Debate on the Ethics of Gun Control

The Second Amendment to the Constitution states that, “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 [16].” The “Founding Fathers” of the United States believed that the bearing of arms was essential to the character and dignity of a free people [3]. For this reason, they wrote a Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights which the last part reads “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. The Bill of Rights does not ‘grant’ rights to the people, it is the list of the fundamental, inalienable rights, endowed in man by the founding fathers. These rights define Americans as a free and independent people. The phrase “Gun Control” means different things to different people, and opposing sides have for years fought over the laws that govern firearms. Gun control is defined as polices enacted by “the government” that limit the legal rights of gun owners to own, carry, or use firearms, with the intent of reducing gun crimes such as murder, armed robbery, aggravated rape, and so on [4]. This coincides with Kant’s belief, that “the morality of an act depends on a person’s intentions (a good will), not the results of the act” [1]. The problem here is the results of the act of controlling our individual’s rights to bear arms is not always in everyone’s self interest. Two discrete ethical beliefs are at war in the gun control debate, social utilitarianism and individual rights. These two philosophies are incompatible and, further, that is impossible to secure or validate unlimited individual rights of gun owners on utilitarian grounds. The government uses utilitarianism to dismantle the individual rights of gun owners. Although, it is legal in the Constitution to “regulate” guns, it is still unethical.

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There is often debate over the term, “well regulated” in the opening line of the Second Amendment. Many would interpret this phrase to be “controlled” by the government or to be “ruled”. However, there are other meanings to the word “regulated” that collectivists sometimes fail to acknowledge. In a different context it can be interpreted as “properly operating”. It has also been debated that, “well regulated militia has a meaning at that time in the nature of a “properly function militia” – which would mean something along the lines of a properly trained and equipped militia” [17]. The Supreme Court stated that “It is undoubtedly true that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved militia force or reserve militia of the United States and well as the States” [17]. Although there are many interpretations of the term “well regulated”, most agree a “properly functioning” militia is necessary to the security of a free state.

All should agree that reducing violent crime is a good thing. Gun advocates will acknowledge that guns act as an enabler for criminals and play a role in most violent crime. This statement is generally the basis of the anti-gun movement. They argue that since guns are commonly used in the commission of crimes and since guns are inherently dangerous because of their primary function (the primary function being the destruction of the target), that guns should therefore be outlawed. Many gun advocates, such as Gary Kleck, a Flordia State University criminology professor could counter this by saying that law-abiding citizens using firearms protect themselves from criminals 2.4 million times ever year [6]. Kleck’s findings are based on a 1993 random survey of approximately 6,000 households. “Since the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that approximately 1.1 million violent crimes were committed with guns in 1992” [6], one could argue that there is a correlation between increased gun ownership and a reduced crime rate.

From a legal standpoint, class-action lawsuits have become more prevalent, some lawsuits have been brought against gun manufacturers on the grounds that they produce and distribute a dangerous product [6]. During the case of US v. Emerson, a federal appeals judge, Judge William Garwood upheld under the Second Amendment the right to own/possess a firearm even for a man who was under a restraining order issued at his estranged wife’s request [2]. This decision overturned a law in Texas that made it illegal for someone with a restraining order to own/possess a gun. This law was overturned because it was decided that the Second Amendment indeed said that an individual has the right to “keep and bear arms”, not just the state. Any other argument regarding the legal rights of the individual under the Second Amendment seemed unnecessary, since the rights of the individual were upheld. This is only one example where the individual rights were upheld, but in most cases utilitarianism prevails. This decision was overturned on the district level and only involved the state of Texas, only the Supreme Court can decided what is or is not constitutional.

Both opposing viewpoints agree that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of the government to maintain an armed militia to protect the nation, but a struggle still exists whether or not it is the unlimited right “to keep and bear arms” for every individual. Most liberal politicians hold the utilitarian position, or collective rights position, that gives states the rights to maintain armed militias. Before Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), “Nine of the eleven U.S. districts courts have long held a strong Collective Rights view that the Second Amendment covers only one matter: empowerment of government to maintain an armed militia to defend the U.S. as a whole” [18]. “These courts have contended that the Second Amendment doesn’t extend to individual ownership of guns” [18]. On March 18, 2008, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to overturn the restrictive gun laws of Washington D.C., at the time which outlaws ownership of handguns, except for police officers. It was concluded that the Second Amendment protects from state infringement of the individual right to own/possess a gun. This was the first time on a constitutional level that an individual’s unlimited right to bear arms was recognized. This Supreme Court decision can be directly related to Rawls’s belief that, “a loss of freedom for some is not made right by a greater sum of satisfactions enjoyed by many, …”[1].

