By Jason Mayes
Let’s face it: moderate gun control measures are unlikely to make so much as a dent in mass shootings. Any changes would probably have to be radical and sweeping to make any difference.
Some propose an “assault” weapons ban and focus on the AR-15, demonstrating their own ignorance of firearms. In reality, an AR-15 is no more powerful than any other semi-automatic rifle or handgun.
So, they might suggest banning all semi-automatics. But semi-automatics comprise a very large number, if not the majority, of guns out there. Even with a ban on manufacturing of new weapons, this is unrealistic and unworkable because of just how many exist.
What’s more, such a policy would also be a major rights violation. It would require the confiscation of the primary and most effective weapons kept for self-defense.
Some propose bans on nebulously defined high capacity magazines. What these people lack is an understanding that replacing an emptied magazine only takes a fraction of a second. Others propose requiring background checks on all sales and exchanges, not just at gun stores. That’s fine, but most of the infamous mass-shooters have had clean backgrounds.
Is Australia the Perfect Example for Gun Control?
Many advocates of gun control, though, have another idea. After each shooting, they wistfully point to countries like Australia–with an all but non-existent right to be armed–as a model for the U.S. There’s some radical, sweeping change we can believe in, right?
Following a 1996 mass shooting, Australia passed a bipartisan law banning all semi-automatic weapons and shotguns. The State then forced anyone who wanted to own other types of guns to demonstrate a “need” to the State. If approved, they would have to wait for 28 days.
In this case, the government did not consider self-protection a legitimate need. This law was facilitated by a compulsory gun buyback. Anyone who maintained illegal ownership after a set date was to receive fourteen years in prison and an extremely large fine.
The Australian government’s coercion of its gun owning citizens seems to have been effective. They haven’t had a mass shooting since.
In reality, all Americans should reject this is purely utilitarian calculus. It is an egregious exercise of coercion by government of its citizens. What’s more, it is a violation of the extremely weighty right to self-defense.
While some lives may be saved, it’s only at the expense of other lives who would otherwise be able to properly defend themselves. A gun is the most effective means of defense ever invented by the human race, and it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
The Right to Self-Defense Cannot Be Easily Overridden
To deny the right to be armed is to privilege the physically powerful over the physically weak. The only way to get out of this dilemma would be to deny, against all evidence, that guns ever save lives. A world where guns aren’t necessary is a fantasy. Imagining that people can just as easily defend themselves with other means is naivety. We cannot expect people to simply escape or reason with their attacker.
There is no reason to believe that situations where the need for self-defense arises are so rare, we don’t even need to worry about that right. Those who hold that view should probably check their privilege. Consider that being a minority or LGBT or a woman certainly increases the likelihood of being in a position where having a gun might be desirable.
Perhaps we could justify this gross rights violation if the benefits were many times greater than allowing private gun ownership. But it’s not at all clear that we would save more lives than we lose. Determining the number of defensive gun uses (DGUs) per year is tricky, but there is data (see Criminologist Gary Kleck or economist Phillip Cook) that there may be as many as 3.8 million DGUs per year in the U.S. There is also reason to believe that many DGUs go unreported.
Even if guns save more lives than are lost, it’s still not clear that we can justly override the right to be armed. Because self-defense is such a weighty right, the benefits of restricting or infringing that right would not simply have to be nominally greater but many times greater. And it’s far from clear that they are.
Consider the Morals
Philosopher Michael Huemer, in his excellent essay, Is There A Right To Own A Gun?, argues that violating the right to self-defense is like being an accomplice to the murder, rape, or assault of the disarmed victim:
A killer breaks into a house, where two people—“the victim” and “the accomplice”—are staying. (The “accomplice” need have no prior interaction with the killer.) As the killer enters the bedroom where the victim is hiding, the accomplice enters through another door and proceeds, for some reason, to hold the victim down while the killer stabs him to death.
In this scenario, the killer commits what may be the most serious kind of rights-violation possible. What about the accomplice who holds the victim down? Most would agree that his crime is, if not equivalent to murder, something close to murder in degree of wrongness, even though he neither kills nor injures the victim.
Considered merely as the act of holding someone down for a few moments, the accomplice’s action seems a minor rights-violation. What makes it so wrong is that it prevents the victim from either defending himself or fleeing from the killer—that is, it violates the right of self-defense.
Huemer then asks us to consider a different scenario:
As in [the first example], except that the victim has a gun by the bed, which he would, if able, use to defend himself from the killer. As the killer enters the bedroom, the victim reaches for the gun. The accomplice grabs the gun and runs away, with the result that the killer then stabs his victim to death.
The accomplice’s action in this case seems morally comparable to his action in [ the first example]. Again, he has intentionally prevented the victim from defending himself, thereby in effect assisting in the murder. The arguments from the criteria for the seriousness of rights-violations are the same.
All this, gun control advocates might ask, “are we supposed to do nothing about mass shootings?”
To a certain extent, a stoic acceptance of tragedy is necessary and healthy. Bad things happen to strangers all the time and all over the world. Our own government indiscriminately bombs innocent people on the other side of the world all the time.
Yet, how often do those stories cycle in the news? Where is the outrage? Where are the demands to do something? This doesn’t mean that we should simply accept mass shootings if there is something we can do to save lives. But it does mean that we must weight possible actions against consequences, intended and unintended. Any proposed solution must not violate the rights of others to keep weapons for self-protection. Their lives are no less important.
Half-Steps Don’t Achieve, Full-Steps Violate Rights
Moderate gun control proposals don’t necessarily violate rights, at least not in the most important way. But they are unlikely to do anything to reduce, prevent, or mitigate mass shootings, though they may reduce other types of gun deaths. It’s time to recognize that the only gun control measures likely to have any effect are radical and follow in the steps of Australia and other countries.
However, such measures are firstly unrealistic and naive in the U.S., with its deeply embedded gun culture and hundreds of millions of guns. Also, though, they’re an egregious violation of an extremely weighty right. The zeal to “do something” does not allow us to do just anything.
Many gun control advocates scoff at the idea that good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. But their skepticism is not informed by real world cases. In fact, there are several cases in which good guys with guns have either prevented or greatly mitigated mass shooting carnage. That should always be kept in mind before new legislation is ever introduced.