Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Arguing About Guns by C’zar Bernstein

This essay, by Oxford graduate student C’zar Bernstein, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Arguing About Guns

 

In this paper, I’ll argue, first, that people have a prima facie right to own guns. Second, that it is far more controversial than people usually suppose that gun ownership does more harm than good, given the extant criminological evidence.

Rights are trumps that are supposed to hold in the face of negative consequences.[1] Prima facie rights are rights that admit to being outweighed by countervailing considerations. However, because rights are supposed to trump negative consequences, one cannot merely point out that there are negative consequences as a reason to suppose that the right is overridden. She must establish that the negative consequences outweigh the trump-value of the right. Thus, if there is a prima facie right to own guns, anti-gun philosophers must show (i) that gun ownership does more harm than good, and (ii) that the negative consequences are sufficient to override the right to own guns. I’ll argue that there is a lot of good evidence to doubt that (i) is true. I shan’t, however, argue that (i) is probably false, which would require a much more extensive examination of the evidence.

Why should we suppose that there is a prima facie right to own guns?[2] Some philosophers argue that the right to own a gun is grounded in the right of self-defence.[3] The argument goes like this. The right of self-defence entails the right to be allowed to have access to reasonable means of individual self-defence, and because firearms are a particularly effective reasonable means of self-defence, people have a prima facie right to own guns.  More details will have to be filled in, but this is the basic idea. The argument is bolstered by empirical evidence, according to which defensive gun use (DGU) is very common and effective in the US. Kleck and Gertz (1995) found that there were an estimated 2.5 million DGUs in 1992 (which is far more common than criminal gun use). With respect to effectiveness, Kleck (2001: 289) found that only 3.6 percent of victims who took self-protection action with a gun were injured after they tried to defend themselves, compared to 15 percent who tried to reason with the offender, 8.6 percent who attacked the offender without a weapon, and 55 percent who took no self-protection actions whatever. According to Lott (2010: 3), ‘95 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack.’ If this is close to being accurate, it would imply that guns used by victims are not only safe for victims, but also for their attackers!

Consider now the argument from liberty. People have a right to be allowed to own x (where x is an artefact or tool) if owning x is not intrinsically immoral and there are no overriding contingent reasons for prohibiting the owning of x. In other words, there is a defeasible presumption in favour of liberty. I should then say that the ownership of guns is not intrinsically immoral. Consider the following two cases as evidence for this premise.

 

Case A: Country X has been conquered by a brutal and oppressive enemy, Y. Mary, a citizen of X, obtains a gun and joins a group of partisans who are able to effectively resist Y’s occupation. Mary, therefore, owns a gun. But Mary hasn’t acted wrongly.

 

Case B: Country X suffers from an enormously high violent crime rate such that, for any given person, there’s a significant probability that that person will be a victim of a violent crime. The government of X is not able to effectively fulfil its obligation to protect its citizens. Jack, in order to protect his family, obtains a gun. Jack, therefore, owns a gun. But Jack hasn’t acted wrongly.

It’s plausible that these cases are ones in which gun ownership is not wrong at all. Mary is praiseworthy for resisting the occupation with her gun. Similarly, Jack fulfilled his obligation to protect his family by obtaining a gun for their defence. If my verdict about these cases is correct, then gun ownership isn’t intrinsically immoral. Consequently, people have a right to be allowed to own guns if there aren’t overriding contingent reasons for prohibition. This just is a prima facie right to be allowed to own guns.

This is a weak conclusion. It could be that this right is overridden by the harms associated with gun ownership. There are two main arguments for gun prohibition. First, common gun ownership contributes significantly to rates of violent crime (especially rape and murder). Second, common gun ownership contributes significantly to rates of suicide. The idea is that if guns were to be banned, we’d expect to see crime and suicide rates fall. These are empirical claims that must be settled according to the scientific evidence. For lack of space, I’ll address only the first of these claims.

