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A Fruitful Debate Over the Right to Bear Arms

Persuasion psychology could spur some productive discussion.

Key points

  • Liberals and conservatives have different moral foundations, making productive debate difficult.
  • Most shooters are not demonstrably insane; implementing broad psychological testing as a prerequisite seems infeasible.
  • If we use persuasive psychology that people resonate with, the better our chances of having productive discussion.

Yet another school shooting. Like every parent across the United States, I again feel a pervasive sense of dread and images of the unimaginable as I drop my 6-year-old son off at summer camp.

People wonder why the government just doesn’t close loopholes allowing dangerous people to buy guns, or take guns away from dangerous people. But there are many legal barriers to hitting that target.

A big part of this: Conservatives and liberals are far apart psychologically. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has studied how liberals and conservatives have different moral foundations, making productive debate difficult. Even though people see their positions on guns and gun rights as the only moral perspective, let's put gun control in language that everyone can relate to, then we may stand a better chance of compromise.

Constitutional Gun Rights

All of us are familiar with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, but many of us disagree on what it should mean. Should it allow the ownership of modern assault weapons, something the founding fathers could not have imagined? Does the Second Amendment mean civilians can own guns or just people in a militia? (And what is a militia? Is it a state army, or all able adults?) And what does “shall not be infringed” mean? Can there be no gun regulations at all?

There has not been a ton of case law from the Supreme Court about guns historically. The most famous case in recent memory, had to do with whether respondent Dick Anthony Heller, a security guard, could be penalized under a DC law which prohibited having an operable gun in the home. The Court held that the Constitution protects people’s rights to have operable guns in the home for self-defense, not connected to service in a militia.

When shootings happen, some conservative politicians take their aim at mental health. But, most shooters are not demonstrably insane, and trying to implement broad psychological testing as a prerequisite for gun ownership—so eminently sensible—seems infeasible, especially with the millions of guns already in circulation.

Other Constitutional Gun Protections

Even over and above the gun protections of the Second Amendment, there are several other reasons why the government can’t simply seize people’s guns. The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable search and seizure; the government can’t come and take our stuff any time it wants, perhaps all the more so for guns, inasmuch as seizing guns would prevent people from protecting themselves and being able to overthrow a tyrannical government, which are natural rights.

Further, the Fifth Amendment protects against the government depriving us of our property without due process. The government would need to have some reasonable process in place to deprive people of their guns, which would almost certainly involve showing beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is a threat to themselves or to other people, which people would need to have an opportunity to dispute. All of these are Constitutional protections that people can marshal to oppose gun seizures.

Reaching Compromise: Police Powers and States’ Rights

Is the case hopeless? Is there nothing the government can do about gun violence? And is there nothing psychologists can do to help productive dialog, where we all see some reason in other positions?

Many of the arguments that people make against gun ownership, or for more gun regulation, come from liberal perspectives and rely on liberal worldviews. People don’t need guns at all, and they certainly don’t need big, dangerous ones.

Gun ownership is a conservative political preference; perhaps we ought to be discussing viewpoints to see if we can hit the target. By using language people resonate with, through persuasion psychology, the better the chances of convincing others, even a little.

One of these strategies could rely on the notion of states’ rights. In the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution explains that powers that are not delegated to the federal government (like international trade, interstate commerce, and more) belong to the states. The states’ police powers involve their ability to maintain security, morality, health, and the like. Conservatives are often more in favor of states’ rights than are liberals, and in fact, some conservatives will still say today that the Civil War was not so much about slavery but about states’ rights to make their own laws without interference from the federal government.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that the Supreme Court (particularly this Supreme Court) tell states they have to restrict the guns people can own, but what if this were pitched as a states’ rights issue? Many states, like New York and California, already have relatively strict gun laws, restricting the kinds of guns people can own and the number of rounds their guns can hold. Some states do not require a permit to carry a gun, others issue those sparingly, and other states issue such permits unless they have good reason not to. My home state of Arizona, by contrast, has very few restrictions on what kind of gun someone can own, and does not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon in public.

When people see these laws as unlawful infringements on the Second Amendment, perhaps we can think about the idea that this is a states’ rights issue—that these states are acting within their police powers to regulate health and safety under the Tenth Amendment. I doubt this notion could result in a nationwide solution, but at least it might provide people with some reasoning about the Second Amendment.

States' Rights and Progress on Guns

It’s true that the states cannot pass laws that are contrary to the Bill of Rights, but perhaps they can be more aggressive about taking aim at reasonable restrictions on gun rights, framed under states’ rights to protect the health and safety of their citizens. Maybe this will trigger some progress in the endlessly misfiring debates, and psychological perspectives on moral reasoning and persuasiveness could be brought to bear.