A Challenge to Gun Rights

Written By Professor Jeff McMahan

 

On this day in the US, around thirty people will be killed with a gun, not including suicides.  Many more will be wounded.  I can safely predict this number because that is the average number of homicides committed with a gun in the US each day.  Such killings have become so routine that they are barely noticed even in the local news.  Only when a significant number of people are murdered, particularly when they include children or are killed randomly, is the event considered newsworthy.

 

Yet efforts to regulate the possession of guns in the US are consistently defeated.

 

The case for gun rights rests primarily on two claims, one about facts, the other about moral principle.  The claim about fact is that members of society as a whole are safer when more of them have guns, since potential aggressors are likelier to be deterred the more reasonable it is for them to believe that their potential victim is armed.  The claim about principle is that each person has a right of self-defense and that this right entails a further right not to be deprived of, or prevented from having, the most effective means of self-defense.  These claims are independent.  Most of those who assert them think the second would be true even if the first were false.

 

Advocates of gun rights (to whom I will refer as “advocates”) usually defend the claim about fact by appealing to statistics – for example, those that suggest that when a city bans handguns, rates of violent crime and homicide increase rather than decrease.  The claim about principle is often defended by appeal to an analogy with an individual case.  Suppose a person is about to be killed by a culpable aggressor but has a gun that she can use to defend herself.  As the aggressor approaches, another person takes the potential victim’s gun away from her, with the consequence that she is killed by the aggressor.  It is clear that the intervening person violates the victim’s right of defense.  The same is true, according to advocates, of a state that deprives its citizens of their guns, or prevents them from having guns.  Whenever a person is harmed who could have defended herself if she had had a gun, and her lacking a gun is attributable to restrictions the state imposes on their possession, the state has violated her right of self-defense.

 

There is much that one could say about each of these claims.  The statistics cited above, for example, do not show what happens when an area changes from one in which private citizens have guns to one in which they do not; at most they show what happens when cooperative people surrender their guns but determined criminals keep theirs.  One might add that if advocates in the US really believed their own statistics, they would not have acted so successfully to stifle government funding for empirical research on gun violence.  As for the example intended to support the claim about principle, there are various failures of analogy between disarming a victim faced with an immediate threat and limiting or prohibiting private possession of guns throughout a society.  The relevant analogy is with a situation in which a third party disarms both the aggressor and the potential victim and provides protection for the victim.

 

I will, however, present a different challenge to the central claims of advocates.  I suggest that we test them by imagining a situation in which individuals are continuously at high risk of being wrongly attacked and even killed but in which the state aggressively prevents them from having guns, or indeed any means of self-defense at all.  Instead the state compels them to rely for their security on third party defenders who, like the police in domestic society, cannot be continuously present to protect them.  What advocates say scathingly of the police – “when every second counts, the police are only minutes away” – is often true of these third party defenders.  The central claims of advocates ought to apply most forcefully to people in these conditions.  It seems that such people, who are in constant danger of being attacked or killed, would be safer if they had guns to protect themselves and that the state violates their rights of self-defense by preventing them from having guns and confiscating guns from any who might acquire them.

 

I think, however, that this is false.  Contemporary moral philosophers are noted, or perhaps notorious, for their use of hypothetical examples.  The example I have just sketched is hypothetical.  But it describes the conditions in an actual institution: prison.

 

Prison populations contain an unusually high proportion of people who are disposed to violence.  And prison inmates often sort themselves into rival groups or gangs that reflect their affiliations prior to imprisonment, thereby importing preexisting antagonisms into the prison environment.  Without protection, prisoners, and especially the weaker ones, would be far more likely to be assaulted than most people who are not imprisoned.  Yet the state denies them any means of self-defense, forcing them to rely on armed guards and certain physical and institutional safeguards for their protection.

 

If the logic behind the advocates’ empirical claim were correct, prisoners would be safer if they were allowed to have guns and thus did not have to rely on guards for protection.  Each would be deterred from attacking any other by the knowledge that the other was, or at least might be, armed.  This parallels the advocate’s claim that citizens are safer if they are armed and do not have to rely solely on the police for their protection.  Of course, if prisoners were armed, they might in many instances be able to defend themselves against guards, thereby decreasing the effectiveness of guards as protectors.  But advocates presumably advance their empirical claim in the awareness that police would similarly be more often deterred or forcibly prevented from fulfilling their protective functions if most or all citizens were armed at all times.

 

It does not take much imagination to see that prisoners locked up together with guns but without guards would not be more secure than prisoners without guns but with guards.  This is particularly obvious in the case of any prisoners who did not have guns when others did.  The idea that only some prisoners might have guns is entirely consistent with the gun rights position.  Advocates typically claim only that the right of self-defense entails a right not to be deprived of a gun, or not to be prevented from acquiring one.  They do not argue that people have a positive right to be provided with a gun by the state.  Their view thus seems to imply that while the state ought not to prevent prisoners from acquiring guns, it need not provide guns to those who cannot get them otherwise.  Those who are unable to get a gun would then have to rely for protection on someone else who has one – just as in the advocates’ ideal society those who are unable to acquire or use a gun, such as children and certain disabled people, would have to rely on the generosity of others for their protection.

 

Advocates will no doubt respond by denying that their view commits them to the claim that the state violates prisoners’ rights of self-defense by denying them access to guns.  They might, for example, argue that convicted criminals have forfeited their right to the possession of a gun.  Yet no one can forfeit his right of self-defense against wrongful attack.  Consider a modification of the advocates’ own example.  Suppose a convicted criminal has a gun and will be wrongly killed by an aggressor unless he uses it in self-defense.  Someone who then takes his gun away, thereby ensuring that he is killed, seems to violate his right of self-defense.  That might not be true if the criminal would, after defending himself, use the gun to threaten innocent people.  Similarly, prisoners might forfeit their right to effective means of self-defense if they could also use those means to threaten innocent people outside of prison.  But it does not seem that they forfeit their right to effective means of defending themselves from wrongful attacks by other prisoners.

