A Moral Critique of Guns and Gun Culture

I am working on an argument against guns. Not so much for gun control, but against guns. Far too often, our arguments for gun control include disclaimers like “I am not opposed to guns” or “I support the 2nd Amendment.” Maybe we should be opposed to guns and maybe we should oppose the 2nd Amendment.

My thinking keeps coming back to an appearance by Jeff McMahan on the podcast Philosophy Bites.

You can listen to the podcast here. Philosophy Bites can also be found on iTunes.

Take a listen.

McMahan makes a similar argument in more detail in the New York Times.

Gun advocates and criminals are allies in demanding that guns remain in private hands. They differ in how they want them distributed. Criminals want guns for themselves but not for their potential victims. Others want them for themselves but not for criminals. But while gun control can do a little to restrict access to guns by potential criminals, it can’t do much when guns are to be found in every other household. Either criminals and non-criminals will have them or neither will. Gun advocates prefer for both rather than neither to have them.

But, as with nuclear weapons, we would all be safer if no one had guns — or, rather, no one other than trained and legally constrained police officers. Domestic defense would then be conducted the way we conduct national defense. We no longer accept, as the authors of the now obsolete Second Amendment did, that “a well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free state.” Rather than leaving national defense to citizens’ militias, we now, for a variety of compelling reasons, cede the right of national defense to certain state-authorized professional institutions: the Army, Navy, and so on. We rightly trust these forces to protect us from external threats and not to become instruments of domestic repression. We could have the same trust in a police force designed to protect us from domestic threats.

A prohibition of private ownership would not mean that no one could shoot guns. Guns for target shooting could be rented under security arrangements at the range. And there’s perhaps scope for debate about private possession of single chamber shotguns for hunting.

Gun advocates will object that a prohibition of private gun ownership is an impossibility in the United States. But this is not an objection they can press in good faith, for the only reason that a legal prohibition could be impossible in a democratic state is that a majority oppose it. If gun advocates ceased to oppose it, a prohibition would be possible.

As I have mentioned before, I have completely changed my view on guns. McMahan is a philosopher who has written much on issues of life and violence. I find myself agreeing with his attitude towards guns. While I am not a Utilitarian, his argument represents the type of Utilitarian critique of extreme and detached “rights” rhetoric which makes Utilitarianism such a valuable moral voice. Bentham would be proud.

Categories: Culture, Philosophy

10 replies »

  1. Just saw this Chris,

    It seems like he’s a tad naive about the nature of guns such as “single chamber shotguns for hunting.” Why only shotguns? What about Elk hunting?

    It seems he also gives short consideration of the problems of having to wait for police and the like. (I recognize that would be an issue in Australia which has effectively removed many guns – but the US is different from Australia along many lines) That’s not to say that one can’t make a strong utilitarian argument for banning guns. Just that what you quote seems to avoid the central issues in that calculus.

    • That might be the case. I think he lays out more than that in the fuller article and the podcast. In particular, I tend to agree with his view that hunting itself is not particularly relevant, let alone compelling, when addressing the value or virtue of guns.

  2. I would rank the achievement of a society being able to live peacefully without guns up there with completely living the law of consecration. I can make the argument for the latter, understand one for the former, but as far as promoting either as law… go.
    (Guns are an equalizer, making those weaker in stature and reflexes a more difficult target. Also research indicates that the mere possibility of a home having a gun decreases the likelihood of hot home break-ins (where the inhabitants are present.))

  3. Chris- it is quite obvious that you are totally unaware of or willfully ignorant of the literature that proves that the positions you advocate or those advocated by McMahan are nothing but pie-in-the-sky ideas.

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