Moving away from the legal argument to the philosophical one, the first question to be posed is, “is an act of self-defense from loss of life or limb morally justified?” Few would answer this question with anything other than “yes”. The next question that arises is, “Is it morally okay for everyone to possess a firearm for use in self-defense?” The answer to this, without allowing for other uses of firearms must be yes. To defend one’s self is instinctually right, and is rationally allowable as well. If threatened with a gun, it is difficult to effectively defend one’s self with anything other than a gun [15]. Thus for self-defense, guns meet the requirement. The question then becomes, “What type of guns should be allowed?” If the purpose of the gun is to protect one’s self, and one’s family, then the answer must be, “Whatever type of gun is needed to defend one’s self and one’s family.” From this the question arises, “From whom am I to defend myself?” The answer of the Founding Father would have been, “From both foreign and domestic tyranny.” A gun that would protect from both foreign and domestic tyranny seems to be a tall order. Protection from domestic tyranny seems simple enough, since most cases of domestic tyranny are simply crimes committed against others by common thugs with less than state-of-the-art weaponry. Thomas Jefferson, however, saw a different domestic tyranny to defend against. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in their government [11].

This reasoning demands that the citizen be equipped with arms that could reasonably be used to defend one’s home against governmental invasion. The weapons that would be needed are the so-called “assault weapons” that the anti-gun lobby is trying to ban. These weapons are those that can carry “high-capacity magazines” (10 rounds or more of ammunition) and those that have such “military-style” features such as semi-automatic actions, flash suppressors, and muzzle brakes. Some would argue that these guns encourage illegal use and enable mass-shootings, but the fact is that the presence of even fully automatic machine guns in homes is not correlated with a high murder rate. Take for instance Switzerland, where every household is required to have a fully automatic weapon. Switzerland’s rate of homicides by gun is lower than Canada’s, despite the fact that Canada has almost a complete ban on all firearms [14].

Since statistics have entered the debate, the Utilitarian view seems to inevitably pop up. So, from a utilitarian standpoint, should gun control laws become more stringent? Should guns be banned altogether? If the answers are based on what would happen (or what would probably happen) if guns were banned, let us look at statistics from countries where such bans have been effected.

In Australia, a law was passed that forced gun owners to turn over 640,381 private guns. The results after one year are astonishing, homicides increased by 3.2%, assaults increased by 8.6%, and armed robberies increased by 44%.

These statistics seem to show a correlation between fewer legal guns and an increasing crime rate [12]. This conclusion is further supported by statistics from other countries. In Israel, where teachers carry guns, where one in five citizens is in the military, and where the gun ownership rate is higher than the U.S., the murder rate is 40% lower than Canada’s. New Zealanders own as many guns as Americans, and yet their murder rate is lower than Australia’s [13]. Considering these statistics, the conclusion from a Utilitarian perspective is that gun ownership is ethically proper. The requirement of the greatest good for the greatest number seems to demand that whatever method brought about the lowest crime rate would be best, as long as that method does not infringe upon the rights of those involved, thus making them unhappy, and reducing the total “good”. Since gun control seems to lower the total “good”, and guns in the hands of the citizenry seems to increase the total “good”, the correct action is to allow guns.

Let’s take look at the other side of the debate. Elijah Weber, a journalist for Everyday Ethics, likes uses “the harm principle” when describing gun control. According to the harm principle, we can only ban something if it is harmful to others. Clearly, gun ownership leads to harmful effects due to gun related violence. Weber states, “More than any statistical analysis can demonstrate, it should be obvious that a person can cause more harm with a gun than without one” [10]. This is true, guns do cause harm when used for their intended purpose. The gun is only tool. Its use depends entirely on the character and purpose of the one who wields it.

