The Ethics Of… Owning a Gun

Ah, guns. As far as conversations starters go, they’re right up there with religion, politics and immigration as ways of starting a really, really loud argument, really, really fast. The tragic fact is that the topic of gun control doesn’t come up until someone gets shot, and afterwards emotion runs to high to have a coherent or reasonable debate about the issue, as the recent Sandy Hook shooting so predictably demonstrated; gun control advocates point at the slaughter as proof guns must be banned immediately, while gun rights advocates decide that the best defense is a good offense, claiming the shooting would never have happened if the victims had been able to defend themselves. More rational voices on both sides are drowned out and the rest of the world sits back in horrified, yet terribly unsurprised bemusement.

Both sides have their facts and figures, but it’s an unfortunately reality that we are thoroughly happy to ignore facts that conflict with our beliefs. A deeper analysis is needed, one that identifies the beliefs underlying the arguments surrounding gun ownership. Why do people want to own high powered weapons? And do they have a point?


This is the primary line when it comes to gun ownership – criminals exist, ergo I must protect myself. Regardless of the best efforts of law enforcement, mental health and education services, violence will always exist and neither prevention nor enforcement will ever be 100% effective. So should law-abiding people just accept this grim fact and desperately hope violence never happens to them? Or should they be able to defend themselves and their belongings against trespass?

This is the underlying argument behind the NRA’s reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting; that dozens of lives could have been saved if more law-abiding people had been armed and taken the shooter down quickly. Indeed it might never have happened at all if the shooter had know it was likely he would meet such a defence.

While the suggestion that the solution to shootings is more guns sounds insane, there is truth to this idea. The vast majority of crime is not, as we often like to imagine, the result of madness or some sort of ‘evil’, but rather (poorly) calculated decisions for (perceived) personal gain. Criminals pick weaker targets because they are easier and safer – this is why there are more house burglaries than bank robberies. Arming more law-abiding citizens means there are no weaker targets anymore – how can you tell if the old lady in the park is defenceless or carrying a lethal weapon she knows how to use? This greatly increases the risk to criminals and making crime too dangerous to consider. Every house burglary becomes a potential broad daylight bank robbery.

This heavily undermines the simplistic argument that “Guns are bad and must be banned outright” that tends to crop up for gun control. Regardless of whether we like it or not, many people have guns that cannot be trusted with them, and most of them were not obtained legally. No ban on guns will undo this reality, nor the more fundamental reality that violence will always be an option for those who think they can get away with it, or those who don’t think at all. And whether we like it or not, only violence can effectively stop violence when it’s happening.

But in order for the argument of self defence to hold up, it must show that gun owning citizens are in fact safer than those who rely on the state alone. Sadly, and quite counter-intuitively, they are not. Not only are gun owners 4.5 times more likely to get shot compared to non-gun owners, they endanger the families they aim to protect with people living in homes with a firearm more likely to suffer both homocide and suicide in the home. While mitigating factors such as context may affect these stats, the overall trend is clear; owning a gun in itself does not make you safer and may actually make things far worse.

While most criminals are indeed acting in (poorly) calculated self-interest, not all of them are. Crimes of passion, mental instability and simple accident cannot be predicted, and while strictly speaking it is true that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, it is considerably easier with a gun than any other item found around the average home.

From a practical level, the NRA is correct that an armed teacher could have saved lives by taking out the shooter early on. But it is at least equally likely she could have hit her own students by accident, perhaps even missing the shooter completely. Had the shooter shot the teacher first, he gains another weapon. And imagine being a policeman to respond to a school shooting where everyone is armed. Which panicked person with a gun is the one you’re looking for?

Concerns for personal safety are not as mad as those in favour of gun control often make them out to be. The more capable people are of defending themselves against attack, the less practical and sustainable crime becomes. But this preparation comes at a risk of accident and abuse; the more powerfully people are prepared, the greater the damage when this risk inevitably becomes reality. When that preparation involves automatic firearms, the damage has been shown to be catastrophic.

Government accountability

It is both a long time rallying cry of the gun rights lobby and an enshrined Amendment in the Constitution of the USA that the last line between a tyrannical government and the freedom of its citizens is the ability of those citizens to defend themselves. Gun advocates refer to the Nazi regime’s Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons and Chairman Mao’s quote that “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun” to illustrate the benefits of disarmament to tyrants. The likelihood of such tyranny occurring is irrelevant, for “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”; the day the people surrender their guns is the day such tyranny becomes possible.

This argument is an extension of the observation that violence is always possible and must be defended against, and while applying this observation to a national democratic government seems extreme, there is no shortage of examples of western, liberal democratic governments using legal, state-sanctioned force to exert their political will; the forcable eviction of last year’s various Occupy protests being an excellent example. It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about, monopoly on force is a power that easily corrupts and there is little debate that politicians are vulnerable to corruption, to put it lightly.

