Gun Control: A Philosophical Analysis

Gun Control: A Philosophical Analysis February 25, 2018

There’s always a lot of pushback against gun control from gun advocates, and more often than not you see the same sort of arguments presented. Here, I want to look at the argument for greater control or less control.

Second Amendment

Yes, Second Amendment (SA) advocates love to talk about the right to bear arms, but that right is only an old piece of paper codified into law. I don’t have that right here in the UK, and do you know what? I don’t want that right. I prefer this country in that context on account of there not being guns all over the shop.

The SA isn’t some divine decree that is immutable. It is already an amendment! And it can be further amended. It is only called a “right” because it happens to be codified into US law. It’s a legal right, not really a right in any sense of the word outside of the US or objectively – not a universal human right. Rights are constructed by the human mind, based on moral philosophy, and are then often codified into law. But they can just as easily be deconstructed by human minds. Especially if they cause more harm than good.

My well-being is not negatively affected and is (in my opinion) indeed positively affected by not having the “right” to bear arms. I love the fact that I have not seen a gun in public for a decade. I am also a teacher. We do not get the problem of people with easy access to guns. We had the Dunblane massacre and straight away took action to curtail gun use and access. We have not had a similar event since then.

Guns as Instruments of Death

The difference between guns and other items that SA advocates invoke in arguments (such as, “why not ban cars as they kill more people than guns”) is that guns are designed to kill things, people included, and things like cars and swimming pools are not. These are instruments of death that have very little utility outside of that sphere. Cars are integral to travel and the economy as a whole. Without their use, we would struggle to function as a society in our present state. Without public access to guns, virtually nothing would change, other than perhaps a whole host of people not losing their lives, and the pain and misery for their friends and families.

What about the leisure and sporting pleasure from responsible gun usage? Well, you can regulate for this, or simply shoot air rifles or bows. Such enjoyment doesn’t have to come from guns, in the same way that travel doesn’t have to come from gas-guzzling cars. We can and do regulate or tax to motivate use of public transport or the manufacture of more ethically responsible engines so that those entities don’t cause as much, well, death (effectively). We will morph towards the use of electric cars, and only the most stalwart of curmudgeons will insist on the “right” to drive petrol-guzzling trucks.

Regulation on dangerous things

Vehicles are dangerous. We regulate them very heavily for safety and no one bats an eyelid. We have seatbelt laws, NCAP safety ratings, the highway code, passing of tests and so on. All of these things, from manufacture to driving, are put in place such that the use of these modes of transport becomes as safe as possible.

With vehicles being used in terrorist attacks, many countries and councils are building subtle (or overt) concrete protections for pedestrians in main urban areas. One can imagine (as is being designed at the moment) smart cars eventually overriding the desires of the terrorist driver so that the lives of pedestrians are saved. That’s a long way off, though.

Acid is dangerous. There is presently an issue, particularly in London, of acid attacks, most notably from young people in mugging attacks. In this case, regulation is being rightfully sought to affect the ease with which young people can access and buy corrosive substances. As Wikipedia states: “positive correlation has been observed between acid attacks and ease of acid purchase.[20]

The issue of the regulation being voluntary has only just been shown to be worse than thought, as the BBC has just found out. Indeed, a relaxing of regulation has coincided with a spike in acid attacks in the UK, all against the advice of the experts.

The thing is, if X is seen as being a mechanism or method that people can cause harm to others, then it seems right to think long and hard about reducing that harm. One of the functions of government is the health, safety and well-being of its citizens. Regulating X is one of the ways that this can be achieved – a set of rules around the usage of X, so that X can be used more safely, or even not used at all if this is found to be better for society as a whole.

This happens in the production of every single item of manufactured good in the Western World. We regulate for and work towards quality standards of goods produced in or for modern society such that the health and safety of our citizens is a main concern.

We appear to be in a scenario whereby the sporting and leisure enjoyment of some people, the perceived right to have a gun (what, to counter the US military?) is seen as more important than the lives of tens of thousands of people.

I see no problem in saying if X causes society harm, society should do something about X. X, however, is a complex causal scenario where death is dealt out to people by the use of guns. Both the people involved and guns need to be addressed. Ignoring a large part of the causal process is inadequate. We don’t do that in any other scenario – drugs, other weapons, fireproofing on buildings, mining, whatever. Why not regulate guns if they are shown to play a part on so very many deaths?

