Gun Control and Proportionality

Gun Control and Proportionality July 28, 2008

Readers of this blog will know that I have written a fair bit about gun control lately, and that I feel rather passionately about it. Some may also be aware that the debate has also raged on the What’s Wrong With the World Warblog. There at least, the arguments are a little more sophisticated, veering away from the positivist (“the second amendment says so”) and the anachronistic (“he tyrants are coming to subjugate us”), moving more in a natural law direction.

Still, I believe these arguments are fundamentally flawed, as they are based on taking the natural right to self-defensive in a maximalist direction that ignores the perverse effect of the widespread availability of guns on society as a whole, and thus goes against the common good. In the zeal to protect one’s family, these people draw too fine a line between those to be protected and the amorphous “other”, which has the effects of placing boundaries on who our neighbour is. Indeed, the author of the post (Maximos) makes reference to “representatives of America’s urban abattoirs” in justifying his case for self-defense. He also criticizes arguments based on “statistical abstractions” rather than “flesh-and-blood human beings”, ignoring the fact that the murdered people recorded in the statistics are also human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Instead, this solution seems to rely on fortified castles designed to protect those within from the enemy without.

In this analysis, I see traces of Hobbesian liberalism, where every man defends his rights from his fortress. I see shades of the great Calvinist-Gnostic-Manichean dualism (whatever you want to call it) where the forces of light battle the forces of darkness, and violence in this cause (including the death penalty) is virtuous. However you see it, everything hinges on the individual and personal virtue, and loses the sense of communal redemption in Christ that restores the lost unity of the human race, reversing the sundering and “individualization” brought about my original sin.

Anyway, one of the commentors, a person called Brendon, spelled out his reasoning in four distinct steps:

1. A man has a duty to defend his family, his neighbors and his fellow man.

2. This duty gives a man the right to possess such tools as are necessary to offer a proportional response to any possible threats these people may face.

3. It is an existential fact that the possible threats to these people includes gangs, i.e. groups of individuals who band together to commit crimes and acts of violence, and men armed with guns.

4. The use of a gun is a proportional response to such threats.

When I read this, and his emphasis on a proportional response, my thoughts naturally fell on the just war criteria. The key in this context is the notion that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”. The free availability of handguns for “self defense” is– in the present context– a “disproportionate” response to any perceived threat, broadly defined, in the sense that it contributes to far greater evils in society than the good of protecting one’s family. In other words, we can adapt the proportionality criterion to say something like: “the unrestricted private possession of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”.

And let’s talk for a minute about those greater evils. As I’ve pointed out again and again, the level of gun-related homicide and suicide rates in the United States is off the charts by comparisons of countries with similar levels of economic development. And yet, as Harvard’s David Hemenway points out, the United States is not exceptionally violent among high-income industrialized countries. What makes it different is the level of “lethal violence”. So while guns may not turn people into criminals, they make crimes lethal. And the international evidence shows that murder and suicide rates are positively related to levels of gun ownership, and that the detrimental effect of guns is greater in the presence of underlying social and economic tensions.

In these particular circumstances, there is no doubt in my mind that the free availability of guns is a hugely disproportionate response to threats to one’s personal safety. It increases the chance of a flare of temper ending in death. It increases the risk of a disturbed individual engaging in carnage (see Columbine, Virgina Tech and countless other tragedies). It increases the risk of a depressed individual taking his own life. It increases the murder rate in marginalized inner-city communities replete with social and economic problems; and–as Pope Benedict noted–  true peace requires justice to correct economic imbalances and political disturbances that give rise to tensions within society. One cannot add fuel to a bonfire, simply because you think it makes us feel safer. One cannot simply turn a blind eye to these effects and assume that one’s stance had no impact on them. No, in the context of present-day United States, given the particular facts and circumstances, a good case can be made for completely banning handguns, along the lines of the United Kingdom.

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

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  • MM – I’ve said this before, but I have mixed feelings about this. I share your concerns about rampant murder in the US (something with which I have some direct, personal experience, by the way.)

    However, I also find a handgun is handy in the Fall if I need to humanely finish off a deer in the woods after wounding it with a poorly-placed rifle shot. If the deer is on rocky ground, a rifle bullet may ricochet, and a shotgun will ruin an awful lot of meat (a Wanton Waste ticket can run into the many hundreds of dollars.)

    So, a handgun is a handy tool for hunting, but their free availability contributes to the high murder rate in the US. What to do?

    My honest answer is, I don’t know. I probably come down on the side of regulation and permitting of handguns, rather than an outright ban.

  • jonathanjones02

    If one were able to point to a strong, positive correlation of high ownership or availability and high crime rates involving a handgun across a variety of environments and times, then that would be a good case for completely banning handguns.

    This does not exist, however. What we find is a strong, positive correlation of criminal activity and high crime rates involving a handgun across a variety of environments and times. Where there are criminals, there are crimes, and they will find guns or whatever other object serves the purpose.

    Certainly guns make many crimes more terrible, and certainly horrors like Columbine were made more horrible by guns. Yet there are also many examples of the opposite: citizens respectful of the law, and the wider community, served well by guns and handgun availability. Do you know why there is no public debate about concealed carry? Because, on the whole, it works. Nearly all states have it in some form, and there is no serious movement for repeal.

    The fundamental problem is a moral one.

  • jonathanjones02

    Now I know this is a tired example, but go ahead and find a good counterargument: would you feel safer – and would you actually be safer – in a place with restrictive gun laws (DC, Chicago, Detroit, New York, LA, ect.) or in a place with non-restrictive gun laws, such as (my native) rural central/south Texas? Both places have quite a lot of guns, but the difference is the people…and it’s a massive difference.

  • TeutonicTim

    MM – I have an idea – Simply wish them away, and it will be so!

    Of course, while you’re at it, wish away the actual problem – the criminals…

  • TeutonicTim

    MM – I also really appreciate(not) you deciding what is a proportional response prior to any and every circumstance, especially when it comes to my family.

    Keep this in mind when deciding that protecting one’s family is disproportionate:

    The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.”

    Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:

    If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.

    Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

  • Intresting, MM. You took a man’s very logical explanation for owning, carrying and possibly using a handgun and you expanded it to some nebulous “evil” of “free availability of handguns”.

    Now do you see some sort of increased evil from Brendon owning a handgun? If Brendon is a responsible gun owner. Keeps his gun concealed on his person, never displaying it until he’s ready to kill something with it. How does Brendon’s owning of a handgun increase the evil?

    Now expand it to me. How does my being trained in the situational use of a firearm and carrying one on my person to be used in the proportional protection of myself, my family and innocent bystanders constitute and increase of evil?

    Now expand it to 1000 people just like me. How is our owning of handguns offset by the evil increased by our carrying.

    And please try and stay focused. Don’t wander to the “society” owning handguns argument. Because by carrying of a handgun, I am attempting to protect innocents from some members of society who should not be armed. Most of those people don’t follow the law anyway.