Despite the validity of this concern, this argument hits two serious problems straight out of the gate. To put it bluntly, if any relatively modern government wanted to dominate their citizens by force, no armed citizenry would stand a chance against them. Not the slightest bit of chance. If military history proves anything, it is that superior numbers count for very little against disciplined, trained and properly provisioned forces.

But this practicality is wholly eclipsed by the second, bigger point: Why would a government, and the US government in particular, bother oppressing their populace with force when they’re already having such success via legislation? Since the September 11 attacks, the US Government has instituted arrest without charge or trial, extraordinary rendition to sidestep the Geneva Convention, summarily executed their own citizens via drone strike, and allowed a vast array of surveillance practices at the cost of civil rights. Why bother resorting to force when citizens are so willing to surrender their rights legally?

Government accountability is an extremely important issue and needs urgent attention by citizens the world over. But of all the ways you could address this issue, preparing for an armed struggle with the government is not only utterly doomed to failure, but effectively accepts a complete failure of accountability from the start. So rather than do anything proactive to bolster political accountability and prevent abuses by the powerful, you’re digging in and waiting for the worst to happen; ironically quite a cowardly and unpatriotic attitude to take.


The great granddaddy of them all, ultimately most debates on gun ownership revolve around freedom. I own a gun because I want to, end of story. In a liberal democracy, I should not have to justify that; if people want to take away any of my rights, including the right to own what weapons I wish, the burden of proof lies completely on those wanting a ban and that burden better be a serious one.

That the government ban something because a minority abuses it sets a dangerous precedent. Why not ban cars to prevent the road toll? Or alcohol? Or bad parents? All three are proven to cause far worse damage than gun ownership, in fact they’re often the catalysts of gun violence. So why not ban those as well?

While a comparison between cars and guns is riddled with logical fallacies, such arguments make a strong point that those in favour of gun control often wilfully ignore; the rights of the people should not be easily dismissed, regardless of whether we agree with those rights or not. It was the decision to weaken and surrender our rights in order to preserve our safety that has lead to the abuses of government power discussed above, and once such rights are surrendered they are extremely difficult to get back.

Something the horrified masses of Australia often forget when hearing about shootings overseas is the outrage and backlash in our own country when semi-automatic rifles were outlawed in 1996. Despite the Port Arthur Massacre fresh in our minds, lobby groups across the country campaigned for the protection of their rifles. Only the fact that the conservative Howard Government was in power made such a ban possible, leaving gun ownership advocates with no major party to turn to.

Did farmers, hunters and those concerned with self-defence need semi-automatic rifles? Time has shown they do not; indeed gun violence has dropped significantly since the ban and massacres have ceased entirely.

Has this ban set a precedent for government abuses of power in the name of safety? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Were gun owners right to be concerned that the government could interfere in their lives so bluntly, without consultation of any kind? Absolutely.

But while our rights should be jealously guarded, there is no denying that they have their limits, especially when one freedom infringes on others. In light of the statistics discussed above, can the freedom to own a weapon, especially a high-powered weapon, be justified when such suffering is the price we must pay for it? In the words of Oliver Holmes, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”. Despite the best efforts of prevention and enforcement, this rule will inevitably be abused from time to time, and when it is abused with a gun the consequences are a lot worse than a broken nose.

On analysis, the arguments underlying the gun debate are considerably more nuanced than the debate itself. Issues of self-defence, government accountability and especially personal liberty are serious ones that deserve serious attention and should not be simply ignored in the name of safety. Nonetheless the ownership of weapons poses a serious risk to our safety, a risk which increases proportionate to the power of those weapons. The question must be asked; at what point do the power of these weapons create a risk too large to justify in the name of liberty? Australia drew the line at semi-automatic rifles and machetes; the USA is yet to make this decision.


12 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Owning a Gun

  1. I’ve been on a bit of a break and have missed your thought provoking articles. You really are going after the big ones lately. lol I think you have broken down the argument pretty well. There are just a few things I would add that I think are also relevant consider.

    In terms of making decisions to make ourselves safer, in the United States there is a lot of fear mongering. The probability of being a victim to a violent crime or terrorism is a lot less likely than many other potentials dangers out there. People’s understanding of probabilities are way out of whack and when real danger is actually imminent a gun is a lot less useful than one thinks. As you point out, if the military does decide to turn it’s guns against the people we would not stand a chance. I also don’t think a gun is quite as much of a deterrent though as you make it out, because even owning a gun, an assailant can always pick the time and place. Unless you are always carrying, somebody who truly wants to do you harm will. Most violent crime is committed by people who you at least mostly know and thus it is quite likely you will not be in your guard. The fear mongering that occurs in the U.S. is pretty extreme. One of my favorite parts of the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (although I am not a huge Michael Moore fan) was the lady in Saginaw, Michigan who was worried about a terrorist attack on their mall. I don’t think this type of person is atypical, and I think there are many who live in this kind of unreasonable fear. Much in part due to the media and politicians who try to stir people emotionally over have realistic conversations that concern actual evidence.