Drawing the Line

Unless you are an utterly evangelical libertarian who believes in no regulation whatsoever, then (other than being slightly unhinged) you would surely have to abide by some sort of chaotic anarchy or agree with advantage of people being taken by any number of unscrupulous and unfettered corporate (or other) entities.

I would rather a different approach. I have already written how regulation should not be a dirty word as it is a form of moral imperative.

My intuition is that gun advocates often have double standards. They are happy to be made safer in terms of any number of things in society, but not guns.

So where do we draw the regulatory line? From no regulation up to the central government regulation of every breath you take, where is the most reasonable place to draw the line?

Of course, we get to a sort of arbitrary line once again where we say “this should not be regulated here, but this thing, one step on, should be.” Yes, there might have to be some application of “common sense”, but in the real knowledge that the exact location of the line is somewhat arbitrary.

The thing with guns is that they are instruments of death designed to harm others. Now, we have regulated knife and sword use. We disallow RPGs, missiles and nuclear warheads, grenades and Gatling guns.

For some reason, though, AR-15s, assault weapons for which you can buy bump stocks to increase their firing capacity,  are still A-Okay. If easy access to guns, as it certainly appears to me, are one of the main causal reasons why gun violence (including suicide deaths) is so high in the US, them regulating guns is an obvious course of action. In no other area would there be nearly this much pushback. Man, why did they have to amend it in the Constitution? And for muskets!

And what about suicide?

Differences in overall suicide rates across cities, states and regions in the United States are best explained not by differences in mental health, suicide ideation, or even suicide attempts, but by availability of firearms. Many suicides are impulsive, and the urge to die fades away. Firearms are a swift and lethal method of suicide with a high case-fatality rate.[13]

Suicides in the US have a very close relationship to guns and access to guns:

Firearms are the most popular method of suicide due to the lethality of the weapon. 90% of all suicides attempted using a firearm result in a fatality, as opposed to less than 3% of suicide attempts involving cutting or drug-use.[71] The risk of someone attempting suicide is also 4.8 times greater if they are exposed to a firearm on a regular basis; for example, in the home.[72]

In the United States, access to firearms is associated with an increased risk of completed suicide.[60] A 1992 case-control study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed an association between estimated household firearm ownership and suicide rates, finding that individuals living in a home where firearms are present are more likely to commit suicide than those individuals who do not own firearms, by a factor of 3 or 4.[1][61] A 2006 study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found a significant association between changes in estimated household gun ownership rates and suicide rates in the United States among men, women, and children.[62] A 2007 study by the same research team found that in the United States, estimated household gun ownership rates were strongly associated with overall suicide rates and gun suicide rates, but not with non-gun suicide rates.[63] A 2013 study reproduced this finding, even after controlling for different underlying rates of suicidal behavior by states.[64] A 2015 study also found a strong association between estimated gun ownership rates in American cities and rates of both overall and gun suicide, but not with non-gun suicide.[65]

The US needs to draw a new line because the old one is inadequate to protect so many citizens. But that’s easier said than done.

Guns as Identity

The challenge for those advocates of gun control is dealing with the fact that gun ownership and SA advocacy is wrapped so closely with political identity – identity politics. There is no surprise that the NRA overwhelmingly fund Republicans over Democrats, and fund campaigns against Democrats, explicitly.

An attack on guns is an attack on the personality and politics and very being of the gun advocate. It is the way with in-group/out-group psychology. Attacking the idea becomes attacking the person and everything associated with that person, as they see it. This appears very much to be the case with the gun debate. And the more and more polarised that the US electorate becomes, the greater the challenge for those seeking change. Change might take place, but it will simply get undone as the country switches party leadership. As we can see from things like abortion, there are hot-button topics that represent the core differences between the two parties and their followers. These are the political footballs punted one end to the other.

In other words, as with all strongly held beliefs, the case is not of changing minds based on rational evidence, because these beliefs are primarily psychological in nature and cause. This presents quite a Herculean task.

Here, the Daily Show references this idea in terms of representing freedom (you’ll need access to facebook videos):

The Daily Show – Reassessing the Same Old Debate on Gun Control

The Daily Show's Neal Brennan has found a way to get a gun control bill through Congress.

