Guns 'n' Logic

I've never really understood the whole Second Amendment obsession. It seems to me that one can cover the whole "well-maintained militia" thing--if anybody really takes that seriously anymore--by issuing every military-age person a non-automatic rifle and then banning literally everything else. Because, as my friend Paul Halsall of English Eclectic points out in a recent post, while it is true that not all gun possessors are criminals, it is true that all those who commit crimes with guns are gun possessors. As someone who teaches a fair amount of logic, I have to say I'm rather impressed with that little bit of it, though the issue is much more complex than this. On a day like today, however, when we are hearing reports of the third school-shooting in the course of a week, it's tempting to look for ways to simplify.

The standard lines on the pro-gun side are fairly well drawn. If you make gun possession illegal, they say, all you do is take guns out of the hands of otherwise law-abiding citizens--there will be no effect on the criminal element because they don't obey the law anyway. Or else you make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding folk by forcing them to hide their guns. Of course, when an otherwise law-abiding citizen decides to actually use his gun for self-defense, he stands a good chance of making a criminal out of himself anyway, if he should happen to kill someone, since that would be to make an illicit private decision about the proper course of action to take in the defense of the common good.

The use of a firearm to kill in self-defense cannot properly be described as a defense of the common good--it is sheer self-preservation, and while we have a limited right to self-preservation, we do not have an inalienable right to self-preservation at literally any cost, in particular, we may not intentionally kill another in self-defense. We may apply deadly force, and the use of that force that results in unintentional death is licit, but this is rarely--if ever--what defenders of the Second Amendment have in mind. But those who construe the Second Amendment as having to do with individual rights of this kind are mistaken from the get-go: the Second Amendment does not so much guarantee a right to own firearms as it establishes a civic guarantee that citizens will be prepared to fulfill their duty to their fellow citizens in times of need. That is, the right to keep and bear arms is merely an instrumental right that is valid only in pursuit of the greater duty to maintain a militia for the defense of the common good. It is not at all clear that the unrestricted stockpiling of weapons of all types is in any way consistent with what the Second Amendment demands of us as citizens.

The positive law does not always track the moral law, however. Interpretation of the Second Amendment takes place within the context of the former, not the latter, and it responds to political pressure from all sides. What we wind up with is often not merely far from what the Framers intended, but also far from what is morally licit. This is most evidently true in the case of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was manifestly intended to free the slaves but now serves to justify the slaughter of unborn children. What was originally intended as a defense of the morally licit--and necessary--obligation to take up arms against unjust aggressors in defense of the common good is now used to justify the collection of all manner of weaponry for such trifles as killing other animals or such outrages as shooting trespassers, as if the right to private property were somehow higher on the scale of proper values than the right to life. The use of our Constitution in the defense of such practices is not without its costs, however, as we are now seeing in our schools. Are we willing to pay this cost rather than sacrifice a non-existent right to keep and bear arms for whatever reason we happen to think justifies our ownership and use of such things?

Comments

Entropy said…
Do you think hunting shouldn't be allowed? I'm not a fan of hunting purely for sport but I don't know many people who can afford that anyway. The hunters I know eat what they kill. It's a good way to supplement your family's meat supply.
I don't think that the value of a human life is more than the value of privacy but when someone trespasses into your home with the intent of doing harm, are you saying it's wrong to defend your home and family?
Scott Carson said…
I'm not a fan of hunting myself, but I don't see why it shouldn't be allowed. I think, however, that one could still do it with one's single non-automatic rifle rather than with a stockpile of semi-automatic rifles and handguns.

As for defending the home against intruders, I think you're forcing a false dichotomy on me. It simply isn't the case that we either allow everyone to own as many firearms as they like or prevent them entirely from defending home and family. Again, with the one, non-automatic rifle that everyone gets to own for the purpose of maintaining a militia, they could defend home and family.