It’s very controversial that the prevalence of guns in a population significantly increases crime, or that bans significantly decrease crime. Kovandzic et al. (2013), for example, found that increases in noncriminal gun prevalence would moderately decrease both gun and total homicide rates. Kleck (2009; 2014:8) reports that of 36 studies on this question, only 11 ‘controlled for more than three control variables that had a statistically significant association with crime rates.’ Studies to which anti-gun philosophers have appealed were among those that controlled for none of these variables.[4] Only three studies controlled for more than six and all of them found that there are no significant effects of gun levels on violent crime (the Kovandzic study controlled for ten). In other words, the qualitatively best studies on this question have found either that there is a slight crime-decreasing effect or no discernible effect whatever.

There is also evidence that concealed carry laws (laws that allow civilians to carry guns concealed in public) cause reductions in violent crimes. Lott and Mustard (1997) found that these laws reduced murders and rapes by eight and five percent respectively. These findings have been independently confirmed. For example, Plassman and Whitley (2003), Moody et al. (2013), Moody et al. (2014), and Gius (2014) all found that these laws contribute to reductions in violent crime (including murder and rape). Of the peer-reviewed scientific studies on this question, ‘twenty…found right-to-carry laws reduced violent crime; eleven indicated no discernible effect. But absolutely none found that concealed-carry laws increase murder, rape, or robbery rates.’[5]

If this is correct, the best explanation is that criminals are deterred from committing crimes in places where civilians are able to carry guns, for criminals are not able to know in advance which of their potential victims will be carrying. There is independent evidence of a deterrent effect. According to one survey of state prisoners, 34 percent reported being scared off or wounded by an armed victim and 40 percent decided not to commit a crime because they believed the victim was armed.[6] Consider also so-called ‘hot’ burglary rates (burglaries that take place whilst the victim is at home). In Britain, about half of all burglaries are hot, compared to just 13 percent in the US.[7] This is exactly what we’d expect if the deterrence hypothesis were true: it’s riskier for criminals to invade a home in the US, whereas in Britain they can do so with relative impunity.

Consider European countries. Guns were banned in the UK in 1997. From 1984 to 1997, the average yearly number of homicides in England and Wales was 11.4 per million. This increased by 17.5 percent to 13.4 from 1998 to 2011.[8] From 1998 to 2005, gun crime soared by 340 percent.[9] Moreover, Kates and Mauser (2007) found no evidence that gun prevalence contributes significantly to violent crime. Norway has the highest gun ownership rate in Western Europe (32 percent), but also its lowest murder rate. Denmark has half the gun ownership rate of Norway, but has a 50 percent higher murder rate. Sweden has more than double the gun ownership rate as Germany but 25 percent less murder overall.[10] Anti-gun advocates typically point out that many European countries have lower murder rates than the US. This is quite true and quite irrelevant. There are many likely confounding factors not taken into account when one compares relatively peaceful European countries to the US.[11] These countries had lower crime rates before they passed their gun laws, so the fact that they still have lower rates is uninteresting. When one compares similar countries, the countries with higher gun rates often have lower crime rates.

Earlier I argued that there is a prima facie right to own guns. Given the above evidence, perhaps a reasonable case can be made for the proposition that the right to own guns is undefeated. But that would require a much more extensive examination of the evidence for both sides. What I hope to have done here is to cast doubt on the claim that gun ownership does more harm than good. Because the question of net social harms is an empirical question, we shouldn’t allow our justified contempt of highly publicised gun crimes to cloud our judgments about whether or not gun ownership ought to be prohibited. We should to come to a conclusion only after an impartial examination of the scientific evidence. Unfortunately, many fail to do this.

 

References

 

Dixon, N. (2011). “Handguns, Philosophers, and the Right to Self-Defense.” International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(2).

Dworkin, R. (1984). ‘Rights as Trumps’ in J. Waldron, Theories of Rights (Oxford University Press).

Gius, M. (2014). “An Examination of the Effects of Concealed Weapons Laws and Assault Weapons Bans on State-level Murder Rates.” Applied Economics Letters 21(4).

Hemenway, D. and Miller, M. (2001). ‘Firearm Availability and Homicide Rates Across 26 High-Income Countries.’ The Journal of Trauma, 49(6).

Kates, D. and Mauser, G. (2007). “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 30(2).

