Is There a Right to Own a Gun?
Here, I explain why you have a right to own a gun.*
[* Based on: “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?”, Social Theory and Practice 29 (2003): 297-324. http://www.owl232.net/papers/guncontrol.htm. For a more popular version, see http://www.owl232.net/papers/guns2.pdf.]
1. The Issue
I’m only addressing the most basic issue, whether there’s a right to own guns at all. So I’m not addressing limited regulations, like registration, restrictions on specific kinds of guns, etc.
2. Assumptions About Rights
I assume there are moral rights independent of the law.
We have a general prima facie liberty right, a right to do what we want as long as there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to. Limitations: you don’t have a right (even prima facie) to do things that harm others, impose unreasonable risks on others, or reasonably appear to do those things.
I posit only prima facie rights, not absolute rights. I.e., rights can be outweighed by other rights or by sufficiently large consequences. (See fakenous.substack.com/p/risk-refutes-absolutism.)
The weight of a right is proportional to the interest that it helps protect and how important the right is to protecting that interest.
3. Is There a Prima Facie Right to own a Gun?
Yes. Note that owning a gun, as such, does not harm or interfere with others. Using your gun to shoot someone harms them, but merely owning it does not.
Owning the gun also does not impose large risks on others. If guns sometimes went off by themselves and shot people, then we’d say that owning one was inherently risky, which might preclude the right to own it. (Compare, say, owning a lion.) But they don’t. A gun can sit there for a million years without harming anyone. It will only ever hurt someone if you pick it up, point it in the direction of another person, and pull the trigger.
Sometimes, there are gun accidents, which anti-gun activists like to play up. But these are very rare (around 0.3 deaths per 100,000 population per year); many things that we have all over the place are far more dangerous, e.g., cars, swimming pools. Btw, a lot of the information you’ve heard on this issue, like so many other issues, is complete BS.
Some think there is a big risk that you yourself will fly into a rage someday and shoot a family member during an argument. Unless you are a criminal or rage-aholic, this is utterly groundless. (You always have fists available. How often do you get mad and punch someone? If never, then you’re not going to shoot someone either even if you have a gun available.)
The fear is based on statistics that a significant number of shootings occur after an argument with someone the shooter knows. But the inference to “ordinary people are at risk of committing murder if they have a gun” is ridiculous. Almost all of the shootings are by people with a prior criminal record, and “someone the shooter knows” is often the shooter’s drug dealer, fellow gang member, partner in crime, or something like that. It’s not normal people shooting grandma after an argument over the next election. Think about two claims:
Many shootings happen after arguments with someone the shooter knows.
Almost all shootings are by people who are already criminals.
Notice that (1) and (2) are not at all in tension: criminals have arguments too, and they know people too.
Some would say that the total social cost of private gun ownership is too large to let people own guns. But this is irrelevant to the present point, which is about whether there’s a prima facie right, not whether the right is outweighed by consequentialist reasons.
4. Is the Right Important?
The right to own a gun is important for two reasons.
This is almost never discussed in the popular discourse, but a significant number of people, probably millions across the country, appear to derive enormous satisfaction from going out shooting. I don’t exactly get it myself, but for some people, being a shooter is a way of life and central to their identity.
I don’t know how to measure the value of the recreation, but it isn’t at all trivial. There’s a tendency to ignore “mere” recreation in policy debates, but recreation is part of what makes life worth living.
If you have a right to life, then you have the right to protect your life. If so, then you have the right to possess effective means of doing so. Violations of this right can be extremely serious wrongs. Some examples:
A Killer breaks into a house, where his intended Victim is living. Victim is about to flee, but before he can do so, an Accomplice shows up and holds Victim down, while Killer stabs Victim to death.
Q: How wrong was Accomplice’s action?
A: Accomplice’s action was comparable to murder. It’s at best only slightly less bad than Killer’s action.
As in Example 1, except that Victim has a gun, which he would use to defend himself against Killer. Before he can do so, Accomplice grabs the gun and runs away, with the result that Killer is able to stab Victim to death.
Q: How wrong was Accomplice’s action in this case?
A: This case is morally comparable to Example 1. Again, Accomplice violates Victim’s right of self-defense in a way that predictably leads to Victim’s death. This is comparable to murder.
I want you to intuitively see the similarity between Example 1 and Example 2, and then between Example 2 and strong gun control laws. Laws banning private gun ownership would take away people’s guns, predictably leading to some people being beaten, robbed, raped, or killed who would otherwise have defended themselves with a gun.