 

But does the state really violate the rights of prisoners by denying them access to guns for self-defense?  Not if each prisoner has a higher expected level of security against assault and homicide when they are all protected by guards than each would have if all were allowed to have guns for self-defense.  The right of self-defense is not fundamental but is derivative from the more basic right to physical security.  Thus a prohibition of gun possession does not violate prisoners’ rights if it enhances their security by reducing the occasions on which a prisoner might need a gun to defend his life.  And the same is true outside of prisons – where, at least in the US, people are more likely to be murdered than they would be if they were in prison.[1]

 

 

[1] In the US, the murder rate in 2011 was 4.7 per 100,000 people.  In local jails between 2000 and 2010 it was 3 per 100,000.  See Brian Palmer, “Which is Safer: City Streets or Prison?” Slate, June 19, 2013.  http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2013/06/murder_rate_in_prison_is_it_safer_to_be_jailed_than_free.html

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79 Responses to A Challenge to Gun Rights

  • Dennis Whitcomb says:

    Hi Jeff,
    I think most of what you say here is right, but only if it is restricted to a certain sort of pro-gun view, in particular the (popular) pro-gun view that people should be allowed to carry guns in relatively highly populated areas such as cities and towns. Consider a much more restricted (and less popular among gun advocates) view of the matter, in particular the view that people ought to be allowed to carry guns, but only in relatively unpopulated areas where there is some reason for doing so (such as a self-defense reason). Suppose that a person lives in the middle of nowhere, in a place where there are regular sightings of bears and cougars, and that this person frequently walks around where these sightings have occured, and that when he does so there are usually no other people in the vicinity. I would think that the things you say here don’t give us reason to outlaw that person’s carrying a gun in the scenarios where he is walking around his property. So I think a more restricted (and less currently popular) pro-gun view survives your critique here.

  • Tim Hsiao says:

    Suppose a prison forbade its prisoners from mounting any kind of self-defense attempt on the grounds that resistance could incite a riot. Presumably this would be unjust, for even though the prison may deny prisoners access to certain means of self-defense, it cannot deny them the right to exercise self-defense in general. So given that prisoners should be allowed to mount at least some kind of resistance against unjust attack, the question then becomes “Which means of resistance should be available to them?”

    You’re right in noting that it would be silly to suppose that prisoners should be allowed to own guns, but prisoners are also denied access to many other weapons — pepper spray, knives, bats, anything that can be turned in to an improvised weapon, and much more. Indeed, it seems as if the only weapons that prisoners may use are their hands and feet. If the prison example is supposed to be analogous to common life, then we can extend the argument to rule out private ownership of all kinds of weapons, not just firearms. This, I think, goes way too far.

    Many people who would otherwise consider themselves ‘pro-gun’ nevertheless support certain restrictions on gun-carrying (e.g. carrying a gun into police stations or high-security government facilities). Why is this? I take the rationale to be something like this: There is a right to carry a gun exists because the state cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens (something which would require a police state). If, however, this requirement can be met, then the right to carry a gun for self-protection can be overridden.

    But if the state can’t meet this requirement, then it is not at all clear why restrictions on gun ownership or carrying should be restricted. Suppose we have an understaffed and mismanaged prison in which the staff is utterly incapable of protecting its inmates from each other. There’s a very strong case to be made that in this type of environment, prisoners have the right either to demand better state protection, or, failing that, access to an adequate means of self-defense to protect themselves. This need not be a firearm.

    It also may be the case that while prisoners have no general right to own a gun, that they may gain this right in certain cases. If the state fails in its duty to protect a prisoner, it is not a stretch to suppose that said prisoner gains the right to take all necessary means in order to protect his life, even if that includes procuring and firing a gun. So it is possible for a prisoner’s right of self-defense to be violated by confiscating his gun, even if he has no general right to own it. Applying this to common life, since the state regularly fails to protect common citizens from all sorts of crime, private citizens have the even stronger right to own and carry weapons for their defense.

    • Owen Schaefer says:

      I was also at first tempted to reject Jeff’s prison case as quite disanalogous. But on reflection, I think it makes sense if you interpret it in a dialectically narrow way.

      I take Jeff to be arguing against a very specific, if popular, defense of gun rights – the one that draws on the analogy between restricting gun rights and batting the gun out of the hands of someone about to defend themselves from significant harm. The more general principle is as follows:

      Whenever a person is harmed who could have defended herself if she had had a gun, and her lacking a gun is attributable to restrictions the state imposes on their possession, the state has violated her right of self-defense.

      The problem with this way of thinking is that it has an absurd implication – that prisoners’ rights to self-defense against wrongful attack (which is inviolable) is violated because they can’t have guns. So, imagine there’s a prison riot, a guard with a gun comes in, but is disarmed, and a nearby prisoner A who had not been involved in the riot is about to get killed by prisoner B. Prisoner A picks up the gun and aims it at his (unjust) aggressor B, but then the guard bats the gun out of A’s hand, resulting in A getting killed by B. It seem straightforward that A’s right to self-defense against unjust aggression has been violated, as in the original case, and that right cannot be forfeited in virtue of being in prison. But if the original case implied regular citizens should have the general right to own guns, the modified case should imply prisoners should have the general right to own guns. Which is absurd. So the implication is either specious, or gun rights advocates who use this line of argument are a lot more absurd than they seem. Appeal to the more general principle (counterfactual harm-prevention) will result in similarly absurd implications – plenty of prisoners who have been shanked can complain that having a gun would’ve protected them, implying that we should protect their right to self-defense and allow them access to guns.

      Other arguments are mostly unaddressed by Jeff’s post. This includes arguments relying on more moderate principles, like a right to own property that is much stronger when that property is an efficient means of self-defense (but can still be forfeited by prisoners), or the argument you float, where you only allow guns when the state fails (suggesting, if you’re not for arming the US prison population, that the US can guarantee the safety of its prisoners but not its general population). The empirical analysis is also quite thin, as C’Zar points out below, but there’s only so much you can do in a blog post.

      • Paul Hammond says:

        I think Owen’s reconstruction of the argument is exactly right: that the analogy works if we’re talking specifically about the argument from moral principle that Jeff cites, to wit, that the right to self-defense entails the right to the most effective means of self-defense. However, I think it is also open to the advocates to interpret “most effective” in that principle as context-sensitive, and therefore to claim that the analogy fails because outside of prison private gun ownership is “more effective” than state protection, and inside prison the reverse is true. In that case, the principled argument to some extent collapses into the empirical one, but the argument wouldn’t disprove the moral principle in question.

