Whenever there’s a violent tragedy, someone immediately starts using it as an excuse to restrict civil liberties. Many on the left understand this when it comes to the Patriot Act, but not when it comes to gun control. (Conservatives have selective blindness in the opposite direction.)

In deontological terms, the right to self-defense is the foundation and presupposition of all other rights; and forbidding private citizens to own guns while allowing police and soldiers to carry them is a violation of moral equality – a reserving of weapons to the powerful while denying them to the powerless.

In consequentialist terms, gun control is a perfect example of the broken window fallacy. Deaths caused by gun use are seen, because they happen. Deaths prevented by gun use are not seen, because they don’t happen. (By “gun use” I mean not just firings but also mere brandishings.) First, preventions are underreported (since few are eager to be victimised twice – first by a freelance attacker and second by the cops), and second, when they are reported, they’re not exciting enough to get much publicity.

People who favour stronger gun control laws focus on the deaths they hope to prevent, but rarely consider the deaths their laws would cause. One useful corrective to this attitude is the Cato Institute study Tough Targets: When Criminals Face Armed Resistance From Citizens.

And although I’m not a fan of the NRA (which I don’t regard as an anti-gun-control organisation), they have a useful blog, The Armed Citizen, documenting lives saved by private gun use.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/geoffrey.m.arnold Geoff Arnold

    I’m curious how you would explain the following, then:

    Number of Murders, United States, 2010: 12,996Number of Murders by Firearms, US, 2010: 8,775Number of Murders, Britain, 2011*: 638
    (Since Britain’s population is 1/5 that of US, this is equivalent to 3,095 US murders)Number of Murders by firearms, Britain, 2011*: 58
    (equivalent to 290 US murders)
    I guess your “broken windows” argument would mean that if it were not for private gun ownership in the US, the ratio of US:UK murders would be even greater than the 4:1 which actually obtains. So what would you say was the “natural” difference in murder rates between the two countries, assuming equal levels of gun ownership?
    I would imagine that a consequentialist would want to know not only how many lives were saved by gun ownership, but also how many additional deaths could be attributed to gun ownership. You talk about the first a lot, but seem unwilling to address the second. Why?
    Also I find your notion of moral equality to be incoherent (except perhaps from an absolute anarchist view of society). As stated, it would seem to justify the private possession of nuclear weapons. Is this what you intended?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roderick-Tracy-Long/1037941173 Roderick Tracy Long

      I guess your “broken windows” argument would mean that if it were not for private gun ownership in the US, the ratio of US:UK murders would be even greater than the 4:1 which actually obtains.

      No, it doesn’t mean that. Britain and Switzerland both have lower rates of gun violence than the u.s., yet in Britain there’s less access to assault weapons than in the u.s., while in Switzerland there’s more access to assault weapons than in the u.s. So availability is not the only factor; cultural factors are
      important also.

      
I would imagine that a consequentialist would want to know not only how many lives were saved by gun ownership, but also how many additional deaths could be attributed to gun ownership. You talk about the first a lot, but seem unwilling to address the second. Why?


      The second is already part of the conversation; the first is much less so.

      Also I find your notion of moral equality to be incoherent (except perhaps from an absolute anarchist view of society).

      I think you’ve got premise and conclusion reversed there.

      As stated, it would seem to justify the private possession of nuclear weapons.

      Only if states are justified in possessing nuclear weapons, which of course they are not.

      • Sean II

        I considered getting some low-yield nuclear weapons for home defense, because, you know, I have a few valuables in the house.

        Turns out, those things cost like 50 million dollars (and that’s after someone else already paid for the R&D!).

        But just watch out! If I acquire the original of ‘Peasant Woman on a Background of Wheat” and I need a fail-safe deterrent against art thieves, that warhead suddenly starts looking like a sweet bargain.

      • Gordon Barnes

        Gun related violence is most common in poor, urban areas. (I can document that for you, if need be). There are many more such areas in the UK than there are in the rural mountains Switzerland. So in one crucial respect, the UK is relevantly similar to the US, whereas Switzerland is not. So I think that the point about the UK stands, and the example of Switzerland is defeated as a counterexample. Moreover, just ask a police officer who works in an inner city: “if all guns in the US were confiscated as a matter of law, would that decrease the amount of gun violence in inner cities?” I am quite confident that the answer would be “yes,” and countries all over Europe illustrate the point.