A tool is an instrumentality for the accomplishment of a particular goal. My car permits me to get to and from work; my computer allows me to communicate to the world without leaving my room. Certain guns are customized for hunting of animals, others are designed for one major purpose only: destruction of human beings. One of the most common uses of this certain tool is in self defense. Some number of gun owners certainly hope that life will put them in a situation where they can use their weapon for its intended purpose, but a much smaller number has actually sought these circumstances [9]. Our Second Amendment protects not “the right to life,” or “self determination,” but the right to keep and bear arms. The paradox is firearms are fact only tools; their use depends on the purpose and character of the user [8]. As tools, they can be, and are, used for both good and evil. “This paradox, or tension, that we cannot protect what we value in man except through of the physical means of its expression, yet as tools their value is completely neutral or ambiguous” [8]. This is much of the cause of the debate; we contemplate the value of our individual rights, and the extent to which it is permissible to restrict those rights. John Wallace states that empowerment of the individual “should lead to more responsible use of the tool than denial and willful ignorance will” [9]. Thus we are lead to believe by granting us our individual right to bear arms should lead to more ethically proper use of these tools. In sum, the so called “harm principle” has no bearing on the debate over gun control, guns are merely tools and how we use them depends on the character behind the trigger.

Crime is everywhere, some people like to believe that they live, work, and travel only in special ‘crime-free’ zones. The truth is crime can occur anywhere at any time, criminals do not play by anyone rules. Is your life worth protecting? If so, whose responsibility is it to protect it? If you believe that it is the police’s, not only are you wrong, since the courts universally rule that the police have no legal obligation to do so [8], but you face another question. How can you rightfully ask another human being to risk his life to protect yours when you will assume no responsibility yourself? We often claim to be shocked that violent criminals possess no respect for our property, our liberty, or our lives. Yet why should criminals respect our property or lives, when we ourselves do not value them highly enough to assume the responsibility to defend them. I believe that one who values life and takes seriousness his or her responsibilities will possess and cultivate the means of properly fighting back.

The government and anti-gun lobbyists like to use the utilitarian perspective, greatest good for the greatest number. There is a problem with this approach, why should our right to defend ourselves depend on statistics such as crime rate. Should the legal right to defend your life be a function of the homicide or violent crime rate, so that the right comes into and goes out of existence as the rate rises or falls below a certain point? Since crime can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime, thus, a government that arrogates to itself the power to judge, in the first instance your “need” or “eligibility” to own a gun can only believe that your life is not really worth protecting, at least until such time as you present strong proof to the contrary [8]. This utilitarian approach doesn’t respect that each individual has an inalienable right to life and liberty and a moral right and obligation to defend oneself.

During an interview with David Morabito, a New York lawyer I was able to pose some answers to interesting questions. First off, New York has much stricter laws pertaining to gun control than that of Michigan. David’s stance on gun control was that, “Gun controls laws are in place for a certain reason, the reason is to protect society from violent crime, thus by keep firearms out of the hands of criminals.” He agreed with me that using a handgun is a worthy way to protect yourself and/or your family’s life, but there are other means available today that do not cause permanent injury. He recalled New York’s legalization of self defense sprays, that they are much safer means of self protection. I also asked him how he felt about the strict licensing laws of his state and the banning of classes of guns. David stated, “That strict licensing laws help keep firearms from getting into the wrong hands.” As for banning of classes of guns, he used the AR, or assault rifle, as an example, “No needs a fully automatic high capacity rifle to defend them from a common thug.” He added, “These weapons seem to only add to the problem of violent crime.” In closing, David believed that handgun laws should be stricter, because he believes that they statically help reduce violent crime. Mr. Morabito obviously not a huge gun advocate, could be right, statistics do support him.

