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.

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  1. A good set of reflections on this issue, Darwin. Enjoyable reading!

    I will say, however, that not everyone on the left is in favor of a total ban on guns. Most are simply for “more gun control”. While to those of us who support the second amendment, it looks bad no matter what, there is a difference between the two positions.

    In my experience the most hysterical opponents of guns have been liberal moms. And the reason they are afraid of them is that they don’t know how they work, really. Some of them act like a gun could magically go off on its own. Even some guys I have known – the sight of a gun makes them terrified.

    It is one of those Hobbesian policy pursuits driven by terror and fear of other individuals that leads a lot of people to want to transfer the right to bear arms to special forces like police and military units, and out of the hands of all citizens.

    All we can do is reassert our rights as responsible citizens. It isn’t even as much about the guns themselves as it is, like you said, about our free will.

  2. Elegant analogy. One wonders, though, why there is no movement to ban kitchen knives or any of a number of toxins as well. They can have my Henkel’s parers when they pry them…

  3. The biggest thing I see with guns is that they are most used to kill people;
    For example, some swords are generally outlawed (well in some places) because their only and sole intention is for murder (more or less).
    But butter knives, on the other hand, are very rarely used to kill someone, so to me it is more of a justification based on the fact that if something is used to kill, it should not be allowed.
    Coat hangers are useful for something other than killing; hanging up clothes, but if a coat hanger came out saying that it was specifically designed to kill, it would surely be immoral (and most likely outlawed).
    Just presenting a point.

  4. The biggest thing I see with guns is that they are most used to kill people;

    This is probably because you don’t have much experience with guns. They are, in fact, very rarely used to kill people.

  5. I think the gun control/AIDS prevention topic is interesting. Generally, people who support “safe sex” don’t support “safe gun ownership”. They’d rather you not have a gun at all. But they don’t believe it’s reasonable to expect people to voluntarily abstain from extramarital sex.

  6. The biggest thing I see with guns is that they are most used to kill people

    My father carried a gun every day for 30 years (he was a police officer), and never killed or even injured anyone with it. Same with 97% of his colleagues. The utility of firearms goes beyond the point at which they’re fired; carrying one as a peace officer or even a legally authorized citizen can act as a deterrent to crime and actually de-escalate the violence. And no, this is not an argument to expand concealed carry laws and spread Wild West justice.

    We’re enamored of our data points, so we like to wring our hands about the stats on gun violence, but there are no data kept on the threat of lawful and morally licit force used as a deterrent to violence. It’s very common in policy analysis to over-emphasize the costs of a policy and diminish its benefits.

  7. “To others its just a scary and evil hunk of metal which is liable to get up and make someone kill someone else.”

    Frankly, it’s this visceral “ick” factor which drives a lot of the anti-firearms advocacy. It certainly has driven legislative policy, namely the “assault weapons” ban, which has everything to do with how the gun looks and nothing with how it functions, given the far more dangerous weaponry it leaves untouched.

  8. Well, the FBI lists guns in the upper 60 percentile of all murder/negligent homicide weapons, but cuts and stabbing come in second at 13%. (See Census 2000 site.)Maybe we oughtta round up those cleavers!

    Guns do have their legitimate uses. Around my neck of the woods, they are very widely used for deer huntin’, turkey huntin’ quail huntin’, etc.

  9. I recall seeing a local story on a gun exchange and plenty of well meaning people were turning in “grandpa’s old gun” there were plenty of Word War era 1911’s, as well as some (probably rather valuable) 19th century and early 20th century revolvers. It was all getting melted down/destroyed/etc. It was like burning money.

    Some of those guns could have sold for thousands and the gov’t paid somone to destroy them.

  10. Catholic teaching is very clear on obligation defend our families. Knowing that many, many criminals can only be stopped from bringing serious harm to them without the use of a firearm, it is completely moral for us to be armed in the event that such an incident should occur, while praying daily that it all may be at peace.

    It seems to me odd that most on the left seek to “control” access to guns for those who are law-abiding, a very odd strategy to reduce gun crime by criminals. A tactic which has never proven effective in the US or any similar situation.

    It should be noted that these recent mass murderers almost universally are committed in places in which it is illegal for law-abiding citizens to defend themselves from mass murderers. They seek out places where they can do the most damage. The left would see the whole country in the same state.

  11. This story from WBS Atlanta is a very good example of legitimate self -defence (and defense of others):

    COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — A group of college students said they are lucky to be alive and they’re thanking the quick-thinking of one of their own. Police said a fellow student shot and killed one of two masked me who burst into an apartment.

    Channel 2 Action News reporter Tom Jones met with one of the students to talk about the incident.

    “Apparently, his intent was to rape and murder us all,” said student Charles Bailey.

    TOM JONES: College Student Shoots, Kills Home Invader

    Bailey said he thought it was the end of his life and the lives of the 10 people inside his apartment for a birthday party after two masked men with guns burst in through a patio door.

    “They just came in and separated the men from the women and said, ‘Give me your wallets and cell phones,’” said George Williams of the College Park Police Department.

    Bailey said the gunmen started counting bullets. “The other guy asked how many (bullets) he had. He said he had enough,” said Bailey.

    That’s when one student grabbed a gun out of a backpack and shot at the invader who was watching the men. The gunman ran out of the apartment.

    The student then ran to the room where the second gunman, identified by police as 23-year-old Calvin Lavant, was holding the women.

    “Apparently the guy was getting ready to rape his girlfriend. So he told the girls to get down and he started shooting. The guy jumped out of the window,” said Bailey.

    A neighbor heard the shots and heard someone running nearby.

    “And I heard someone say, ‘Someone help me. Call the police. Somebody call the police,’” said a neighbor.

    The neighbor said she believes it was Lavant, who was found dead near his apartment, only one building away.

    Bailey said he is just thankful one student risked his life to keep others alive.

    “I think all of us are really cognizant of the fact that we could have all been killed,” said Bailey.

    One female student was shot several times during the crossfire. She is expected to make a full recovery.

    Police said they are close to making the arrest of the second suspect.

    Imagine being the parent of one of the students there. Would you not be thankful that your child escaped being raped and killed due to the actions of a friend?

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