        As for the point about the right to self-defense, individuals can exercise that right through their elected representatives, and they can do it precisely by outlawing guns. So the decision to outlaw guns is an exercise of the right to self-defense, not a violation of it.

        • Aeon Skoble

          “As for the point about the right to self-defense, individuals can exercise that right through their elected representatives” 1, this overlooks the fact the government is often the rights-violator. See Radley Balko’s writings at HuffPo or The Agitator. 2, the courts have rule that the police have no constitutional duty to protect you. Also: you say that we can protect ourselves by banning guns. Think about that for a sec: we have already passed laws banning rape and murder and robbery, yet they still happen. How is that possible? Because predators don’t care what the law says. If they’re willing to break the laws against robbing and raping and killing, they’ll also be willing to defy a gun ban.

          • Gordon Barnes

            I agree that government is often the rights violator, and my reply that is the people need to take control of their government. Government should be the agency of the people, acting collectively. In my view, hat is the solution to the abuses of government. As for the analogy with rape, etc, the rarity of gun violence in countries in Europe where guns are banned attests to the possibility of reducing gun violence by banning guns. I would not claim that gun violence can be eliminated, but I do claim that it can be drastically reduced, as it has been in Europe. You will not read any headlines like those about Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, or Colorado in the newspapers in Europe. The proof is in the pudding.

          • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

            What about Norway?

          • Sean II

            Don’t forget the UK’s own massacres at Cumbria, Hungerford, & Dunblane.

            In Europe, there was that guy who shot up the Swiss parliament ten years ago, attacking political targets for apolitical reasons (much like Jared Loughner did in my country). In Germany they had the Erfurt and Winnenden school shootings. In France they had that .22 rifle rampage back in the late 1990s.

            It would be absurd to think active shooters and spree killers are some kind of American phenomenon. If anything is different, it’s simply that the French, Swiss, German, and British media don’t respond to such crimes by calling for nationwide panic.

            The newspapers here probably have editorials pre-written for these events, with titles like “The Guns We Love Don’t Love Us Back.” As usual, Americans prove themselves to have a quivering lower lip.

          • Gordon Barnes

            Great that you bring up Switzerland, since that is one of the countries in which guns are legal, and thus it illustrates my point. In the other countries, such cases are much rarer than they are in the US, which also proves my point. I’m not saying that it never happens, but only that it happens much less frequently

          • Sean II

            I’m not convinced these cases ARE significantly more common in the United States than elsewhere. To show that one would need a full catalog of massacres, comparing the number of incidents (or maybe the number of victims) to population, controlling for the overall crime rate and who knows what other variables as well.

            Hardly a simple task, and as far as I know, no one has yet attempted it. There would be many tricky questions. Should political violence count toward the total? If so, then what counts as political violence? If a legal gun is used along with illegal explosives, then would you still categorize the incident as a murder committed with lawfully obtained weapons? What about cases where the particular gun used was obtained illegally, in a nation that otherwise allows gun sales? And so on…

          • Gordon Barnes

            Guns are legal in Norway, as they are in the US

          • Aeon Skoble

            See this excellent post by Lester Hunt: http://lesterhhunt.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-colorado-sootings-irrelevant-to-gun.html I have nothing to add.

    • http://twitter.com/JFCatalan Jonathan Finegold

      The lopsidedness of firearm restrictions in certain states in the United States should also be considered. I’m not saying that these do play a role, but that they might. In other words, firearm laws might distort their distribution, giving them to some but not to others.

    • http://twitter.com/cheezdog cheezdog

      what was England’s murder rate before they banned guns nobody ever asks that . It was about 500 in 1997 and in 1991 it was about 450 so that worked well for them.