It's worth noting, however, that empirical evidence suggests that owning your own firearms does nothing to make home invasion less likely, and that the vast majority of shootings that occur in the home are shootings of other family members, either by mistake or out of rage.
Entropy said…
I don't think I understand why having more than one gun is a problem. Do you think having more than one gun in the house makes it more likely for kids to walk into school with a gun? As far as that goes, I don't think guns are the real issue. If these kids feel so useless and bored with their lives or so enraged that they have to inflict pain and fear on those around them to either ease their own pain or to amuse themselves, there is a bigger problem than just whether personal firearms should be restricted. Restricting firearms on these grounds wouldn't stop school violence. It might change it from school shootings to school bombings or cuttings or fires. Guns aren't the problem, though they make a great scape goat. These kids need guidance (hopefully not from video games!) and real work to do. That's just my opinion, of course.
Entropy said…
About the thinking that home shootings are mostly accidents or rage. The National Rifleman magazine publishes newspaper articles that have to do with citizens defending their homes using firearms (and most of the time just showing it deters the intruders without a shot being fired! yea!). So even if it's true that shots being fired tend to be accidents or out of rage (which may not even be the case) how many people have been saved from having a firearm, being willing to use it but having the good sense not to unless necessary?
Scott Carson said…
Do you think having more than one gun in the house makes it easier to defend that house against an intruder? How many guns can you wield at one time without looking like Cool Hand Luke?

But I think you may be missing the point of my piece, which was merely that the Second Amendment does not say what many of its "defenders" claim that it says.

As for the empirical question, I fail to see how pointing to the number of instances where having a gun has deterred an intruder--a very small number--can stand as an adequate reply to the number of killings and injuries that are due to accident or rage--a very large number.

Nor can I say that I find your assertion that "guns aren't the problem" all that convincing. There is a statistical correlation between the levels of violent crime in a given society and the restrictions on gun ownership in that same society; any argument to the effect that "guns aren't the problem" is going to have to say something about that correlation other than just "that correlation doesn't mean what you say it does".

I'm happy to hear a meaningful response to the statistical correlation, but so far all you've done is make a counter-assertion.
Darwin said…
Both Israel and Switzerland have very high military reserve participation rates, and (if memory serves correctly) many of the reservists store a fully automatic assault rifle at home for that purpose. However, so far as I know, they have very low gun crime rates compared to the United States.

(At the other end of the spectrum, handguns are entirely illegal in Washington DC, yet it has one of the highest rates of gun violence in our country, and mostly via handguns.)

I suppose I'm in pretty flagrant violation of your proposed regulation, in that I currently own three rifles and a handgun (none of the rifles are semi-auto, though the pistol is) and have yet to make any sort of useful use of them such as hunting. (They're not primarily for home defense either, as I keep the guns and ammo locked up separately -- it would take me quite a while to arm.)

It'd be interesting to see some stats on the actual percentage of legal gun owners who injure or kill themselves or others vs. the percentages of owners of other dangerious recreational objects (jet skis, cars, etc.) who manage to kill themselves or others.

Certainly, guns are weapons and should be treated with respect and care (and I'd have no problem with _much_ stiffer penalties for their mis-use) but I guess there's enough libertarian lurking within me that I'm more comfortable with them legal than not.
Scott Carson said…
Darwin

I'm sympathetic to most of what you have to say, but I'm still having trouble getting my mind around the problem with regulation. As far as I can see, if you're allowed to own a rifle for the purposes of serving in the militia, what exactly is supposed to be such a great infringement of your rights to say that you can't own any other weapons? If the idea is supposed to be that we need to be able to arm ourselves sufficiently to take on the feds the way the colonists took on England in 1776, well, I'm afraid I just don't see it.

The right to private property is not without restrictions. Suppose somebody wanted to own lots and lots of weapons grade plutonium--would we let him? Or buckets of Ebola and Smallpox virus. These are all very dangerous things, and we restrict their ownership not merely because you never know what their owner is going to do with them, but because accidents happen, and these things are dangerous enough that we don't want to take any chances with accidents happening.