  • C'Zar Bernstein says:

    Prof McMahan,

    Interesting post. Some thoughts on your comments on the empirical claims of advocates:

    //The case for gun rights rests primarily on two claims, one about facts, the other about moral principle. The claim about fact is that members of society as a whole are safer when more of them have guns…//

    There is a more modest claim: common gun ownership does not significantly increase rates of violent crime (which is consistent with the claim that gun ownership doesn’t reduce rates of violent crime). This is, I believe, Gary Kleck’s view.

    //The statistics cited above, for example, do not show what happens when an area changes from one which private citizens have guns to one in which they do not; at most they show what happens when cooperative people surrender their guns but determined criminals keep theirs//

    I’m not sure why this is relevant. The hypothesis is that common gun ownership contributes significantly to rates of violent crime. If true, we’d expect the violent crime rate to decrease with a significant decrease in the gun ownership rate. If gun bans, which do cause the gun ownership rate to significant decrease, cause crime to increase, or fail to cause a decrease, then this counts significantly against the hypothesis. If the response is that gun bans are ineffective at eliminating guns from the criminal population, then it is hard for me to see why we’d promote taking guns away from people who don’t commit crimes.

    //If the logic behind the advocates’ empirical claim were correct, prisoners would be safer if they were allowed to have guns and thus did not have to rely on guards for protection//

    The hypothesis is that increases in *noncriminal* gun prevalence decreases violent crime (see Kovandzic et al (2013)). It’s hard for me to see why your case ‘parallels [this] claim.’

  • Jim says:

    Am the only person who thinks the writer’s resort to a prison analogy has a glaring defect? Having worked in San Quentin for 5 years and knowing a bit about the prison population and how it is controlled I can tell you living in a prison where ‘guards’ control aggression is not a society in which a rational man wants to live. The major way 400 guards control 5000 prisons is by playing them one against the other. I personally don’t wish to live under a guard tower. And I think that is sorta why we have the 3rd Amendment. So I leave you with the following:

    The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside…Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them… — Thomas Paine, I Writings of Thomas Paine at 56 (1894).

  • teebonicus says:

    “Yet efforts to regulate the possession of guns in the US are consistently defeated.”

    You really needn’t have gone beyond that.

    The reason they are defeated is because they are facially unconstitutional. The reason they are unconstitutional is because the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution recognizes a preexisting fundamental unalienable right of the people to go armed, that doesn’t depend upon such constitutional recognition for its being.

    All arguments that seek to mitigate those facts are feeble “Yes, but…” attempts to refute the irrefutable, or worse, to ignore them.

    The bottom line is, we have that right and we refuse to let anyone take it from us, incrementally or otherwise.

    • Dave Frame says:

      teebonicus wrote:”The reason they are defeated is because they are facially unconstitutional.”

      Prohibition of alcohol was created through a similar constitutional amendment. It, too, was a fine example of the tyranny of the small over the large – ie a well-organised minority using “democratic” processes to get their way even in the face of majority opposition. The fact you had such a constitutional provision wasn’t the end of the matter. People kept talking about it until it was repealed. So the fact you currently have rights does not say anything much about whether you’ll have them in future*, or whether you ought to have them in the first place.

      • teebonicus says:

        Fundamental rights aren’t granted by the Constitution. They are endowed by our Creator. The Constitution exists to bind the government to certain functions and powers. It does not bind the people in any manner, shape or form.

        It is not up to any human to decide whether or not we will or will not have these rights – we have them whether or not anyone else approves.

        “The right there specified is that of ‘bearing arms for a lawful purpose’. This is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.” – U.S. v. Cruikshank, 1875

        • Dave Frame says:

          teebonicus writes: “It is not up to any human to decide whether or not we will or will not have these rights – we have them whether or not anyone else approves.”

          Other people think they have equally fundamental rights, whether or not you approve, to be free from gun violence through tighter regulation. The Creator, if it exists, seems to be sitting this one out. So I’m afraid it is up to human beings to decide on legal rights, at least. In any case, as Tim Hsiao points out below, the argument is not about whether you do have rights to own guns, it’s about whether you should.

          • jack burton says:

            my fundamental right to keep me and mine safe has no bearing on the actions of others. It requires no other person to take action, or to change their desires to match mine.

            If a person thinks they have a fundamental “right to be free from gun violence” by requiring action or change on MY part then they are not speaking of “rights” but “demands” on the freedom of others.

            That’s like demanding a city cut all the trees down because I have a “right to not have a tree fall on me and kill me.” (which happened to a good friend of ours.) Or demanding that all dogs in town be euthanized because I have a “right not to be bit by a rabid dog.” (which also happen to have happened to a friend — not the same friend, BTW)

            • Billy hazes says:

              Your friend must be a pretty slow draw if he can’t shoot a dog before it bites him…He has no one to blame but himself

              • jack burton says:

                He was five years old. A little too young to be strapping on a gun even for most hard core 2nd amendment supporters. 🙂

            • Eda says:

              Do you draw any line on what biological and mechanical weapons private citizens should be able to manufacture and keep? Nuclear weapons? Chemical ebola weapons? If you draw such a line explain your argument for drawing it. Does drawing that line involve putting a demand ahead of a freedom? If so, why is it ok in that case but not in the case of handguns?

              • jack burton says:

                OK, I’m invoking the 2nd amendment equivalent of Godwin’s law here.

                “The first person to equate the unregulated proliferation of nuclear weapons (or crew served weapons) to civilians as a consequence of the 2nd amendment loses the argument.”

                • Ed says:

                  It appears you misread my comment Jack. I did not equate anything. I didn’t even assert anything. I asked you to detail the claims you’ve made here – so far claims lacking in justification – and for you to describe what those claims entail with regard to other forms of weaponry.

                  • jack burton says:

                    when you get around to describing the large outcry on the part of the public for nukes in the basement then we can have a discussion. Until then it is just a strawman post.

                    • Eda says:

                      There is no such outcry because any attempt to manufacture nuclear weapons, or ebola strains, in private citizens basements would quickly be severely punished and stopped by law enforcement, since illegal.