    Recently I shared a link on Facebook that were observations by people from other countries about the U.S. and things they thought were weird. One person talked about a discussion they had with an American about guns. The American couldn’t understand why the foreigner didn’t want to own a gun and asked him “What do you do then when somebody points a gun at you?” His response…”I run”. 🙂 Flee or fight instinct in humans is usually to flee. I read an article a few years ago from a military officer in Canada who trains new recruits and he said that is one of the hardest parts of his job, is to train people to overcome that instinct to run. So it is unclear that any of these gun owners would be calm, cool, and collected in a real threatening situation without having a good deal of training. But my main point is, that there are other ways to be safe. As you pointed out, banks don’t get robbed, not because of security officers in the bank, but because of all the alarms and security systems. You could reduce your chances of being robbed just as much by getting a security system and better locks than owning a gun, and wouldn’t run the risk of accidental shooting, or somebody you trust lifting it from your house and using it to shoot down people in a school. The idea that guns are the best way to keep safe is simply false.

    When you look at other countries, most evidence points towards lower guns and lower violent crime, but I suspect at least part of that is cultural. The UK has extremely restrictive gun laws, and as a result 100 times less homicides per capita than the U.S. Of course only about a quarter less homicides in general. There is no question that violence is a part of society and that the ways of reducing violence are not a simple product of outlawing a weapon that can be used to commit violence. Nevertheless the argument that always tends to be used by the pro gun side is that unless violent crime completely disappears then any restrictions are not valid. I would argue that if homicides went down by even 10-20% which I think is likely if we had a national gun registry and did better background checks then passing such laws are worth it. The idea also that criminals don’t follow laws so laws aren’t going to help, begs the question, then why have any laws? Laws actually do make a difference and over long periods of time can impact the culture of a nation.

    Anyway, thanks for the great read. I love your point about “Why would we have to worry about the military when we are so willing to give up our rights without the government having to use violence at all”. 🙂

    • Hey Swarn, good to hear from you! Hope your studies are going well.

      Thanks for the comments as always – I’ll reply to them individually.
      I tend to agree with you about the fearmongering in the US at the moment as well as the misplaced perception of threats, though as an Australian my perspective is a bit removed. As you say, the idea of owning a gun as ‘self-defense’ suffers some serious practical flaws – the whole point of protecting yourself is that someone else is already presenting a threat, meaning they have the drop on you. Barring some fairly unlikely reflexes or very happy external factors, having a gun on you in this situation just means you’ll die with it holstered.

      That said, the argument is taken seriously by a lot of people so needed to be addressed, and as I argued in my article it’s not entirely without merit due to the disincentive it creates. However that disincentive can’t be measured and it’s just as likely that the possibility of victims being armed means criminals will shoot first just to be safe.

      It’s funny because it’s a great example of a narrative locking up – both sides are so seriously entrenched and vocal in their arguments that change becomes extremely hard. The US has had a dozen mass shootings in the last few years, everyone makes their usual arguments and nothing changes. In Australia it was really only possible to enact a ban because the right-wing government lead with it – the left wing were completely on-board and the opponents on the ban had nowhere else to turn. Compare that to action on climate change where the left-wing governments over the last decade have attempted action, only for the right wing opposition to use it as a point of difference, massively politicizing the issue; our new conservative federal government here is currently in the process of ripping down 6 years of work, putting us back at square one again.

      Both with gun control in the USA and climate change action in Australia, the facts have become irrelevant – what matters is opinion and how that translates into political leverage. I’m working on a post at the moment about how this sort of lost focus can be avoided; will value your thoughts when I get it together!

  2. Haha…no studies here. Anytime I talk about my busy semester it’s my busy semester as a professor. Although I am starting to sit in on a couple of classes myself as I miss listening to brilliant people talk about subjects they are passionate about. Sitting in on classes are the best, because you don’t have to come during test day. lol