Posted by Comedy Central on Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rational Evidence

Unsurprisingly, I am a huge advocate of evidence-based policymaking. But there are some things that really get in the way of this in the context of gun policy:

  1. Lobbying. As with the health industry departments in the US, fair decision making by policy-makers is entirely compromised as long as virtually unfettered lobbying is allowed to take place. That virtually every Republican politician is in the hands of the NRA through legal bribery, you can never get politicians in the US voting properly on principle. Evidence takes a backseat when so obviously trumped by a paycheck to the tune of, often, millions of dollars.
  2. The NRA induced a funding stoppage to the CDC into gun violence. How can the government have decent evidence at their fingertips if this is the case? See Notes below for more detail on this.

With just these two problems, you can see the issues surrounding the seeming pipedream of achieving evidence-based policymaking in this area.

Prohibition

Although this is often claimed as being the desire of the anti-gun lobby by those arguing against gun control, prohibition is generally not what most realistic gun control proponents seek. This is because, realistically, with so many guns in circulation and so much desire amongst the many fans of guns, prohibition would be impossible. You only have to look at the Prohibition (of alcohol) in the 1930s. Baby steps. Curtailing the quicker firing guns is a start.

What is the Way Forward?

This is the difficult part. Firstly, the CDC needs to be freely able to collect good data. Background checks need to be meaningful, consistent and have teeth. Mental health needs funding. The age for being able to buy guns needs to go up. There should be regulation around assault weapons (and a clearer definition concerning these weapons). Ammunition regulation needs to be brought in as it is essentially non-existent. Guns without ammo are useless, after all.

Whatever is decided upon must have good rational evidence to back it up, of course. But something must be done. And I’m not at all convinced that arming more citizens is a good idea. Because not every good guy is always and consistently good.

This graphic can cast some much-needed light on the matter, and is well worth poring over:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/05/upshot/how-to-reduce-mass-shooting-deaths-experts-say-these-gun-laws-could-help.html

 

NOTES

More information on the CDC funding issues with regard to gun violence:

The CDC had not touched firearm research since 1996 — when the NRA accused the agency of promoting gun control and Congress threatened to strip the agency’s funding. The CDC’s self-imposed ban dried up a powerful funding source and had a chilling effect felt far beyond the agency: Almost no one wanted to pay for gun violence studies, researchers say. Young academics were warned that joining the field was a good way to kill their careers. And the odd gun study that got published went through linguistic gymnastics to hide any connection to firearms.

The long stalemate continued until shortly after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., when Obama announced several gun-control proposals, including reversing the CDC research ban. His higher-profile proposals – tightening firearm background checks, reinstating the assault weapons ban – were viewed as impossible to pass into law. Congress wouldn’t bite. But ending the CDC research ban? Done by executive order, it appeared to have the best shot, along with broad support from a scientific community upset that gun violence as a public health problem was being ignored.

“A lot of people thought it would make a big difference,” recalled Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University psychiatry professor who studies gun violence and mental health.

But today the CDC still avoids gun-violence research, demonstrating what many see as the depth of its fear about returning to one of the country’s most divisive debates. The agency recently was asked by The Washington Post why it was still sitting on the sidelines of firearms studies. It declined to make an official available for an interview but responded with a statement noting it had commissioned an agenda of possible research goals but still lacked the dedicated funding to pursue it.

“It is possible for us to conduct firearm-related research within the context of our efforts to address youth violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and suicide,” CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard wrote, “but our resources are very limited.”

Congress has continued to block dedicated funding. Obama requested $10 million for the CDC’s gun violence research in his last two budgets. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have introduced bills supporting the funding.  Both times the Republican-controlled House of Representatives said no. Maloney recently said she planned to reintroduce her bill this year, but she wasn’t hopeful.

So, the CDC is no closer to initiating gun-violence studies.

The roots of the research ban go back to 1996, when the NRA accused the public health agency of lobbying for gun control. That year, a Republican congressman stripped $2.6 million from the CDC budget, the exact amount spent on gun research the previous year. Soon the funding was restored, but designated elsewhere, and wording was inserted into the CDC’s appropriations bill that, “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

The CDC interpreted this to mean it should avoid studying guns in any fashion.

“It basically was a shot across the bow by Congress on the part of the NRA,” said Mark Rosenberg, who was director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Control and Prevention when the ban went into effect. “All federally funded research was shut down.”

CDC funding for firearm injury prevention fell 96 percent, down to $100,000, from 1996 to 2013, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the advocacy group founded by Michael Bloomberg.


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