walking past a pond and I see that a child is drowning. I know that I can wade into the pond and my feet will still touch the bottom. I can save the child with no risk to myself. Surely in this case we would say that I ought to wade in and pull the child out and that refraining from doing so simply because I did not feel like it would be – to use Singer’s phrase – “morally monstrous.” Thus, we do not think that we ought to be able to do whatever we want as long as we aren’t hurting someone. Sometimes, we think that we ought to help people, even if doing so means that we are inconvenienced and cannot “do as we please” for the moment. We believe that our moral right to do as we please is merely prima facie; it is a right that we have provided that we do not have any other more important moral duties to attend to.

Now, I have my doubts about (8), but we needn’t go into that here. This is because although I think that this is the strongest point that can be made on behalf of the conservative view, I do not think that it is enough to defeat the liberal view, the view that we ought to enact stricter gun control laws. (8) is not enough to defeat the liberal view because this case does in fact involve a duty that is more important than my moral right to do as I please: the duty to try and prevent the death of innocent people.

Now, it is important that I have said that we have a duty to try to prevent the death of innocent people rather than saying that we have a duty to prevent innocent people’s death. Some people have claimed that stricter gun control laws will not be effective in reducing gun-violence. This is a huge sticking point in the national conversation about gun control: Will gun control prevent gun violence? This question is often not appreciated for how difficult and complex it really is. Often times, we seem content to speculate about the causes of gun-violence from our psychological and sociological arm chairs. This is clearly an inadequate way of resolving the issue.

Fortunately, we need not try to settle this complex empirical issue to decide the moral one. That is, I think that the question of whether gun control laws will be effective in reducing violence is irrelevant to whether we should create such laws. I realize that this might strike some as a strange or ridiculous claim, but I think that it is true despite its initial implausibility. I will argue for this claim in the second part to this post. 

For now, let me review what we’ve said so far. The “people killing people” argument is invalid. Our current efforts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill combined with our laws about vehicles suggest that even if people are the root-cause of some problem, this does not mean that we have no reason to try to prevent that problem through legislation (or through other means for that matter).  Appeals to our constitutional right to bear arms cannot settle the moral question we’ve been asking, the question of how we ought to respond to the Sandy Hook shooting. Finally, the argument from freedom seems to be the strongest argument that can be made in favor of the conservative view. This argument rests on the claim that (8) I ought to be able to do as I please provided that I am not hurting others and provided that I have no other more important duties to attend to. I think that our moral right to do as we please may be outweighed by a more important duty: the duty to try and prevent the death of innocent people. In the case of gun control, I think we have a duty to enact stricter gun control even if such legislation will be ineffective, but I have not yet argued for this claim.

By way of conclusion let me note that it is of course possible that some or all of what we’ve said here could be false or confused, but that is why I have you, dear reader. If you feel that I have missed something, let us converse about it together. May our conversation be less like a debate and more like a cooperative endeavor to get at what we all care about.

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