  • Hume22

    Roderick,
    Interesting take on libertarian equality. I posted some cursory remarks a few years ago. I like your use of the language of “equality of authority” instead of “equality of rights”, even though there are complications with the concept of (practical) authority. Simmons’ work on Locke may be informative here too, particularly “On the Edge Anarchy”. One reason why I like using “authority” here is because I think that “self-authority” or “self-sovereignty” is a better way of conceptualizing the basic intuitions animating the idea of “self-ownership”, while at the same time not being burdened by the complications that arise from the close conceptual ties between ownership and property (what does it mean to ‘own’ my self?). The concept of “ownership” is really just another way
    of expressing the idea of sovereignty or authority over a certain
    domain of issues. A thought experiment by Margaret Gilbert is helpful here and provides a case for the plausibility of, at the very least, a presumption of self-authority:

    What of the case of commands to self? This seems to
    be less troublesome from the outset. Consider the contrast between the
    following two cases. First case: in a railway carriage, John turns to Angela, a
    stranger to him, and says, ‘Shut the window!’ She may well feel affronted. Even
    if she says nothing, she is liable to think, ‘He has no right to order me
    about!’ I construe this type of situation as follows. John struck her as
    attempting to give her an order. She denies that he has the standing to do so.
    Second case: John is sitting alone in the railway carriage, feeling cold. He is
    also lazy, and is finding it hard to bestir himself to get up and open the
    window. Finally he says to himself ‘Get up and shut the window!’ This strikes
    him—it is, indeed, intended—as an order. The thought that he has no right to
    order himself about is unlikely to occur to him. He may of course continue to
    resist getting up, thereby disobeying his self-addressed command. But he is
    unlikely to deny that it is indeed a command—an authoritative, self-addressed imperative.
    It seems, then, that one automatically has the standing to command oneself. [footnoted omitted]. Perhaps there should be a ceteris paribus clause here. Perhaps I could somehow deprive
    myself of that status. Be that as it may, there still appears to be a sharp
    [250] asymmetry between the case of self-commands and the case of commands to
    others. All else being equal (at least) one has the standing to command
    oneself. One does not, in other words, have initially to earn that standing by
    some ‘special’ relationship to oneself that one might have lacked. In contrast,
    all else being equal, one lacks the standing to command others. -Gilbert, A Theory of Political Obligation
    249-50 (2006).
    What of the case of commands to self? This seems to
    be less troublesome from the outset. Consider the contrast between the
    following two cases. First case: in a railway carriage, John turns to Angela, a
    stranger to him, and says, ‘Shut the window!’ She may well feel affronted. Even
    if she says nothing, she is liable to think, ‘He has no right to order me
    about!’ I construe this type of situation as follows. John struck her as
    attempting to give her an order. She denies that he has the standing to do so.
    Second case: John is sitting alone in the railway carriage, feeling cold. He is
    also lazy, and is finding it hard to bestir himself to get up and open the
    window. Finally he says to himself ‘Get up and shut the window!’ This strikes
    him—it is, indeed, intended—as an order. The thought that he has no right to
    order himself about is unlikely to occur to him. He may of course continue to
    resist getting up, thereby disobeying his self-addressed command. But he is
    unlikely to deny that it is indeed a command—an authoritative, self-addressed imperative.
    It seems, then, that one automatically has the standing to command oneself. [footnoted omitted]. Perhaps there should be a ceteris paribus clause here. Perhaps I could somehow deprive
    myself of that status. Be that as it may, there still appears to be a sharp
    [250] asymmetry between the case of self-commands and the case of commands to
    others. All else being equal (at least) one has the standing to command
    oneself. One does not, in other words, have initially to earn that standing by
    some ‘special’ relationship to oneself that one might have lacked. In contrast,
    all else being equal, one lacks the standing to command others. -Gilbert, A Theory of Political Obligation
    249-50 (2006).
    In case you are interested here is my post:
    http://www.reasonabledisagreement.blogspot.com/2010/11/equality-and-libertarianism.html
    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Equality and libertarianism
    Posted by Hume