                      But the point is that you have with great confidence made certain claims here. You claimed:

                      “If a person thinks they have a fundamental “right to be free from gun violence” by requiring action or change on MY part then they are not speaking of “rights” but “demands” on the freedom of others. ”

                      You appear to claim that such “demands” cannot be justified. Since you are making that claims it seems perfectly in order for others like me to kindly ask you to clarify your view and provide arguments for it. Since there are many possible forms of weapons I want you to clarify which weapons on that possible spectrum that such “demands” can or cannot be justified for. Handguns? Nuclear weapons? Ebola strains? And so on. If your claim is that no one – including the police – may permissible stop your neighbor from trying to manufacture nuclear weapons or ebola strains in the basement a few meters from your house then it would be informative if you clearly said that. If you do not think that then clearly you must draw a line somewhere between the nuclear weapons and the handguns. One can then ask where you draw that line and what reasons you have for drawing it there. After that is clarified those reasons can be examined and evaluated.

              • John Pate says:

                Weapons of indiscriminate killing and mass destruction can’t be used for self defence. Arguably governments have no moral right to deploy them either.

                • Eda says:

                  The weapons I mentioned can be used discriminatively in some circumstances. So it is possible to use them only discriminately against aggressors in some select scenarios. They can of course also be misused. But so can handguns. There may be a difference in the likelihood of misuse. But if you would argue that such a difference makes a moral difference then I would ask for more details on that. What degree of likelihood? And why draw the line there?

                  • John Pate says:

                    Your statement is factually incorrect. A weapon such as a nuclear weapon or bioweapon has long term effects that are not contained to its first use, for instance. The effects of nuclear tests are still blighting areas of the world, let alone actual weapons deployment.

                    What you say is true of an explosive device such as a hand grenade but weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate killing are qualitatively and quantitatively different.

                    When circumscribing rights it would seem to me to be on the face of it appropriate to err on the side of allowing something that enables that right. I would posit that hand grenades and rocket propelled grenades can be seen as legitimate weapons of self defence whereas, as stated, the deployment of weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate killing is a crime against humanity.

                    • Eda says:

                      I claimed “The weapons I mentioned can be used discriminatively in some circumstances” and you now claim that that statement is “factually incorrect”.

                      To rebut your claim I need to describe possible instances of a discriminative use of said weapons. Here are several such instances:

                      1. Tom lives in a remote area and own large areas of land. Tom manufactures a small nuclear weapon. Tom also has a nuclear bunker in his residence. When aggressors try to break down his door, dead set on killing him, Tom goes to the nuclear bunker and from there remotely trigger the nuclear device. Since the land is remote no other person than the aggressors are killed. Afterwards Tom fences off the wasteland and contains the toxic remains.

                      2. similar to the above but involving ebola.

                      3. Tom manufactures both nuclear weapons and ebola and keeps it in his house in a populated area and then falsely spreads a rumor that he is willing to sacrifice his own life with those weapon if ever aggressed against, even though he would never actually use the weapons. The rumor combined with his possession of the weapons curb at least one would be aggressor.

                      You have not pointed out any qualitative difference. As i granted earlier there may be a quantiative difference. But you have so far not provided details on what degree of likelihood is the morally relevant limit and why.

                    • John Pate says:

                      @Eda you either have no understanding of how bioweapons and nuclear weapons actually work or you are deliberately mis-representing them. Your argument is invalid.

                    • Eda says:

                      John Pate: is there is an error then you should be able to describe it. You have not. Is it really validity that you worry about, since you seem to call into question factual premises in an argument?

  • jack burton says:

    ///One might add that if advocates in the US really believed their own statistics, they would not have acted so successfully to stifle government funding for empirical research on gun violence.///

    One might also add that the so called “research” was done by biased people who’s stated and public goal was to “prove” that guns were somehow evil. Here’s an exhaustive look at what happened and why

    jpands (dot) org/hacienda/article9 (dot) html

    And for a closer look at this “moral right” a good place to start is “Is the damage to society from the misuse of guns worth the freedom to have guns?”at jack-burton.hubpages (dot) com/hub/damage-society-guns

    • ExNuke says:

      Perhaps if the “researchers” hadn’t been so over eager and tipped their hands with “research” that displayed an obvious agenda from the start they would not have been shut down. I for one resent my tax money being spent on propaganda arguing to violate my rights.

  • Devil S. Advocate says:

    How many people per day decide to become criminals or commit a criminal act?
    How many new criminals are coming into the U.S. everyday?
    Darwin sez they should endure the natural choice of things.

  • Frank White says:

    The USA population is more than 310,000,000. 70,000 firearm deaths per year is statistically insignificant. Of course, should you or a loved one fall into the 70,000 category there is no comfort in statistics.

    Should you wish to examine the effectiveness of draconian gun laws preventing violent crime in the United States, look no further than a mostly overlooked part of the United States, the U.S. Virgin Islands.

    • Dave Frame says:

      Frank wrote: “The USA population is more than 310,000,000. 70,000 firearm deaths per year is statistically insignificant.”

      But it’s still a rate that’s far higher than in countries with comparable levels of economic development.

      • Frank White says:

        I don’t care what other countries statistics may be. Don’t live there, not my circus, and certainly not my monkeys.

        • Dave Frame says:

          Frank wrote: “I don’t care what other countries statistics may be. Don’t live there, not my circus, and certainly not my monkeys.”

          To the extent that your fellow countrymen might like an evidence-based debate, international evidence is still relevant, irrespective of your personal feelings on the matter.

          • jack burton says:

            Debate on what?

            1) comparing straight up violence or death with violence or death then our country’s rate is somewhere in the middle. I’ve generally found that a dead person is still dead whether he was killed by a another person with a rock, knife, baseball bat, or gun, or just thrown out a window from the fifth floor.

            2) We don’t seek approval from other countries for our freedoms.

            3)Freedom is freedom… it doesn’t depend upon the misuse of it by those who would abuse it as noted in my previously posted essay link

            • Dave Frame says:

              Jack wrote: “Debate on what?”

              … that would be the debate on whether or not you have a moral right to own a gun. But you guy right ahead and beg the question again.

              I haven’t seen this many crazy people on practicalethics since Brian Earp’s circumcision threads.

              • jack burton says:

                “crazy people”

                There ya go. All we need know about Dave’s starting and ending point on this discussion.

