Law, Free Will, Choice and… Guns

In my mis-spent youth, I used to listen to NPR’s Morning Edition every morning while doing my math (yes, that’s the kind of thing we wacky homeschoolers get away with). One morning (this was probably around ’93) they were covering a “guns for toys” program, where people were being encouraged to bring real or toy guns down to their local police station and pick up stuffed animals in exchange.

How warm and fuzzy can you get? (And seriously, how many hardened criminals did the people staging this imagine would repent and come get a teddy in return for their gat?) They interviewed a few kids who dutifully said that they knew it was better to play with animals than with their toy guys they’d turned in. Then they interviewed an eighty-year-old woman who’d just turned in the police revolver that her grandfather used to carry in the 1870s and 1880s. “I’ve never shot it,” she said. “But I’d kept it all these years as a piece of family history. But you know, things aren’t the same anymore. I heard about this exchange and I thought: It’s not the wild west anymore. I’d better go turn this in to the police where it belongs. I think we’d all be a lot safer without so many guns around.”

Maybe in some abstract sense we would — but I’m not sure we got any safer when that old lady turned in her piece of family history.

However as I was thinking the other day about the enthusiasm for gun control (or just outright banning guns) on the left, this clicked into place as half of the puzzle. Here’s the other half:

We’ve all run into the argument that outlawing or restricting abortion would not cut down on the number of abortions, just drive the industry underground. What we need to do instead, we’re told, is simply to abolish poverty, injustice and bad relationships. Then no one will want an abortion.

Now since many of the same people who make this argument are strongly in favor of gun control laws, my first instinct was to counter: So if banning abortion won’t decrease abortions, how will banning guns decrease gun ownership?

But this actually wouldn’t be a good comparison. Getting an abortion is the sin itself. Owning a gun isn’t. It’s what might be done with a gun that people are worried about. The equivalent sin involved with owning a gun would be murder or suicide. So in a certain sense, a pro-choicer who was in favor of gun control is being consistent: He doesn’t think that the laws against murder will do anything to stop people from committing murders, so he wants to ban the means that people might use to commit a murder. This would be like someone who was pro-life saying: “I think we need to outlaw abortion, but of course that won’t work. So then we need to outlaw OBGYNs and coathangers and alcohol and medical instruments and…” And yet I find it rather hard to imagine the pro-life movement engaging in that kind of advocacy.

At root, the gun control idea (or at least, the extreme form of essentially eliminating guns from society) stems from a lack of willingness to allow for the existence of free will.

Your prototypical example of law might be the ten commandments (or if you want a non Judeo-Christian example: Hammurabi’s code): a list of “thou shalt not” statements carved in stone. These don’t take away free will, but they seek to form it by setting forth standards and sometimes prescribing specific punishments (costs) for violating the stated norms.

Banning guns, however, is not an attempt to directly ban unlawful behavior. Rather, it’s an attempt to remove the means of doing so. If the normal approach to law giving is symbolized by the stone tablets, gun control could be symbolized by the straight jacket: We can’t trust you to follow the laws you’ve been given or be motivated by fear of punishment, so we’ll simply restrict your ability to act.

Now, we do this to an extent as it is. People are not allowed to possess nuclear weapons, land mines, machine guns, etc. because it seems like there are few responsible reasons for wanting such things as a private individual (thus the lack of freedom imposed is minimal) and the potential destruction from misuse is high.

There are other areas where no sane person would attempt to go. For instance, cutting off the genitals of all men would do a lot to stop the spread of AIDS (unless everyone turned to injecting drugs out of despair) — but I don’t think anyone is going to start advocating it. The loss of function/freedom would not be proportional to the intended good.

So I think that a lot of how people feel about gun control boils down to how people feel about guns. To some people, this is the 1911 Colt .45, one of the best built guns ever designed, and still going strong after nearly 100 years.To others its just a scary and evil hunk of metal which is liable to get up and make someone kill someone else.

To those people, banning guns seems like a pretty good idea. If they have absolutely no positive value, and are sometimes used to kill people, why not ban them?

These same people do not advocate banning swimming pools, despite the fact that 7x as many children die each year in drowning accidents as in gun accidents. Nor do they advocating banning cars (or putting the maximum speed limit as 25 miles per hour), because most people have built lifestyles that rely on the availability of cars and aren’t prepared to change that lifestyle in order to avoid the 40,000+ deaths per year in the US as a result of auto accidents.

In a sense, it’s interesting that in general the liberal side of the political spectrum in the US right now is in favor of lighter punishments for those who actually commit murder, but wants to confiscate one particular means of doing so; while the conservative side supports much stiffer penalties for murder, but keeping guns moderately available. In a world full of thinking persons, this would indicate some very interesting things about how the two side view the human person.

In reality, however, it may just be that the younger, more urban and childless demographics which are the mainstay of liberal activism have a personal distaste for guns, while the older, more rural demographic that in votes most conservatively sees the benefits of guns as well as their cost.