The Philosophy of Gun Control
[Debating Gun Control: How Much Regulation Do We Need? By David DeGrazia and Lester H. Hunt. Oxford University Press, 2016. Xvi + 269 pages.]
The authors are well-qualified for a good debate, and the book does not disappoint. Hunt is a philosopher of libertarian inclinations who has written books on Nietzsche, human character, and Robert Nozick. In my view, he is a thinker of genuine depth. DeGrazia is best known for work on animal rights and on bioethics.
“Debating” in the title is a misnomer, as each author presents only his own case and there are no responses. DeGrazia mentions Hunt three times, but two of these are only in passing. Nevertheless, common themes emerge; and readers will gain a clear sense of two very different ways of viewing not only gun control but, more generally, human rights and the role of the state.
What exactly is meant by “gun control”? Hunt sets forward the main issue clearly: Some people regard guns as inherently dangerous objects; they thus have a negative moral status. “[T]here are other things often treated this way, including, for example, pornography, alcohol, tobacco, and various other psychoactive drugs. ... When such goods and services are not prohibited altogether, like cocaine, they are subject to laws that make them less available, as is usually the case with alcoholic beverages.”
Hunt, in opposing gun control, does not rule out altogether regulations about guns. He has no objection, for example, to laws that prohibit the sale of guns to children or criminals. But it is the assumption that guns are a social “bad,” to be tolerated only grudgingly or to be eliminated altogether, that he rejects.
If guns do not have negative moral status, the case for a right to own guns is clear. Hunt is himself sympathetic to a Lockean view of rights, “which would seem to imply immediately that the state may not take away the honestly acquired firearms of law-abiding citizens,” but he does not argue for a right to gun ownership on this basis. Rather, even on a less stringent view of rights in general, it is eminently plausible that people have a right of self-defense.
If, then, one has a right to self-defense, does it not follow that one has the right to use suitable means to exercise that right? To grant that one has a right to self-defense but to deny effective means of defending oneself is to withdraw the right supposedly granted. Guns are often an especially effective means of self-defense. Unless there is something “special” about guns that violates people’s rights or exposes them to undue risk, on what grounds may they be prohibited?
DeGrazia does not altogether deny the right of self-defense, but he qualifies it in a way that will make anyone with a libertarian bone in his body gasp in astonishment. So long as the state is doing an adequate job in protecting your community, he maintains, one does not have an unlimited right to self-defense.
But what if police protection fails? If an armed intruder enters your house, do you not have the right to confront him with lethal force, if doing so is necessary to protect yourself? It is in answer to this that DeGrazia makes his surprising response. He does not deny — how could he — that situations of the kind just described occur. Even so, though, the state may prohibit people from owning guns if it judges that people would on the whole be better off without them. “I [DeGrazia] emphasize the devastating consequences of widespread gun ownership in a societal context in which gun regulations are minimal.” In sum, you cannot protect yourself if the state judges that too many accidental deaths, or other mishaps, are likely to ensue if gun ownership is permitted.
Hunt with great eloquence rejects this wide construal of risk. He distinguishes between type-risk, “imposed on the general population by a group of people: those who own or carry guns” and token-risk, “which is imposed by particular agents (including corporate bodies).” Type-risk, Hunt contends, is not a legitimate ground for coercion. The state may not prohibit armed self-defense because, given a large number of guns, some people will die in accidents. To think otherwise is “‘punishing’ (or penalizing)” some for the actions of others. “Such a policy is simply wrong, except perhaps in circumstances of catastrophic social collapse, such as widespread mob violence. Obviously, we do not live under such conditions now.”
DeGrazia, I must say, has a cavalier attitude toward evidence that goes against his anti-gun agenda. Naturally enough, he favors the interpretation of the Second Amendment that restricts the right to keep and bear arms to those on active service with the militia. I think this opinion mistaken, but never mind that. The point is not the position DeGrazia takes but that he does not find it necessary to discuss at all the evidence, amassed by Stephen Halbrook and others, which counters his view. In like fashion, he dismisses the well-documented work of John Lott showing that gun-ownership deters crime. He relies entirely on critics of Lott, principally David Hemenway, but he deems what Lott has said in reply unnecessary to consider. Slipshod procedures of this kind do not advance the course of scholarship.