                He wants to decide “moral right” with statistics.

  • fsilber says:

    We do not arm imprisoned violent criminals because, being violent criminals, they have made war against decent society and thereby have made themselves an enemy. The self-defense needs of our enemies are not a high priority.

    Another point is that safety (freedom from death) is not the only value. There is also the right not to be robbed (or raped). Those wanting us to rely on police for freedom from robbery should have made a greater effort to ensure their effectiveness instead of telling us that there was little police could do to suppress crime until the root causes (such as racism, poverty and economic inequality) were eliminated.

  • Hitchcock 45 says:

    Around 30,000 people are shot and killed on average every year in the US .Of this number 10,000 are homicides the rest are suicides accidents and what are called justifiable shootings mainly by citizens defending themselves or shootings by the police.The exact number shot by police seems to be unknown .Of the homicides by far the greatest number occur in impoverished inner city areas where rival drugs gangs slug it out for control of the drug trade.

  • Tim Hsiao says:

    Although I consider myself very pro-gun, I have to say that almost all of the comments here so far have completely ignored the point of McMahan’s argument. Citing the Second Amendment is irrelevant, since the point of this post concerns whether there is a moral right to own guns. Using a legal argument is quite irrelevant to establishing this. Indeed if the argument works, then it would simply follow that the Second Amendment ought to be repealed.

    • C'Zar Bernstein says:

      My sentiments precisely.

    • jack burton says:

      Tim, do you know or understand the SCOTUS has emphatically stated that the 2nd Amendment did not give us any “rights” but merely acknowledged prior, existing natural rights? Doing away with the 2nd does nothing to do away with those rights.

      • Tim Hsiao says:

        Jack, the very point of McMahan’s argument is to show that there is no pre-existing moral right to gun ownership. So any legal arguments here are simply irrelevant.

        • TSgt B says:

          McMahan’s “argument” is WRONG on its’ face. The moral DUTY of self defense and defense of the innocent has existed since the beginning of time, and goes hand-in-hand with the Moral RIGHT to exist. What good is the Moral Right to exist without the Moral Right to protect and defend that existence and to possess the effective tools to guarantee that Right?

          • Tim Hsiao says:

            McMahan’s post is supposed to challenge that very argument. He is replying to the standard pro-gun argument, under which there is a right to own a gun because guns are a reasonable means of self-defense.

        • jack burton says:

          I never presented a legal argument.The link I posted was strictly a “moral” argument. And the good professor made a very weak case. Self defense is not and never has been a sub-set of “physical security.” And the Supreme Court has ruled consistently that neither society nor the police have any legal duty to protect a citizen from harm.

          Prof Jeff apparently actually believes that when bad things happen to people that someone else is automatically going to jump in and rescue them. The concept that WE are our own “first responder” escapes him.

          Let me give a story with a good moral at the end. I came home one night safe and sound even though earlier that day two thugs had targeted me for a victim. Unfortunately for them, their victim selection process went on the fritz and they found out that not all old men with a limp are as helpless as they seem… and that a concealed handgun can make a great equalizer against even unfair odds. My wife and children are not very impressed by the good professors attempt to suggest that somehow, miraculously, “society” would have come to my rescue.

          Both they and I know that Prof Jeff will never, ever, not once, be there to jump between me (or them) and a social deviant who has decided that we have what he wants, and he’ll take it anyway he can.

          • Tim Hsiao says:

            I think he’s wrong, but not obviously wrong, and certainly not wrong for the reasons you gave. Nor do I think you’ve actually understood his argument. The typical pro-gun argument is supposed to be something like this:

            Suppose a person encounters a situation in which using gun is necessary to defend his life. He happens to be carrying a gun, and draws it. However, as he is drawing it, his gun is snatched away, preventing him from defending himself. It’s clear that his right to self-defense has been violated, and that it was violated by removing his gun from him. Gun bans are analogous to this, so gun bans are unjust. It’s a good argument.

            McMahan’s argument is a response to this. His point is that it is not always immoral to confiscate someone’s gun, even that gun is absolutely necessary for his self-defense. Prisoners are one example. Even though prisoners have forfeited many rights, they do not forfeit their basic right to self-defense (and thus derivative rights to reasonable means of self-defense). Yet do we not think prisoners should own guns for self-defense, even if a prisoner encounters a situation in which the only way to save his life from an unjust attack is to have a gun on him.

            There are several ways to criticize this (I gestured toward some in my own comment), but simply saying that we have a natural right to self-defense (or even a natural right to own a gun, whatever that means) doesn’t itself entail the falsity of his argument. Nor does an appeal to statistics work either, since the arguments assume that guns do make us safer.

            Don’t take my comments the wrong way. I own multiple guns, I carry a concealed handgun wherever I legally can, I support the expansion of gun rights, and I’ve published a peer-reviewed paper in defense of gun rights. Despite my support for gun ownership, I just think you’ve severely underestimated the force of McMahan’s argument.

            • John Pate says:

              The argument is ridiculous. The reason prisoners aren’t given guns is because they’d walk out of prison.

              • Eda says:

                Since the argument is couched in terms of a hypothetical we can modify it to accomodate your objection: imagine that the guns have special properties that only make it impossible to use them against any other individuals but those who are convicted and in prison. The prisoners could in that scenario not walk out of prison by means of those guns. That is unrealistic because there are presently no such guns. But that is all right since the hypothetical can still function to make the argumentative point it was designed to make.

            • jack burton says:

              “simply saying that we have a natural right to self-defense (or even a natural right to own a gun, whatever that means) doesn’t itself entail the falsity of his argument.”

              Yes, it does. It is not necessary to prove that 5 plus 5 equals 11 is wrong… it is only necessary to prove that 5 plus 5 equals 10. The average person can then reason out the rest on his own.

              • Tim Hsiao says:

                No, it doesn’t. Having a right to self-defense only entails a right to some means of self-defense. It may happen to be that guns are the most reasonable means of self-defense, but there is no strict entailment between self-defense and gun ownership. The right to own a gun is derivative. Moreover the point of his argument is to show that there is no moral or natural right to own a gun. If you think he’s wrong, then you can’t just simply assert that this right exists.