Killias, M. (1993). ‘Gun ownership, suicide, and homicide’ in Understanding Crime: Experiences of Crime and Crime Control. Frate, A. et al. (eds.). (Rome: UNICRI).

Killias, M. et al. (2001). ‘Guns, Violent Crime, and Suicide in 21 Countries.’ Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(4).

Kleck, G. and Gertz, M. (1995). ‘Armed Resistance to Crime.’ Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 86(1).

Kleck, G. (2001). Armed. (New York: Prometheus Books).

Kovandzic, T. et al. (2013). “Estimating the Causal Effect of Gun Prevalence on Homicide Rates.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 29(4).

Lott, J. and Mustard, D. (1997). “Crime, deterrence, and the right-to-carry concealed handguns.’ The Journal of Legal Studies, 26.

Lott, J. (1997). “Does Allowing Law-Abiding Citizens to Carry Concealed Handguns Save Lives?” Valparaiso University Law Review, 31(2).

Lott, J. (2010). More Guns, Less Crime. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Lott, J. (2012). ‘What a balancing test will show for right-to-carry laws.’ Maryland Law Review, 71.

Lott, J. (2014). “Research shows crime goes down with concealed-carry.” Columbus Dispatch. <http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/editorials/2014/05/03/1-research-shows-crime-goes-down-with-concealed-carry.html>

Moody, C. et al. (2013). ‘Did John Lott provide bad data to the NRC?’ Econ Journal Watch, 10(1).

Moody, C. et al. (2014). ‘The impact of right-to-carry laws on crime.’ Review of Economics and Finance, 4.

Plassman, F. and Whitley, J. (2003). “Confirming ‘More Guns, Less Crime.” Stanford Law Review, 55.

Rossi, P. H.. and Wright, J. (1986). Armed and Considered Dangerous (New York: Aldine Transaction).

 

[1] See Dworkin (1984).

[2] By ‘ownership’ I mean possession.

[3] I defend this in [suppressed].

[4] See Dixon (2011) who cites, e.g. Killias (1993), Killias et al. (2001), and Hemenway and Miller (2000).

[5] See Lott (2014). For a survey of the literature, see Lott (2012).

[6] Rossi and Wright (1986).

[7] See Lott (1997: 356).

[8] Smith et al. (2012: 31-32)

[9] Lott (2010: 316).

[10] Kates and Mauser (2007: 687-688).

[11] Presumably anti-gun advocates would not be impressed with the fact that former Soviet countries (including Russia) have enormously higher murder rates than the US despite their strict gun laws.

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10 Responses to Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Arguing About Guns by C’zar Bernstein

  • Odysseus M Tanner says:

    Interesting article. It’s important to keep in mind that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is not subject to any sort of cost-benefit analysis, which would be perverse on the face of it.

    • teebonicus says:

      I think her point is that the right of the people to keep and bear arms IS subject to a cost/benefit analysis. That’s what a prima facie right is.

      Which is why I disagree with her assertion that it is.

      (see below)

  • teebonicus says:

    I respectfully disagree that keeping and bearing arms is a prima facie right.

    Since the right to life is an absolute right, and defense of that life is consequently an absolute right, the right to the most efficient means of effecting both of the aforementioned cannot be prima facie – it is as absolute as the two from which it issues, since without it, the first two are without force.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Fascinating post, thanks. Two issues kind of jumped up at me from this – one is on the question of what you mean by guns; the other pertains to your safety statistics.

    Presumably you don’t think there is a prima facie right to own nuclear weapons. So somewhere in the scale between an air-rifle and your own first-strike capability this right evaporates. I think a lot of people regard a hunting rifle or even a pistol as quite different from automatic weapons (the invention of which revolutionised warfare, since it gave a small number the stopping power of a much larger force). Is there a distinction to be made between prima facie ownership rights to a weapon that can stop maybe a couple of people, and a weapon that can take out a city block?