But I'm happy to listen to arguments explaining why it is better to own more rifles and handguns instead of just one rifle. Is it, perhaps, for "backup"? So what if we allow two or three rifles? Can you explain why it's necessary to own a handgun rather than a rifle, or more than three rifles? I'm just curious what the point would be. A lot of people say things like "Well, it's 'just in case'", but I'd really like to hear more specifics with regard to "in case of what", because right off the top of my head I can't think of any plausible reason why we should allow citizens to own either handguns or more than two or three rifles. But I'm open to reason.
Darwin said…
In my own case, the answer of why I own four guns and plan to own more in the future is basicaly "because they interest me." And also "because they're all different." There's honestly no "back-up" or any such purpose.

Why a handgun instead of a rifle? Well, it's a different skill. And getting really good with a handgun at indoor range distances of 25-50yds is pretty challenging, whereas with a rifle you need to head out to a 100yd range if you want to really test yourself.

On the rifles, I own a .22 which was my father's so there's sort of a sentimental attachment to that. And my other rifles are historic bolt action battle rifles from WWII. (Though they certainly work, and I shoot them every so often at the local range.) Since I plan to eventually have all four major battle rifles from the European theater, I'll eventually have a semi-automatic rifle (M-1 Garand). So there's both a historical/collector reason for having more than one, and they also all function differently in interesting ways.

Now, I appreciate the "why let people own dangerous things" argument. And I certainly think there are limits on what people should be allowed to own. I've no interest in seeing fully automatic weapons legal. And I would have no problem with people having to get a "gun license" in order to own firearms. (Though I'd have a certain un-ease that that was step number one on later confiscating all registered weapons.) I'd actually really like the idea of being automatically considered a militia member subject to call-up in local emergencies as a result of being a gun owner. That would make a lot of sense.

I guess the reason I feel sanguine about the idea of gun ownership is that I think that there is enough real utility to guns (whereas there's no practical civilian use for weapons grade plutonium) and a limited enough capacity for mass slaughter that it's a worth-while trade off.
Scott Carson said…
I confess that I've always been strangely fascinated by guns, and have long harbored a desire to take up sharpshooting with a pistol, so I certainly understand and sympathize with the idea that there's something intrinsically interesting about them, and I think that there's nothing at all morally wrong with owning them or using them to hunt or shoot at targets, and I'm very sympathetic indeed to the sentimental attachments you've formed.

On the other hand, I've never been particularly impressed by the "slippery slope" argument that suggests that once you let them limit you to just a handful of guns the next thing you know you won't get to own any guns at all. That simply doesn't follow. A point I pressed in my post was that the Second Amendment does in fact guarantee the right to own some guns--but it has to be understood as an instrumental right that is connected to a positive duty. So my argument is that the Second Amendment does not, in fact, say that you cannot strictly control gun ownership--if anything it actually mandates such control by saying that everybody ought to own a gun (Supreme Court decisions have shown that historically the Amendment is interpreted as meaning that all citizens are by definition members of a local militia and must be prepared to bear arms that they supply themselves). If this is true then there is no reason to fear that all gun ownership will be banned since that is quite clearly contrary to the Amendment; what is problematic is the claim, often made by college-level Second Amendment Club members (and some factions of the NRA), that the Second Amendment really means that we get to own as many guns of as many different kinds as we like, and any and every law that mucks about with that is a commie pinko plot to take away all our guns. I can't go along with that, however much I might like to own a cabinet full of Rugers myself.
Darwin said…
With your basic argument that the 2nd Ammendment does not mean that there can be no regulation of guns, I'm essentially in agreement. (Indeed, I very much agree with your interpretation of the militia element.)

Indeed, in that I don't have a problem with jumping through a few hoops (and because of my interest in historic military arms) I went through the 3 month process of getting registered with the ATF as a "collector of curio and relic firearms", which involves having a background check, keeping records of all your purchases, etc. The which I consider a pretty fair trade for the legal ability to order most guns over fifty years old via mail order directly form importers and distributors. (Without an ATF license, you cannot order guns mail-order.)

So I guess we agree in principle but have a few "prudential" differences on the level of danger to society created by individual citizens owning a variety of guns.

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