  • Steven Wolf says:

    I think your study is erroneous. I think you will find that the majority of cities in America who outlaw guns do have a higher crime rate than cities with high gun ownership. Also when you talk about more US gun deaths, some of those deaths are becaue of Degensive gun uses either by police or by law abiding people. Also a majority 69% are suicides, which are not affected by firearms ownership otherwise Japan (big on gun control) would have a smaller suicide rate than America.

  • Dean Weingarten says:

    The argument fails because it equates people in prison with those outside of prison. The two populations are not the same, and the dynamics are completly different.

    People are in prison because they refuse to abide by the social contract.

    This the analogy completely fails. The populations are not the same physically, mental, curturally or morally. It is as though the author claimed that lessons learned from a society of wolves and snakes should be applied to a society of sheep, rabbits, and horses.

  • Joshua says:

    There seems to me to be an obvious response to this. The best philosophical formulation of the aforementioned pro-gun argument, at least that I know of, is Michael Huemer’s in ‘Is there a right to own a gun?’ His position is that the right to own a gun is only prima facie; it can be overridden if the consequences are sufficiently dire. Perhaps the idea that prisoners have a general right to own a gun seems absurd because the imagined consequences (i.e. a bloodbath) so clearly outweigh the prima facie right.

    The intuition being appealed to here is that prisoners don’t have even a prima facie right to own a gun where exercising that right would make them less secure overall. I’m not convinced that this intuition is so compelling that I would revise my intuitions about the law-abiding having a right to own a gun, rather than revising my intuition that prisoners don’t have a prima facie right to own one. The right is merely overridden, I would argue.

    To help to settle this clash of intuitions, let’s consider the claim that the right to self-defence is derived from a more general right to physical security. The trouble is that the right to physical security, if it exists at all, is very easily overridden by other considerations – the utility of car ownership, for example. But it’s very hard to imagine any circumstances in which the state would be justified in preventing someone from protecting himself from aggressors. Unless ‘physical security’ is being construed more narrowly here, as something like ‘the right to security from aggression by others’, the right to self-defence therefore can’t be derivative from it.

    If it is being construed in that way, then one obvious implication for the gun debate is that only gun homicides, and not accidental deaths or suicides, would undermine the force of that right. But then we come to Tim Hsiao’s objection: suppose it could be shown that allowing any form of self-defence resulted in less physical security overall, because people tended to overreact to perceived threats, or wrongly perceive others as threats. It would still seem wrong to imprison someone for a proper use of self-defence.

    • Eda says:

      “But it’s very hard to imagine any circumstances in which the state would be justified in preventing someone from protecting himself from aggressors.”

      Imagine Tom, who wants to manufacture an Ebola strain and store it as a chemical weapon in his house, as a deterrant against potential aggressors. I’d argue that the state should step in and stop Tom from manufacturing Ebola. And Nuclear weapons. And many other things that may be used as a weapon.

      • Joshua says:

        Perhaps I should have been clearer. It’s hard to imagine circumstances in which the state would prevent self-defence *by any means* i.e. any form of self-defence. Obviously gun control proponents would happily prevent self-defence by means more dangerous than guns. But I doubt they would prevent someone from defending himself with his own fists, even if it could be shown that allowing self-defence of this kind decreased physical security overall.

        • Eda says:

          Thank you for that clarification.

          I want to suggest a distinction between
          (1) the legal right to own/keep a gun for use at a later time if an aggressor makes a move and
          (2) the legal right to when an aggressor makes a move use a gun or other tool that may be at hand in self-defence.

          I submit that failure to see that distinction is the source of the felt implausibility in the imagined scenario where an individual A with a gun is aggressed and a state agent then interevenes in that very situation and takes away the gun.

          In that situation an instance of aggression is not merely a possibility but actually instantiated and ongoing. The expected outcome from intervention to take the gun *then* is bad and unjust consequences. But if the state agent at some earlier time acts widely in society to limit the number of guns out there, including preventing the individual A from having a gun, then the net expected outcome of that state agent activity *at that earlier time* is net beneficial and therefore justified.

          • John Pate says:

            Eda is suggesting a specious distinction. Your right to self defence isn’t dependant on circumstances in this way.

            Plus the entire line of reasoning is faulty: rights don’t depend on net benefits, rights exist for the individual.

            • Eda says:

              First, the distinction I made is different from claiming that a “right to self-defence” depend on circumstances. The distinction is by itself compatible with the view that a person being aggressed against can always use available tools in self-defence. The first part of the distinction concerns a supposed legal right to *in advance* *own and keep* certain weapons.

              That said, I will now as a standalone claim add that I do think any notion of a right to take self-defensive action in the face of an ongoing aggression to be plausible has to be conditional on certain circumstances. For example if the only self-defence action available to me against an aggressor would also necessarily bring death to 1ooo bystanders then it seems morally impermissible for me to resort to that defensive action.

              As for you second sentence:

              If you by right mean legal right then there are many examples of such rights that are conditional on certain circumstances and that also are based on some sort of cost benefit considerations. The jeffersonian arguments for certain legal intellectual property rights as a means to further social diffusion of useful inventions is one example.

              If you by right mean moral right then the moral philosophical literature on the *grounds* of rights also has a wide variety of positions. One such position is that moral rights are ultimately derived from more basic considerations about net consequences. If you do not accept such an account of rights then do argue for some other account.

              • John Pate says:

                @Eda. I’ve already made the distinction between the use of weapons of self defence and weapons of indiscriminate killing. In any case, the US government asserts the right to accept “collateral damage” as a price for “defense”. Take, for instance, the remarks of Madeline Albright about dead Iraqi children.

                @Eda. You’re confusing rights with entitlements. As a subscriber to the theory of natural rights (which supposedly the US Constitution is based on) I don’t recognise your characterisation of rights and your mention of Jefferson is misdirection.

                The principle that a free man may not be debarred the use of arms goes back a long, long, way. Arguments from utility are a modern invention designed to justify tyranny.

                • Eda says:

                  “I’ve already made the distinction …”
                  Is this you indirectly retracting your circumstances based objection to my (1)/(2)? If not, adress the (1)/(2) distinction with argument directly please.

                  “You’re confusing rights with entitlements”
                  I beg to differ. I haven’t used the term entitlements. I have written about legal rights and moral rights and of different accounts about the grounds of said rights. That you say that you believe in some version of a moral natural rights view is not an argument for such a view.