    In terms of the statistics – if Al carries a weapon and Bruce doesn’t, confrontations with a bad guy may turn out better for Al, but worse for Bruce. If a bird preys on wasps and flies, and if wasps arm themselves, then I expect a rougher deal for flies. If Al buys a gun, then the bad guy will go after Bruce. When Al buys a gun with the intent of defending himself against an armed bad guy he is (1) repudiating, albeit weakly, the state’s monopoly on violence; (2) sparking an arms race; (3) increasing the risk to Bruce. We usually think that behaving in a way that mitigates the risks you face, but exacerbates the risks faced by others is troubling. (Anti-vaccination loonies probably do reduce their risk slightly; at the cost of substantially increasing risks to more vulnerable citizens.) Since there are a few ways in which someone buying a gun does not internalise the consequences of their action, the conversation cannot be thought to end when wee consider the gun owner’s rights.

    • C'Zar Bernstein says:

      Thanks for the response.

      The distinction I’d draw between nuclear weapons and firearms is that the latter, unlike the former, are a reasonable means of *individual* self and other-defence. This doesn’t only apply to guns. Weapons qua weapons differ only in their degree of lethality. The distinction between ownership of other defensive weapons (e.g. knives) and nuclear weapons, tanks, fighter jets, etc. would be the same.

      The problem with your second point is that criminals don’t know in advance which of their potential victims will be armed, so the pro-gun hypothesis claims that general gun ownership is beneficial to non-gun owners in addition to gun owners. The following is more analogous: Al carries a gun and Bruce doesn’t. Bad Guy doesn’t know whether Al or Bruce is carrying. Bad Guy, therefore, has an extra reason not to move forward with an attack; it’s riskier (from his perspective). Now suppose Bad Guy knows that Al and Bruce don’t have guns (because law-abiding civilians aren’t allowed to). The attack becomes more attractive. There’s empirical evidence to support the claim that this is the kind of thing that happens. I’m not aware of any empirical evidence that supports the hypothesis that gun carrying makes other people less safe (with respect to violent crime). So I don’t think your (3) is true; there’s a lot of empirical evidence to support its negation (see the evidence in the essay).

      • Dave Frame says:

        C’Zar wrote: “Weapons qua weapons differ only in their degree of lethality. The distinction between ownership of other defensive weapons (e.g. knives) and nuclear weapons, tanks, fighter jets, etc. would be the same.”

        But this distinction matters because you’re tying it to “reasonable means of *individual* self and other-defence.” Who am I permitted to defend? Myself, obviously, and my family. But how about my neighbours? My suburb? Presumably at some small scale your rights to defend get subsumed by those of the state. (Think George Zimmerman, if it helps.) What’s your conception of where that level is, either in terms of geography or firepower? (Mine is that automatic weapons are on the other side of the line; and one could argue about semiautomatics, depending on your circumstances.)

        You don’t really engage with my other point – you just give a different example in which guns are good. (It is not the case, internationally, that crime is most rife where gun laws are restrictive, so I don’t think a generic argument that looser gun laws strongly lowers crime is a non-starter.*) But even if we accept that in some dodgy neighborhoods, armed citizens decrease overall crime, that would not be the end of the matter if it altered the distribution of crime. If Al’s purchase of a gun makes Bad Guy more trigger happy – suppose it does for argument’s sake – then wouldn’t you think there is more to this as a public policy problem than if this were not the case?

        • C'Zar Bernstein says:

          You’re permitted to defend yourself and other individuals whose lives are in danger. An example would be stopping a rape. The same would apply whether or not guns are allowed (most countries have laws allowing the use of lethal force in the defence of oneself and/or others, if death or great bodily injury is imminent). Guns are just another means people have in the U.S. to defend themselves and other individuals in these kinds of ordinary cases.

          I’m afraid I did engage with your hypothetical. The relevant question is whether your hypothetical is more realistic than mine, and to answer that question we must look to the empirical evidence. We can’t settle a priori whether gun ownership makes things riskier for non-gun owners. The evidence in the essay is a good place to start. Alternatively, this paper surveys all of the relevant studies: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004723521400107X

    • Tim Hsiao says:

      I am not sure how civilian ownership of firearms repudiates the state’s monopoly on violence. First, can’t this be said of any use of force in self-defense? Second, it seems to me that so long as a private citizen does not resort to vigilantism and acts within the legal limits of the law, that he is acting as a proxy agent of the state. People who lawfully carry concealed weapons, for example, are licensed by the state and not acting in opposition to its laws (we can think of it the state’s authority in this matter as a regulating a kind of civilian posse comitatus). Hence its monopoly on force is not threatened.

