Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

We Need Stricter Gun Laws

Guns, rights, and innocent life

The best way for American citizens to preserve our rights is to be politically active in ways that support democratic institutions, traditions, and our fundamental human rights, rather than relying on guns to protect these important values. The arguments in defense of the status quo regarding our current gun laws are flawed.

First, many pro-gun advocates argue that an unarmed citizenry will be helpless against a tyrannical government. While it is possible that tyranny may arise in our nation, this seems unlikely, given the existence of democratic institutions and a strong tradition of adherence to the rule of law. Moreover, when we take into account the military might of the United States government, it is not clear how an armed populace would prevent such tyranny. If such tyranny did arise, the people could successfully resist only if they had a stockpile of weapons capable of matching the state’s firepower. It is not clear how a stockpile of guns would deter a drone attack, for example.

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If the justification for the continued prevalence of guns in America is to deter or resist a possible future tyrannical state, then by the same reasoning there would also be a right to possess tanks, missiles, and perhaps even weapons of mass destruction, all of which would be needed to truly deter or reverse such tyranny. But surely this is wrong, because of the potential harm to innocent victims if these weapons were widely possessed.

Second, it is true that Chicago, a city which has very strict gun laws, also has a high level of gun violence. However, the case of Chicago does not support the claim that restrictive gun laws are ineffective. Instead, it shows the need for more widespread laws. People who want guns can simply go outside of Chicago, obtain them with ease, and bring them back into the city. Consider the fact that between 2008 and 2012, Chicago police recovered 1,375 guns that were used in criminal activities. Almost 20% of these guns came from a single store, Chuck’s Gun Shop, located a few miles outside of the Chicago city limits in Riverdale, Illinois. Strict gun laws in one city will be ineffective if the laws of the state in which that city is located are lax, as is the case in Illinois.

Third, the data show that strict gun laws reduce violent crime.1 For example, there is a correlation between restrictive laws and lower homicide rates with and without firearms, both within the United States and internationally. Moreover, a recent study published in the Southern Medical Journal found that the presence of a gun in a home is twelve times more likely to lead to the death of a member of the household or a visitor than an intruder.

Finally, consider a fact about the nature of rights: most are not absolute. That is, there are limits to their scope, and one of the most significant reasons to limit the exercise of a right is that doing so will prevent serious harm to others. This is why the right to freedom of speech does not include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Most rights are conditional. The right to drive a car in is conditional upon successfully taking written and road skills tests. We should do something similar with gun rights.

The right to own a firearm is not absolute; its exercise should be dependent upon the individual meeting several important conditions: a criminal and mental health background check, a required safety course, competency with a firearm demonstrated via a skills test, a regular renewal requirement, a minimum age requirement of 25, and some form of gun liability insurance. This allows for those who are competent to own and use firearms for both sport and self-defense, and connects the right to own a firearm with the ability to properly and sensibly use it. This would make it more likely that each individual gun owner will be responsible, and that fewer people will die from gun violence.

@michaelwaustin

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1 For more information, see http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html; http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/; and http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/16/americas-deadly-devotion-guns.

 

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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