For example, Dr. Arthur Kellerman, Director of Center for Injury Control at Emory University, concluded that guns in the home were 43 times more likely to kill a family member or acquaintance than an intruder, suggesting that it is criminally irresponsible to keep a gun in the home for self defense [8]. Kellerman believes his studies strongly show that “the risks of having a gun in the home substantially outweigh the benefits,” [8]. Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck has his own research that counters Kellerman. Based on his studies in 1993, Kleck’s research suggests that guns are used far more often to deter than to commit a crime. 1 in 6 of Kleck’s respondents who had used a gun in self defense was almost certain that a life would have been lost without the gun, implying that guns save about 400,000 lives each year [6]. Kleck points out that even if one-tenth of those people were right, the number of lives saved by guns would still exceed the 38,000 killed by guns [6]. Asserting that Kleck’s statistics justify owning or carrying a firearm commits the same fault that asserting that Kellerman’s statistics justify not owning or banning firearms. Both Kellerman and Kleck treat the gun as an agent; an agent with the power to effect results. Guns are just tools that serve a purpose and we the people are the agents. Thus, statistics are only numbers that will change year to year and place to place. Numbers cannot be the sole justification whether gun control needs to be more stringent or lenient.

Bart Marlette, a Clinton Township police officer, was asked questions similar to those asked of David Morabito during a recent phone interview. When asked what his stance was on gun control, Officer Marlette replied, “I am neutral on the subject, gun control laws in Michigan could be always be improved but there is not necessity to change them at this point in time.” Officer Marlette also agreed that a handgun is a worthy way to protect yourself and your family. He does not believe that existence of licensing laws, instant check procedures and the banning of certain guns redefine peaceable citizens as criminals as some may argue. When asked if proper CPL (Concealed Pistol License) holders should be allowed to carry on college campuses, Officer Marlette supported the idea. He stated, “As long as they are properly trained and responsible, he did not see the harm.” He stated he sometimes worries about his son attending Wayne State University in Detroit because of the violent crime there. The Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990 made it a crime to possess a gun in a “school zone,” defined as the school grounds and the area 1,000 feet in the radius of those grounds [8]. The prominent principle of the gun-free school zone act is that laws can keep guns out of schools, but law does not have the power to prevent crime. Any person that believes the gun-free school zone act to be a rational law or good idea merely reflects his failure to understand the absurdity of the law’s founding principle [8]. I could not agree more, no law has the power to prevent crime, or in any case control conduct. For this law to work, you would have to expect that a person who is willing to commit a violent crime such as rape or murder will be prevented because he or she will respect the law, not bring a gun to school, and feels the laws proscribing punishment for those crimes have no hold upon him or her. The problem is such a law can never work, because choice and freedom cannot be eliminated, and without responsibility, law has no force but brute force [8]. The gun-free school zone act has become a tool for satisfying emotion need for safety of our children.

Utilitarianism is the opposite side of Kant’s theory of ethics. Kant’s theory is based on human reason; utilitarianism is based on reason and experience [1]. The problem with utilitarianism is that the greatest happiness for the majority might be at the cost of the misery for a few. Thus, doing what promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number might not be always the right thing to do. Utilitarianism can best be explained in the case: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The city of Omelas is presented as a perfect utopia. It has everything you could ever want or desire, but it comes at a cost. All the people of Omelas know that their happiness, their perfect utopia depends on one child. This child has to be locked in a small room in the basement at all times. Their entire happiness depends solely on this one child’s misery. If this child were to be let out of this room, all that makes the city of Omelas would be destroyed. In sum, utilitarianism demonstrates that there is no way to make anyone better off without making someone worse off [1]. Your individual right can be directly related to this one child.

The utilitarian ethics is naturally inconsistent with the ethics of individual rights. Now, if individuals are permitted to have certain rights only so long as their exercise of those rights is perceived to serve or bring the greatest good of the greatest number, they in fact have no inalienable or individual rights [8]. Thus, when gun advocates such as Gary Kleck, defend the right to own and carry guns with utilitarian arguments, there are in no sense defending individual right. Instead, they are just trying to convince the greatest number to permit them to exercise such a freedom as the right to bear arms. Under an individual right ethics, individuals may not be treated solely as a means to an end but must also be treated, in Kant’s words, as “ends in themselves” [1]. Everyone possesses their own free will and I believe freedom is what America was founded upon. Therefore, it is unethical to restrict one’s right to bear arms on the account that another man that has abused his freedom. Utilitarianism justifies using some merely as a means to the fulfillment of others’ ends, so long as those who are to be sacrificed are not too numerous [8]. This is saying that no individual has the right to life, and his rights are being thrown aside in pursuit of the greatest good. Nothing changes that individuals have the fundamental right to carry and own arms, and everyone has the right to life. I will end with this, “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”