    Libertarian political
    philosophy is often criticized for not taking equality seriously as an
    important political value. Is this
    charge legitimate? Do libertarians
    reject the idea of equality as such? Do
    they reject the idea that “everyone is equal”?To understand the controversies
    regarding equality, one must first understand the nature of equality as a
    political ideal. An important and
    fundamental distinction to understand (made by Ronald Dworkin) is between
    “treating an individual equally” and “treating an individual as an equal.” Treating someone equally means acting
    in such a way that affects their position along a particular dimension equally
    (e.g., to the same distribution of goods or opportunities). Treating someone as an equal requires
    treating them with “equal concern and respect.”
    Treating someone with “concern” is to treat them “as human beings who are
    capable of suffering and frustration.”
    Treating someone with “respect” is to treat them “as human beings who are
    capable of forming and acting on intelligent conceptions of how their lives
    should be lived.”Treating individuals “as
    equals” is a higher-order principle than treating them “equally.” This is because treating equally requires
    equal treatment along some dimension.
    But treatment can always be compared along multiple dimensions. One need only to look to the familiar
    political slogans regarding economic distribution to see how this is so: (1) ‘To
    each according to his needs’; (2) ‘To each according to his
    efforts’; or (3) ‘To each according to his contribution.’ Thus, need, effort, and contribution all act
    as possible dimensions along which one can be “treated equally” vis-à-vis
    economic distribution. In the typical
    case, these principles cannot be satisfied at the same time. Thus, there is a need for a higher-order
    principle, a principle to decide which first-order distributive principle is to
    govern economic distribution. This is
    where treating someone “as an equal” comes in, it selects which first-order
    principle is to carry the day.The problem of equality is to
    be found when one attempts to apply the second-order principle of treatment “as
    equals” (equal concern and respect) to competing first-order distributive
    principles (e.g., “to each according to his need” vs. “to each according to his
    contribution”) in order to select which is the morally correct first-order
    principle. In order to decide specific
    and controversial issues, the “treatment as equals” needs interpretation. But in order to do this, mid-level or
    “mediating” principles are required, and the more specific the issues are, the
    more controversial the mediating principles will be.Thus, there is a problem of
    interpretation of treatment “as equals” (let’s call this second-order principle
    the “equal consideration principle”).
    Thomas Nagel offers an illuminating way to understand the situation. Interpretation of the equal consideration
    principle can be understood in the following way: equal consideration provides
    individuals with a “veto.” If a policy
    or procedure fails to treat him with equal consideration, he is justified in rejecting it, and his
    non-acceptance is a reason for doubting its legitimacy. The issue, the problem of equality, is where to place the veto, and
    different mediating principles differ in where they claim the veto properly
    belongs.For example, a utilitarian
    mediating principle places the veto at the input stage. There is a moral requirement to maximize the
    good overall, and the egalitarian aspect requires that every individual’s
    interests be taken into account, everyone is given equal weight (my interests
    are given the same weight as Michael Jordan’s interests, his interests do not
    count more just because he is Michael Jordan).
    Notice that equality is not
    taken into account at the output
    stage: an output of the decision-procedure is legitimate, no matter how unequal
    the distribution, so long as everyone’s interests were taken into account and
    given equal weight, and as long as the decision maximizes the good overall.
    This finally brings us back to
    the questions regarding libertarianism.
    As now should be clear, libertarians do in fact take equality
    seriously. Treating someone with “equal
    concern and respect” is a central feature of libertarian thought. The differences between libertarianism and
    other egalitarian conceptions of equality are caused by the differing mediating
    principles and where they claim the veto should be placed. Most libertarians believe in a strong
    conception of individual rights (Robert Nozick famously opens Anarchy, State,
    and Utopia by declaring that “[i]ndividuals have rights, and there are
    things no person or group may do to them (without violating their
    rights)”). Thus, libertarians believe
    that every individual has a veto against an invasion of their rights. One is not treated with “equal concern and
    respect” if a procedure or policy violates that person’s rights (without
    acquiring consent). As Nagel describes
    the position, “[t]he moral equality of persons . . . is their equal claim
    against each other not to be interfered with in specified ways. Each person must be treated equally in
    certain definite respects by each other person.” As a result, it is incorrect to charge
    libertarians with failing to consider equality.
    It is, of course, entirely legitimate to disagree with the mediating
    principles and the resultant placement of the veto, but in order to avoid
    begging the question, one must first acknowledge equality as a genuine concern
    in libertarian thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743482150 David Sobel

    Perhaps cases where people are not killed because some do not have easy access to guns are discounted for similar reasons to the one’s you mention.

