Friday Philosophy

Guns and Self-Defense

The recent school shootings have led many people to want to restrict or deny altogether our right to own guns, and in these troubled times, it is all the more essential to bear in mind the reasons for that right. To that end, I’d like in this week’s column to discuss the excellent essay by the philosopher Lester H. Hunt “Guns and Self-Defense,” which has just been published in The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism. (It’s a nice touch to have someone named Hunt defending gun ownership.)

Hunt points out that from a libertarian point of view, the case that we have a right to own guns is straightforward, and, perhaps to one’s surprise, this case does not depend on the right of self-defense, though the right of self-defense is of course relevant to when you may shoot others. Rather, we have a right to do whatever does not involve violence or the threat of violence against others, and the mere ownership of a gun passes this test.

What then are the proper limits to state interference with the ownership and use of such weapons? On the basis of the libertarian version of Lockean natural rights theory, the answer would seem to be fairly straightforward. Merely having a gun in one’s possession is not what Nozick called a “boundary crossing.”… it does not involve a physical invasion of any territory over which others have legitimate rights. Even shooting somebody is no violation, providing that the victim is an aggressor and the shooting is a reasonably necessary act of self-defense…. There is nothing about being a civilian that makes one, per se, a violator of the rights of others. To use the coercive powers of the state to deprive people of access to weapons, apart from any evidence that they will use them for criminal purposes, is an illegitimate use of state coercion against the innocent.

(Hunt is in the article writing from a minimal state rather than an anarchist position, but the issue can be readily reframed to cover the latter view. The question would become “Does the libertarian law code allow a ban on, or restriction of, gun ownership?)

The case seems closed, but, as Hunt notes, most people are not libertarians. Can the right to gun ownership be defended on nonlibertarian grounds, in a way that will have wider appeal than arguments from libertarian premises? Here the right to self-defense assumes primary importance, as most people will acknowledge this right, although sometimes in an attenuated way. You might be inclined to object to Hunt’s procedure in this way. Shouldn’t we support our views from what we take to be the correct premises, rather than assume other premises for the purposes of persuasion? Hunt could reply to this that the premise from which he starts, the right of self-defense, is one that libertarians accept, so he is not open to objection on this score.

If, as the morality of common sense suggests, we have a right to self-defense, how can it be denied that we have the right to own and use guns? Guns are a very effective means of self-defense. “Since a gun is the one instrumentality for self-defense that comes closest to being an effective means, the right of self-defense brings with it the right to acquire and use a gun.” One answer, given by the philosopher Jeff McMahan, is that this argument looks at the right to self-defense in the wrong way. It is not, as McMahan takes it, a right in itself but a mere means to safety. As Hunt explains, McMahan “maintains that a gun ban is, quite simply, good for everyone. The right of self-defense is a mere means to increasing one’s safety, and since a gun ban achieves that result for everyone, it does not violate that right.”

Hunt objects that this argument misconceives the nature of the right of self-defense, taking it to be a right to be in a certain state, “safety,” rather than an “option right” to defend oneself. McMahan’s argument

only works if one makes a certain assumption: that the right of self-defense is a right to be in a certain state: namely, that of having the probability of bad future events (injury, property loss, death, and so forth) reduced … the conception of the right of self-defense that is typically assumed by these [restrictionist] arguments is not the one found in common-sense morality and is highly counterintuitive. The self-defense right that is recognized by common-sense morality is clearly … an option right, to do or not do something. It is a right to defend oneself…. By itself, this does not mean that these restrictionists are wrong, but it does seem to mean that there is a burden of proof that has not yet been shouldered by them: how might they justify this sharp departure from ordinary morality?

One might object to Hunt in this way. “Aren’t arguments about whether the right to self-defense is an ‘option’ or a ‘welfare’ right a matter of interest only to philosophers? How can you claim that the answer you want is part of ‘common-sense’ morality? Common-sense morality is not concerned with this issue.”

Hunt has a convincing response to this objection. The welfare rights view is not just a different way of looking at the right of self-defense but abolishes that right altogether, and that is indeed something of great concern to commonsense morality. “This self-defense welfare-right is not a right of self-defense at all since it implies … that if some other agency has put you in the right state—namely, safety—you have no further rights to do anything in the matter.”

Readers will, I am sure, have taken note of a simpler objection to McMahan’s argument; it does not work on its own terms. His argument is that if there is a total gun ban, then we are all “safe.” If that is true, why would anyone need a gun? But of course it isn’t true. McMahan is making the risible assumption that the ban is totally effective, but it is much more likely that criminals will disobey the ban than that ordinary people will, as Hunt does not fail to mention. We would not all be safe with a gun ban; far from it.

Further, even if the ban on guns were totally effective, this would not make people safe, and this point is different from that of safety against government aggression, which Hunt doesn’t deal with in his article. People would not be safe from physical assault that doesn’t use guns, and strong, aggressive people in a society without guns would have a great advantage over the weak.

If you are hunting for good arguments in favor of our right to own and use guns, I highly recommend Hunt’s outstanding article.

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