                  “goes back a long, long, way.”
                  So what? Some things that go back a long way should be kept and some shouldn’t. We should have surgeons wash their hands before surgery even though that is historically a relatively new thing. Saying X goes back a long, long way is in itself no good argument for keeping X.

                  • John Pate says:

                    You’re arguing an incompatible version of rights. With natural rights the distinction between rights and entitlements is clear. Legal rights and moral rights amount to entitlements if you accept utilitarian arguments. Your argumentation is invalid on its face.

                    • Eda says:

                      In what way do you claim that an account where moral rights are ultimately derived from more basic considerations about net consequences is “incompatible”?

  • Seth Edenbaum says:

    We are governed by elected representatives bound as we are by laws; that’s the meaning of the phrase “the rule of law” as against “the rule of men”. The rule of reason becomes the rule of the powerful who are always more than happy to define themselves as reasonable.

    The author of the post above makes no mention of the US Constitution, but that’s where the discussion needs to begin. Otherwise we throw out law altogether. If the cops bust down the door of an apartment with no warrant and no probable cause and they find evidence of a murder, the evidence is inadmissible. It’s called “the fruit of the poisonous tree”; it doesn’t matter if that fruit is truth. That’s something philosophers qua philosophers, liberals specifically have never been able to get their heads around. The rule of law is founded in pessimism, and liberals are self-regarding optimists.

    The Second Amendment of the US Constitution reads as follows: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” You tell me what it means. I don’t know. I can tell you what I would prefer to to mean, but that’s something else. There’s a reason the ACLU years ago never got involved in Second Amendment cases. They never should have changed the policy.

    Most defenders of gun rights don’t defend the right to shoulder mounted rocket launchers, and that’s a problem, isn’t it? Most opponents of abortion don’t think of abortion as “murder”. Whatever they may claim, they don’t want women who’ve had abortions tried as murderers. Also as a matter of the historical record regarding guns (for the “originalists” out there) safety wasn’t mentioned in any discussion among the framers. Scalia was simply wrong, and probably lying.

    I’ve had more than enough of Oxbridge authoritarians, proclaiming their liberalism of best intentions. The ACLU now sides with advocates for gun control, and we’re moving towards hate speech regulation. We’re now debating “trigger words”.
    And democracy is weakened. There are debates over the value of written constitutions but considering how the UK is doing these days, I’m even more in favor now then I used to be.

    This is a political debate, to be held by the public, including college professors, of whom historians have more to say than philosophy professors, who are about as helpful as priests.
    I’m in favor of abortion rights and gun control, but not of authoritarian moralists who want to tell me what’s good for me.

    • james says:

      Can you tell us where you get your views on abortion rights? Begin, as you say, with the text of the constitution.

    • Eda says:

      “The author of the post above makes no mention of the US Constitution, but that’s where the discussion needs to begin.”
      No. The discussion should instead start with the best country comparative empirical evidence on degrees of gun control and gun restriction policies and their outcomes. If the best evidence support gun restrictions then the US, as simply one country among other countries, follow the evidence and change its laws, and constitutions, accordingly.

      • jack burton says:

        /// If the best evidence support gun restrictions then the US, as simply one country among other countries, follow the evidence and change its laws, and constitutions, accordingly.///

        If the best evidence support slavery then the US, as simply one country among other countries, follow the evidence and change its laws, and constitutions, accordingly.

        • Eda says:

          Sure, if the best evidence – in terms of health, well-being, equality and all other parameters of value – actually supported slavery then I would of course accept life under slavery. But no actual evidence remotely seem to support that. On the contrary, slavery in fact harms individual well-being, produce distributively unjust outcomes and so on. Some religious people argue that humans deep down are the property of a creator God. I’m not convinced that there is a God but if I for sake of argument accept that then I would not see that ownership claim as itself repugnant. It depends on what the outcomes would be. If that creator God’s ownership in fact only involved beneficial consequences for all humans then I would not object to that slavery per se. It would be of no consequences to all that is important in my daily life and activities so I would not be bothered by it. Of course all cases of human to human slavery as a social practice has *not* been like that and is for that reason contingently problematic. If you wish to read more then look up Richard Hare’s paper “What is wrong with slavery?”.

      • Seth Edenbaum says:

        If the first ten amendments came up for a vote right now, they wouldn’t pass. And as far as reason and evidence is concerned I’ll use the example I always do when arguing with the naive.

        I think it’s a truism that ethnic nationalism can never be considered liberal. It never has been in the past and it isn’t now, with one exception. A great number of our most enlightened philosophical and scientific thinkers defend the “ethnic liberalism” of a state of recent immigrants whose only claim to land is that their ancestors lived there 2000 years ago. That state is ringed with refugee camps holding millions who are not allowed to return to their homes because they would affect the demographic imbalance.

        In terms of logic alone it’s simple: A Jewish State for a Jewish People iff [if and only if] a German State for a German People. . In fact it’s more complex, but that doesn’t help the Zionist argument, and certainly not the argument from liberalism. Palestinians among other things are the descendants of Jews who converted to Islam, and the immigrants from Europe among other things are the descendants of European converts to Judaism. It makes some sense at least that so many Ashkenazim now call themselves white, though my father never did. It’s conveniently forgotten also the the Arab states offered a bi-national state of Palestinians and Jewish immigrants in 1947, but the Zionists refused it.

        So much for enlightened reason.

        I wouldn’t put any big constitutional changes up to a vote without a 10 year delay, and in the years before it a mandated 4 day work week with the 5th day left for lectures and symposiums on the history and philosophy of republican government. Attendance would be mandatory for all adults.

        A rising tide lifts all boats. Our contemporary scholasticism ain’t helping.

    • T in Toronto says:

      Refer to a comment above, which answers your main concern directly:

      “Although I consider myself very pro-gun, I have to say that almost all of the comments here so far have completely ignored the point of McMahan’s argument. Citing the Second Amendment is irrelevant, since the point of this post concerns whether there is a moral right to own guns. Using a legal argument is quite irrelevant to establishing this. Indeed if the argument works, then it would simply follow that the Second Amendment ought to be repealed.”