      Regarding (2), can’t we iterate this argument backwards as well? If it is impermissible to own defensive weapons because of the risk of an arms race, then it would seem that civilians should not be allowed to own any kind of weapon. Hence the only means with which citizens can defend themselves is with their own arms and legs — which surely is implausible.

      Finally, regarding (3): I don’t see how gun ownership would increase Bruce’s risk of being victimized. If the idea is supposed to be that criminals who would have gone for Al will now go for Bruce because he is an ‘easier’ target, then this is true only if criminals *know* Bruce to be unarmed (and if they know that, then they’re going to target him regardless of what weapon Al has).

      • Dave Frame says:

        On Tim’s first point – this is why I mentioned George Zimmerman. You’re right it’s something of a grey area. But I think many of your fellow citizens would be disinclined to view gun-toting strangers as proxies of the state… Over-zealous neighbourhood watch types might claim they are acting in self-defence, but this is not obviously convincing – if one is prowling around seeking random strangers** to confront, I think most reasonable people would think this stretches the bounds of self-defence, and is basically arrogating to oneself the job(s) we usually think properly belong to the police, ie, the state. (And though I guess I could mount an argument that I as an *individual* need automatic weapons (and maybe a Blackhawk helicopter) for self-protection just in case a particularly well-armed gang/the UN world government/other figments of fevered imaginations mount an attack against me personally, I think this would dramatically fail to convince most of my fellow citizens – I expect my neighbours would feel more threatened by my Blackhawk/arsenal than by the World Govt. )

        On (2), yes, we could iterate the argument that way, but that wasn’t my question. My question was about upper limits on your right to self-defence, not lower limits. You’ve shown that taking the same argument in the opposite direction doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. But what of the upper bounds on self-defence?

        On (3), Sun Tzu, among others, made the point that you go after the weakest link in a defensive chain. If Bad Guy can work out which among his potential victims are armed, he can avoid them and go after the unarmed. This creates externalities to the unarmed. And there is evidence that this happens with cross-state gun crime in the USA – see Brian Knight, 2013. “State Gun Policy and Cross-State Externalities: Evidence from Crime Gun Tracing,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 5(4), pages 200-229, November. As part of the concluding discussion, Knight offers the following: “First, tracking flows respond to gun regulations, with guns imported from states with weak gun laws into states with strict gun laws. Thus, the necessary condition for cross-state externalities is satisfied. The second key result is that proximity matters, with tracking flows more significant between two nearby states than between two distant states. Thus, any externalities have a spatial component, with a weakening of gun laws having a more significant effect in nearby states. The third key result is that, consistent with the existence of cross-state externalities, criminal possession rates tend to be higher in states exposed to weak gun laws in other states.

        These findings of cross-state externalities have a number of policy implications. First, to the extent that states do not internalize these externalities when setting gun regulations, gun policy may be too lax under decentralization.”

        So his analysis finds that at this level of aggregation, enhanced gun-ownership among some folks creates (negative) externalities among their neighbours. My question was: don’t you think that the presence of such externalities means that prima facie ownership rights aren’t the end of the story?

        **or non-random strangers, depending on the facts of any given case.

  • C'Zar Bernstein says:

    You’re permitted to defend yourself and other individuals whose lives are in danger. An example would be stopping a rape. The same would apply whether or not guns are allowed (most countries have laws allowing the use of lethal force in the defence of oneself and/or others, if death or great bodily injury is imminent). Guns are just another means people have in the U.S. to defend themselves and other individuals in these kinds of ordinary cases.

    I’m afraid I did engage with your hypothetical. The relevant question is whether your hypothetical is more realistic than mine, and to answer that question we must look to the empirical evidence. We can’t settle a priori whether gun ownership makes things riskier for non-gun owners. The evidence in the essay is a good place to start. Alternatively, this paper surveys all of the relevant studies: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004723521400107X

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