The government does not know specifically which people will thus be victimized, but we know a large number will be, and our not knowing their specific identities is morally irrelevant. So strong gun control laws are similar to the Accomplice’s action in Example 2. They make the state an accomplice to a large number of assaults, robberies, rapes, and murders.
5. Are Gun Rights Outweighed?
Most of the gun control discourse is about whether gun control laws reduce crime.
5.1. The Harms of Guns
Perhaps the most bogus statistic in all of social science is the infamous “43 to 1” statistic, which claims that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than to kill a criminal in self-defense.
Sometimes this is misquoted at “43 times more likely to kill a family member than to stop a life-threatening attack.” This is a big difference, since only a tiny minority (perhaps 1%) of defensive gun uses involve killing a criminal. (Threatening a criminal with a gun almost always suffices to stop an attack.) The 43-to-1 study did not attempt to estimate how often guns are used to stop attacks.
That’s the main problem. Another problem is that 37 of the 43 deaths were suicides. These should not be counted, since it’s not part of the state’s function to infringe people’s liberty to protect some subset of those people from themselves.
A third problem is that the study only counted shootings as self-defense that were initially so labelled by the police, which was probably only a minority of all self-defense shootings.
The more common and less bogus arguments are those that compare statistics for gun ownership and gun violence across countries. The U.S. has the highest private gun ownership rate in the world, and it is also an outlier (in the bad way) for gun violence. Note: Our homicide rate is lower than the world average, but much higher than normal for wealthy liberal democracies.
Note also that the proper comparison is with total homicides, rather than gun homicides, since reducing gun homicides might cause more homicides by other methods, and these other homicides would be just as bad.
Some think that the U.S. has unique cultural factors that make cross-country comparisons of limited value. (The U.S. is an outlier in multiple other ways.) Within the U.S., we find that jurisdictions with stricter gun laws and lower gun ownership rates tend to have higher crime rates. Historically in the U.S., the civilian gun stock has fluctuated widely with no noticeable correlation with crime rates.
5.2. The Benefits of Guns
There are (or were when I wrote the paper) two main kinds of empirical evidence of the benefits of guns. One is surveys of defensive gun uses. Social scientists did surveys in which they asked people if they had used a gun for self-defense in the past year. For these purposes, a defensive gun use requires the respondent to have seen a person who they thought was attempting to commit a crime against them, and to have at least threatened that person with a gun, but not necessarily to have fired the gun.
Most estimates find millions of defensive gun uses per year in the U.S. As of 1997, the average estimate from multiple surveys was 1.8 million defensive gun uses per year. Gary Kleck’s well-known, high-quality survey in 1993 found 2.5 million. Gun users in 400,000 of these cases would say that the gun certainly or almost certainly saved a life. (Caveat: the respondents must have overestimated their danger, because it’s not plausible that there would have been anything close to 400,000 murders.)
The other piece of evidence is about the effects of concealed carry laws. During the 1990’s, a number of states changed to more permissive laws regarding carrying of concealed weapons (basically, making it so many more people got permits to carry). John Lott studied this and found that, following the legal changes (after controlling for multiple other variables), murder rates declined immediately by about 8 percent, rapes by 5 percent, and aggravated assaults by 7 percent, with declines continuing in subsequent years.
Critics have questioned these findings, arguing that different theoretical assumptions lead to different conclusions. The non-partisan National Research Council put out a report about “Firearms and Violence” (https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/10881/chapter/1), which is in general very even-handed. They basically concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to tell whether the more permissive gun laws reduced crime.
Theoretical note: Some people think the issue is obvious on theoretical grounds: Obviously, letting people have guns increases the risk of gun violence. Others think the issue is obvious in the opposite direction: Obviously, only law-abiding citizens obey restrictive gun laws; criminals will just break the gun laws. So the effect of gun restrictions is to leave the criminals armed while disarming their victims. So that would increase crime.
5.3. Deontological Point
The points about rights are important; this isn’t just a consequentialist issue. Since individuals have a right to own a gun, the benefits of gun control laws would have to be at least many times greater than the costs in order for those laws to be permissible. That’s because in general, it’s wrong to violate someone’s rights, even if doing so produces greater benefits for others. E.g., you can’t kill an innocent person to save two other people. But rights aren’t absolute, so if you have benefits many times greater than the harms to the innocent people, then it can be justified to violate someone’s rights.
The empirical evidence about guns leaves it at best unclear whether strict gun control laws would even produce a net benefit at all. They might plausibly produce much greater harms than benefits. But certainly we can’t say that they produce expected benefits many times greater than the costs.
Overall, strict gun control laws (e.g., a ban on private gun ownership) are impermissible. They are like having the government serve as an accomplice to many crimes, with very doubtful benefits.