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.