Aurora, CO. Milwaukee, WI. Newtown, CT. These and other tragedies have marked 2012 with physical and emotional pain. The killing of innocent men, women, and children reveals the grotesqueries in our nature which civilized society (too) easily allows us to forget. Citizens everywhere—many of them viewing these incidents as part of a growing trend in mass shootings—have called for an end to the violence; and as politicians promise “meaningful action” to prevent further attacks of this sort, a flurry of political debates has enveloped the nation.
In the wake of these catastrophes, emotions run hot, and people seek answers. They scapegoat, and they create demons, and those demons often reinforce their long-held beliefs. For some, the availability of guns is to blame. For others it’s the prolific violence in TV and video games. To be honest, we simply do not know what drives people to commit these atrocities, and even if we did know, it is not clear that we could do anything to stop it. The advances in science which have allowed us to understand the causes of volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes have yielded no prescriptions for their prevention. They have, however, helped us develop ways of dealing with these phenomena, and minimizing the damage they cause.
We must treat mass murderers the same way. Given our limited knowledge of psychology and criminology, we must, for the foreseeable future, assume that the people who are predisposed to commit such crimes will indefinitely be a facet of our society. Given that understanding, the question then becomes how to deal with them, and how to minimize their damage.
One solution which has been offered repeatedly throughout history, though in many different iterations, is gun control. Gun control, generally speaking, is the implementation of systemic, legal restrictions on the distribution and ownership of firearms. Notwithstanding proponents’ incessant drumbeat to strip Americans of their Second Amendment rights, we should first ponder both the feasibility and the morality of gun control.
One problem with gun control is that it is simply impractical. Concordant with our observations on the prohibitions of other goods and services like alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, it seems safe to say that people will always find ways to obtain guns. Black markets inevitably emerge, and the importation of guns from other jurisdictions outside of the United States presents an insurmountable hindrance. Indeed, a prohibition on guns may prove more costly and unfeasible than other prohibitions because those gun owners who would resist firearm confiscation are inherently more apt to cause damage while doing so, simply because the product being confiscated is a weapon.
That said, the enforceability of a law should not be the only criterion for judging its validity—no prohibition can ever be completely effective. If we were willing to live in a police state, we could probably achieve a near-perfect enforcement of some laws, though most people would probably view the costs of that approach as outweighing the benefits.
But aside from its impracticability, the main problem with gun control is its immorality. Gun control betrays the main purpose of owning a gun in the first place. The gun, like all other weapons, works as a power-equalizer between those who are naturally weak and those who are naturally strong. If no person ever transgressed against another, then natural inequalities in power would be inconsequential. Unfortunately, criminals exist, and so there is a need to be mindful of these power differentials, and to take precautions which diminish them. This understanding of human relations is greatly damning of gun control. There is no reason to believe that the same criminals who perpetrate violence against their fellow citizens would suddenly follow the laws with respect to gun possession. The only logical result of gun control, therefore, is the minimization of law-abiding citizens’ power relative to that of criminals, and a placement of the former perpetually at the mercy of the latter.
Empirical evidence supports this criticism. Every mass shooting in the United States since 1950, with the exception of one, has taken place in areas where citizens are banned from carrying guns.
One other problem with gun control is that guns do not kill people—people kill people. A gun is one particular tool for doing so, but any individual who is predisposed to kill another will carry out his intentions using whatever tool is at his disposal, whether that tool be a knife, a baseball bat, or a car. Therefore, laws should focus on the violent act, not the tool(s) used in carrying it out.
This argument is often countered by pointing out that guns, unlike other tools used in murder, are unique in that they only serve one purpose: the exercise of deadly force. Since a gun, conversely, can serve no other purpose, the benefit of banning guns (if it were feasible) is therefore infinite compared to the cost.
But deadly force is, in itself, not a purpose. It is a means to an end, and the legitimacy of an end determines the legitimacy of the means required to achieve it. If the desired end is defense for oneself or other innocent people, then deadly force may be entirely appropriate. If the end is unprovoked harm or coercion, then deadly force is rightly prohibited, and we should implement criminal laws to deal with actions of that character. Gun control only works to ensure that a legitimate end is impossible, and an illegitimate end is more likely.
As discussed earlier, gun ownership creates a balance of power between the weak and the strong, and it deters the exercise of force by one against the other. Force can manifest in the actions of common criminals, but force can also be perpetrated by government. When government acts legitimately, its use of force is not a problem. When it acts illegitimately, or tyrannically, it must be controlled using a comparable amount of force. This principle was the primary impetus for the framing and adoption of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Framers included the prefatory clause, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state[…]” because the individual right to keep and bear arms is a necessary safeguard against tyrannical government. Gun control, in addition to placing law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals, also places individuals at the mercy of government, and removes any incentive for government to act within the confines of law.
On the whole, it would seem that the arguments against gun control are fairly strong, but there still exists a problem (at least a perceived one) of violence in the United States, and a need to ensure that harm does not befall innocent citizens, while at the same time preserving their liberties.
One set of solutions involves prevention. This means putting the teeth back in our psychiatric institutions, which could keep violent people off of the streets. Bolstering law enforcement efforts, and imposing harsher sentences for convicts would also be entailed. Theoretically, this would increase the deterrent effect of law, and improve the ability of police to intervene in ongoing crimes. Unlike gun control, these solutions certainly will not worsen the problem.
However, individuals who are insane, disgruntled, evil, etc., are not likely to be deterred by these changes, and no matter what, the police can never be omnipresent. We must accept a certain possibility that harmful individuals will enter our public venues, and we must also accept that their presence is so dangerous as to warrant an immediate and pacifying response.
Professional armed security guards, stationed in our public venues, could provide this response. Ultimately, though, the decision to employ armed security would be up to the governments who provide the funding. There is a possibility that governments may choose not to install armed security guards on the premises of schools or other buildings, and even if they do, it is possible that murderous gunmen may kill or slip passed them. If this occurs, self-sufficient, everyday citizens need a way to protect themselves and other innocents that doesn’t require security guards, police, or sheer dumb luck.
The only feasible and moral solution to this problem is to allow the carrying of firearms by any/all individuals in any/all public venues. This means that anyone who wishes to take precautions which balance their own power against that of an aggressor would be allowed to do so. Also, if a law-abiding citizen with a gun neutralizes an aggressor in public, this will produce a positive external effect for other innocent civilians in the area.
It has been asserted that such a scenario would amount to a “wild west” in which the ubiquity of guns would somehow incite extra violence. However, the logic simply does not pan out: Presumably, the criminals—the only ones who would ever be violent—will already have guns, regardless of whether or not there is gun control. The legal carrying of a gun by a law-abiding citizen—one who is not predisposed to violence—will cause no more harm than a scenario in which guns are banned. In fact, overall violence may decrease, as criminals become less bold in their transgressions, and those who remain bold enough to commit crimes will become less successful, as they will more-likely be stopped.
Though many have promised meaningful action in the wake of Sandy Hook and other shootings, gun control inevitably fails to hit the mark. Gun-control advocates, stuck in the “never let a serious crisis go to waste” mentality, unfortunately use incidents like Sandy Hook to advance their own agenda, which not only does a disservice to the memory of the victims, but it does nothing to ensure the safety of our citizens. More guns make us more safe, not less, and so the proper solution is to expand freedom, not restrict it.