      It’s so peculiar that people call liberals ‘optimists’. Their political philosophical tradition begins in Hobbes – a pessimist if ever there were one – whereas the American conservative tradition grew largely out of Locke – an optimist of the patriotic sort. What a time to be alive.

      • seth edenbaum says:

        Do you want to argue abstract nonexistent moral “truths” or do you want to change the laws? Stop thinking like a philosopher and start thinking like a trial lawyer arguing before a skeptical jury. This is a discussion of values, and how best to negotiate conflicts in our society.

      • Seth Edenbaum says:

        Hobbes and Locke. By the current definition of political liberalism you’re quibbling, but your broader point about the flips in the meanings of words over time is well taken. Unfortunately thanks to the optimists we’re no longer in need of philologists, or historians. The history is of philosophy is like the history of physics, and as Gilbert Harman says “it is not particularly helpful to students of physics, chemistry, or biology to study the history of physics, chemistry, or biology.” Ain’t logic grand?

        The point as I said below is not to argue over formal/moral truths, since they don’t exist, but to point out logical inconsistencies in the applications of moral assumption in order to resolve disagreements.

  • Phil H says:

    I just wanted to think for a moment about what self defence means, and what a right to it might entail.

    I guess we’d start from some idea of physical safety. Not easy to define, but let’s assume we know what it means. A threat to physical safety would be something like when you know that another person intends to and is capable of compromising your physical safety. In order to prevent physical harm (defined in relation to physical safety?), you do something. Now, if that something is something we all have the right to do (like running away), then there’s no problem. It counts a form of self defence which requires justification if it’s something we can’t normally do. Canonically, it would be harming or compromising the physical safety of the aggressor (or threatening to do so).

    The seems to be a complex play-off between the threat/actualisation of the harm against the aggressor and the level of harm. So, for example, one might think you were justified in pointing a gun at a purse-snatcher; it’s less clear whether you’d be justified in shooting a purse-snatcher. In general, it seems that a self defence right must allow for a greater harm to be aimed at the aggressor than the aggressor was aiming at you. If someone attacks me with fists, and I punch back, that’s just a brawl. In order to make it self defence, my objective must be to stop the harm happening, and typically that requires that I inflict/threaten to inflict greater harm on him. If a guy is punching me, and I smack him on the head with a piece of wood, that would generally be covered, wouldn’t it? Call this the “control gap”: the gap between the level of violence the aggressor is using and the level of violence necessary to effectively stop the aggressor.

    What is not clear is whether a right to self defence gives me the right to do use any force to stop the aggressor. Can I shoot the purse snatcher? Can I run over a stalker with my car? In general, it doesn’t seem to be most people’s intuition that you get carte blanche to use any force (just generalising from the opinions of people I’ve met, no data on this). But judgments about the level of harm that can be threatened or inflicted vary sharply. Factors which seem relevant are:
    the level of the harm the aggressor is inflicting/threatening;
    the ability of the victim to stop the harm;
    different opinions on the size of the “control gap”;
    the immediacy of the threat posed by the aggressor;
    the intentions of the victim (e.g. to stop the aggressor or to kill him);

    With so many difficult questions, it’s normal that judgments would differ. And of course, judgments often seem to be confounded by questions of group loyalty and group antipathy (which could perhaps be interpreted as feeding into judgments of the immediacy of the threat).

    Sorry, this is all a bit off topic. To relate it to the gun issue: Guns are extremely hard to parse because they represent (1) extreme, deadly levels of violence; but (2) relatively low levels of conversion from threat to actual use. For those who are anti-gun, the extreme level of harm they represent is off-putting; for those who support gun rights, the fact that they are more often used as a form of expression (a warning) than a tool of violence seems more salient.

    To Prof McMahan: I don’t quite see why a comparison to the prison population would be more relevant than a comparison to the populations of the UK or any other relatively low-gun group. Jim above gives a counter which your comparison opens up: “a prison where ‘guards’ control aggression is not a society in which a rational man wants to live.” What benefit does the prison comparison bring to the logical, moral, legal or political debate which other comparisons do not?

  • MR, Rodgers says:

    Guns are here to stay. I know that makes you left wing types angry, however, you are angry at everything you don’t agree with or don’t understand.

    Typical left wing close mindedness, must be sad being you.

  • Michael says:

    The prison analogy is poor at best.

    “It does not take much imagination to see that prisoners locked up together with guns but without guards would not be more secure than prisoners without guns but with guards.”

    We do not know this for certain. Is there any data to really support this? It’s just a “best guess” and logical fallacy.

    “Their view thus seems to imply that while the state ought not to prevent prisoners from acquiring guns, it need not provide guns to those who cannot get them otherwise. Those who are unable to get a gun would then have to rely for protection on someone else who has one – just as in the advocates’ ideal society those who are unable to acquire or use a gun, such as children and certain disabled people, would have to rely on the generosity of others for their protection.”

    This is a logical fallacy as well. There will always be an element of society that is at the mercy of another. This is even more true in a police state.

    • Eda says:

      How do you mean those quoted parts from McMahan are “logical fallacies”? Are you merely using the term “logical fallacy” as shorthand for “things Michael doesn’t like” or do you think there really is a formal error in the logic of McMahan’s argument? If the latter, can you spell out the error?

  • Fibo says:

    When looked at from Europe, this debate is slightly irrealistic.

    Why don’t you compare criminal statistics in the USA and other countries where arms are banned?

    It seems at time rather strange than US people are more proactive to ban cigarette smoking than to reconsider arms-owning policy.

  • SJS says:

    The analogy with prison is a good one, but it’s not being thought through.

    Let us take our hypothetical prison, and arm the inmates. To whom do they need to defend themselves against?

    Other prisoners? Sure, a bit.

    But mostly — the guards.

    The State is not their friend. It is the State that is depriving them of their freedoms. It is the State that is endangering their persons and property. From their point of view, their biggest threat are the agents of the State. Sure, the guards — the agents of the State — have been given the duty to protect the prisoners, but that is not the primary duty of the guards. They primary duty of the guards is to keep the prisoners confined to the prison, observed and controlled as much as is feasible, and only incidentally keeping them alive for the duration of their sentence.

    We do not arm prisoners with guns because they would be better able to defend themselves against those are actively, continuously, intrusively interfering with their freedom.

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