  • ThaomasH

    “Whenever there’s
    a violent tragedy, someone immediately starts using it as an excuse to restrict
    civil liberties. Many on the left understand this when it comes to the Patriot
    Act, but not when it comes to gun control. (Conservatives have selective
    blindness in the opposite direction.)”

    An excellent example of the paranoid style or argument. Seeing a bad outcome occurring under the
    existing set of gun possession and use policies and proposing a change in some
    of those policies is an “excuse” to restrict civil liberties. The
    implication is that the desire to restrict civil liberties was already there. Should we not be able to discuss whether a
    specific restriction on firearms sale or use without a presumption of bad faith
    on the part of the proposer? I do not
    recall a similar criticism of the Patriot act.
    My recollection is that Patriot Act criticism was and is that in their
    desire to “do something,” “conservatives” gave little
    weight to the consequent restriction of civil liberties, not that they had the
    urge restrict them before the event and used 9/11 as an “excuse.”

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rod-Engelsman/822499328 Rod Engelsman

      Perhaps that criticism of conservatives vis-a-vis the Patriot Act wasn’t current among your libertarian friends, but it was among the liberals. And rightly so given that about a thousand pages of legislation just sort of magically appeared in just a few days. Almost as if it had been laying around in someone’s drawer just waiting for the right moment….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743482150 David Sobel

    On the moral equality argument, I see that as compatible with the most serious waiting periods and background checks that are politically viable at the moment. Also, I wonder why that argument requires that we allow citizens to have guns but not also the most deadly weapons that soldiers use.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erik.mn.9 Erik Mn

    With tragedy, especially human caused, I’m reminded of something a lot of people turn to, god. They often pray. That’s O.K. if that’s what they need. What scares me is a State that tries to play omnipotent, and the people that want to turn to it for salvation– and expect others to do the same. I respect freedom of religion, but freedom from religion is not tolerated in this case…even if you carry a gun.

  • Damien S.

    I suspect guns are a wash, actually; the US has higher non-gun homicide rates than other countries have total homicide rates. IOW, we stab each other more than other people kill each other. So on net guns don’t seem to protect us or to explain all of our high murder rate.

    But I’ll also note there’s a lot of conflation, on both sides, in these arguments. There’s handguns and long guns, and AIUI the US is unusually permissive in allowing handgun ownership, while kind of average in long gun ownership. I’d guess gang shootings involve longer guns, but muggings and non-domestic self-defense involve hand guns. Countries like Switzerland, Norway, or Canada own lots of guns… but not lots of handguns.

    Also, of course, many Swiss guns are in a sense not owned or controlled by the individual; they’re part of the system of universal conscription, and actual use of them outside of mobilization or training is severely restricted.

    There’s also a lot of diversity within the US, in space and time. US homicide rates have gone up and down a lot, independent of gun control trends, while Louisiana has 10x the murder rate of New Hampshire; regionally, the South is high, everyone else low. Guns, or culture?

    • Damien S.

      Also, as a consequentialist I’d be concerned with gun accident rates as well. If ubiquitous gun ownership meant a modest reduction in gun violence that was heavily outweighed by an increase in accidents, from one’s own gun or those of others, that’d turn me off widespread ownership.

      (Some count suicide rates too, but I don’t, figuring the desire to suicide can be fulfilled other ways.)

  • good_in_theory

    I usually wish I could unsee trite references to Bastiat, but if you’re interested in seeing something, crooked timber has some nice data to look at.

    Across countries:
    http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/20/america-is-a-violent-country/

    Across states:
    http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/22/assault-deaths-within-the-united-states/

  • Scott Trinh

    Just throwing this out there since I don’t have any data to support my claim, but I would throw Drug Prohibition into the mix of variables used to explain the murder rate in the United States. Maybe cross reference gun ownership percentages from before 1900 and their murder rates, and look at the increase in murder starting with Alcohol Prohibition through today’s War on Drugs?

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