Some Questions about Gun Control

Two recent columns from the New York Times editorial page have me thinking about the bad arguments that otherwise bright people use in defense of gun control. Before I explain why I find these arguments unconvincing, I want to make it clear that gun control is one issue about which I am politically and morally agnostic. I have spent most of my life in small towns and cities in neighborhoods where shootings rarely (if ever) occur, and nobody in my family hunts. For these reasons, I have never been interested in owning a gun, either for self-protection or for sport, nor have I been threatened by other people who have guns. Moreover, while I am inclined to have a laissez-faire attitude about the manufacture and sale of medium-sized objects, I don’t buy into natural rights, and I do not use ‘constitutionality’ as a short-hand for ‘justice’. I do not think the debate about guns starts or stops at the Second Amendment, but I do think that the burden of proof in any debate about regulation or restriction should fall on the more restrictive party.

This week, columnist Bob Herbert and former president Jimmy Carter both wrote op-ed pieces about the crisis of gun violence in the United States. Carter makes an explicit case that gun laws should be more restrictive, and he laments the disproportionate power of the National Rifle Association to lobby on behalf of gun manufacturers under the pretense of defending the Second Amendment. Herbert seems to be making a similar argument, but he does not explicitly mention the NRA or any gun law. Instead, Herbert focuses upon the United States’ violent, “culture soaked in blood,” and, at the end of the column, he chastens us for our blasé attitude toward “gun nuts” who are “committed to keeping the killing easy.”

I share Jimmy Carter’s disdain for the NRA, and I am inclined to think that Herbert is right that culture (though this begs the question, “which culture?”) is at the root of gun violence, but these are really peripheral points to the argument that Carter makes explicit and that Herbert suggests implicitly. Both men cite statistics about gun violence in the United States and then make the case that we need to do something about it. (Carter wants a ban on assault weapons that can penetrate police armor. I’m not exactly sure what Herbert wants, but I’ll infer that it is some type of stricter gun regulation because he worries about “gun nuts free to press their crazy case for more and more guns in more and more hands,” and he concludes that “we should be committed for not stopping them.”) The problem is that the statistical data about gun violence which they use is not a good justification for gun regulation because it tells us nothing about the relationship between gun laws and gun violence.

In order to understand why the justification for gun regulation is problematic, I want to take a brief detour into the world of drugs. As anyone who has ever been to a summer rock festival can attest, laws regulating ownership and use of controlled substances are imperfect deterrents. There are a number of reasons why people openly defy the law by using illegal drugs in public, but chief among them, in my opinion, is the fact that most people who use illegal drugs do not find drug laws to be morally compelling. This may seem like an obvious and redundant point (people who break the law don’t respect the law), but the fact that many people intentionally and unapologetically break a law is, in this case, relevant for the justification of the law itself. This is because legislators make the argument that drug laws are justified because they promote a public good, a desirable outcome in the world. Regulations aimed at producing a certain outcome are not the same as laws that protect moral rights over persons or property because those laws are generally taken to be intrinsically justified. So, the fact that people will break the law is not relevant if the law has some sort of intrinsic justification, but it is relevant if the only justification for having the law is that it will produce an expected outcome. The fact that drug laws have failed to prevent drug use and all of the undesirable consequences associated with drug use is relevant to whether drug laws are justified, and the fact that laws intended to protect the public good sometimes fail to produce the outcome which justifies them is relevant to the gun control debate.

With gun ownership, as with drugs, people break laws put in place to protect the public good, but the issue is clouded by the fact that those who break gun ownership laws (or, at least those who get caught breaking the laws) tend also to break rights laws by violating others’ persons or property. This makes it easy to conflate illegal gun ownership and illegal rights violations, but, as we have seen with drugs, there is a relevant distinction between laws justified because they protect a right* and laws justified because they produce a public good. The former requires a philosophical or legal argument to demonstrate that the right can be claimed. The latter requires an empirical argument based upon relevant data. This is because the justification for a law that produces a public good is an empirical prediction about the outcome of that law in the world.

Gun control advocates such as Carter and Herbert seem to be making exactly this type of empirical prediction when they admonish us to do something about gun violence. In his column, Bob Herbert cites approximately twenty different statistics about gun violence ranging from the number of guns owned privately in the U.S. (about 283 million) to the number of people murdered by guns every year (approximately 17,000) to the annual cost of treating gunshot-related injuries (estimated to be about $2 billion). The obvious inference from Herbert’s list of statistics is that stricter gun control regulations will help to reduce some of these tragically high numbers. This is the justification for gun control. It is supposed to be a public good. But, do the statistics about gun violence that persists under our current system of regulation really give us any reason to believe that gun violence will be reduced if regulations were to be tightened? I can think of at least three reasons to be skeptical about whether stricter gun regulations will produce a significant drop in gun violence, which is the outcome necessary to justify their existence. They are as follows:

First, the cited statistics do not distinguish between violence perpetrated by those who own guns legally and those who do not. If it turns out that most of the people who commit violent crimes do so with illegally purchased, unlicensed weapons (and there is some reason to think that this is the case), it is difficult to make the case that making it harder to get a gun license will have a significant effect on gun violence.

Second, people who are inclined to obey a weapons possession law are unlikely to break a person or property rights law. This is the inverse of the first reason. The people who would obey regulations are not, generally speaking, the people who need to be regulated.

Third, bans and restrictions create black markets, and black markets tend to create more violent crime, not less. There is no better evidence of this law of unintended consequences than the violence of the so-called “war on drugs,” which is at least partially responsible for our current rates of gun violence.

I am interested in other research pertaining to gun violence, and I think it is possible that a compelling empirical case could be made for why certain gun restrictions will reduce gun crime. But it is not enough to cite tragic statistics in order to justify restrictive laws. If we are going to admonish our legislators to work toward a solution to gun violence we must first seriously confront the question of whether that solution will work.

* Here, I completely ignore the question of whether the Second Amendment gives gun ownership its own special status as a right. If gun ownership is a right, then the calculation for weighing it against public welfare becomes trickier still. But, since my focus is on whether gun restrictions actually do serve the public welfare, I am bracketing the issue.

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