In light of the recent calls for a “national conversation” about gun violence and gun control, and in light of the admiration that some of us here at BHL have expressed for the philosophical work of Michael Huemer, I thought I would take the opportunity to refer readers to a nice essay of his entitled, “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?”
Like his excellent essay on immigration, this piece contains a useful mix of philosophical and empirical analysis. And like that essay, it argues for its conclusion on the basis of widely shared moral premises – ones that libertarians can certainly embrace, but that liberals, conservatives, and for that matter utilitarians and deontologists can embrace too.
Huemer’s answer to his titular question is that yes, we do have a right to own a gun. Like most rights, it is a prima facie right, that is, a right that can be justifiably overridden in certain circumstances by sufficiently weighty reasons. But is a right that is supported by serious moral considerations. Among the most weighty of these is the right to self-defense. Huemer believes that gun control unjustly infringes upon this right. To support this claim, he asks us to consider the following hypothetical scenario:
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 pro- ceeds, for some reason, to hold the victim down while the killer stabs him to death.
Obviously, the killer in this situation is doing something seriously wrong. But so too, most of us would think, is the accomplice. But what is the accomplice actually doing? He is simply coercively preventing the victim from exercising his right to self-defense. But isn’t that precisely what a legal ban on firearm ownership would do? If, then, the action of the accomplice in the scenario is wrong, doesn’t this give us good reason to think that a legal ban on firearm ownership would be wrong too?
Of course, there are differences between the hypothetical scenario and a legal ban on firearm ownership. But Huemer is characteristically good about anticipating and pre-emptively responding to these objections. Take a look at the paper yourself.
It’s worth noting that Huemer’s aim in this paper is fairly limited. He is arguing that there is a a strong prima facie right to own a gun. But that conclusion is compatible with the belief that the exercise of that right ought to be regulated in various ways. Huemer talks about some of the stronger forms that regulation might take – a ban on all handguns (as opposed to rifles and shotguns), and a ban on concealed carry. And he argues that we have some reason to be wary of such measures/ But nothing in his paper directly tells against, say, limits on the capacity of magazines, waiting periods, background checks, bans on fully automatic weapons, or a host of other actual or possible regulations. I suspect that Huemer would find current calls for bans on all semi-automatic weapons to be unjustifiable, given the utility such weapons have both for recreational and defensive purposes. But that, it seems to me, is a fairly modest claim.