    With reluctance and a certain degree of whining I will submit that when a lot of people have an unreasonable argument we do have to take it seriously and address it. 🙂 I think there is certainly compromise to be had. Here in the U.S. the Republicans are so against Obama they are unwilling to work with the Democratic Party on legislation even when poll numbers show Americans overwhelming for better background checks and other minor restrictions. It just boggles my mind that even though school shooting after school shooting continues to happen the only answer from the pro-gun side is more guns. And the people saying this, really only represent a small minority of people, but have incredibly lobbying power at the government level. In the state of Colorado the majority of people were strongly for more gun control and the NRA had the monetary power to have recall elections on the state senators that supported gun control. This is not democracy in action. It is perhaps understandable why many politicians don’t have the political backbone to do the will of the people if a special interest party has the power to make sure they don’t get re-elected. A story that was done on Australia’s gun control story interviewed some of the politicians that passed the law and they seemed to have a little more courage that their American counterparts. Being willing to do the right thing even if it meant losing an election. Perhaps all those courageous politicians lost their jobs leaving you with the ones fighting over climate change now. 🙂

    So our gun control is like your climate change, except that we also have the same climate change issue here too! Nobody will do anything about that either. I am an atmospheric scientist, so the climate change issue is a big one for me. I’ve been learning a bit more about Australia in this past year and it is interesting how similar the U.S. and Australia are. Not completely in good ways either. 😦 Never been to Australia myself, but anybody I’ve met from there has always been extremely friendly. I have been to New Zealand though. They would definitely give the Canadians (where I’m from originally) a run for your money on friendliness. lol

    • Ah, I see! Interesting to see you are an atmospheric scientist yet maintain such an active involvement in the phiosophy/ethics/sociology sphere – it’s quite an unusual but extremely valuable combination. I’ve been reading your blog and quite enjoyed your post ‘Society. Fixed. Done.’ in particular. Very clever and quite entertaining.

      I agree with your comments. As an outsider it’s far too easy to think of the US as the land of extremes at times since the extremes are what get the media air-time. In reality in such a large and diverse country with such an emphasis on freedom it’s pretty much guaranteed such extremes will come out, but it’s hardly representative of most people.

      • Is it that an usual? Hmmm…well either I am unusual or you don’t know too many atmospheric scientists. 🙂 Well I certainly am interested in a lot of things, but I also think that it is important for scientists to learn how to communicate well and also promote science in the public sphere and not just among other scientists so every scientist should have at least some drive in the area of philosophy/ethics/psychology/sociology. 🙂

  3. I agree with your opinion that keeping guns for freedom sake is a bad argument. I think we need to learn to debate, rather than shoot. I think you are right about guns not allowing us to fight the U.S. military. The only way anyone could fight the U.S. military is if we allowed everyone to buy anything, tanks, rpg’s, etc. I think many kinks would have to be worked out, or at least many minds would have to be swayed to allow anyone to buy anything. So, just talking reality here, I would like to address your first argument for self defense.
    Studies show that when states implement concealed permit, crime goes down. Also, when guns are not easy to get a hold of, criminals resort to knives. That weapon is far bloodier than guns, especially when the person being robbed thinks s/he can defend themselves. This situation is reflected in smaller violent crime where there are guns. This is possibly because when a robber commits armed robbery, the person being robbed simply hands over their goods and the deed is done. Here is one article out of many that show such statistics. Non-Gun violent crime went down by 26% four years after Flordia issued concealed carry permits. Ironically violent gun crime went down even more.
    Furthermore, if you look on the federal government statistics website, you will see really low prosecution rates. The one below is not for the entire U.S. but if you look for national statistics, I am sure you can find it. This is also for 2002.
    “* 12,950 (39.5%) convicted of aggravated assault
    * 10,120 (30.9%) convicted of robbery
    * 1,987 (6.1%) convicted of rape
    * 1,077 (3.3%) convicted of murder or non-negligent
    * 6,650 (20.3%) convicted of other violent felonies.”
    However, I am reasonable. I subscribe to the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I am fine with registered guns. I am VERY fine with not allowing people to have concealed permit or hunting licenses until they take training. I am fine with continued training too. I hear horror stories where single moms hide their loaded and unlocked guns in the mattress, then little johnny finds it. But, I think the statistics are in support of gun ownership for self defense. I just think we need to ensure those who have guns are responsible enough to hold them.
    All, in all I think we sometimes forget that the government is not omnipotent. It struggles to keep itself running let alone society. This country runs on people. People make money for the economy. People talk and write to each other to create society and culture. People protect themselves and others from crime. People in environmental organizations protect forests. Government shows to be far less efficient or effective at doing these things. However, the Government seems to be the best format to define what is ethical in our society. So, the best method is probably for government to teach and direct people to serve these functions, and create an environment where people are most motivated to do the ethical choice.

    • Hi J,
      Thanks for the comment, it was very well thought out and I have to say I agree to a pretty large degree with you. The stats you posted and compelling and I agree that the threat of a concealed handgun is a serious disincentive for violent crime, though of course it doesn’t help with crimes of passion or accidents. The comparative risk of knives seems debatable – I agree completely that they can be messier when used, but since they also limit collateral damage it sort of equals out.

      Ultimately though I think that the regulatory options you mention are an excellent compromise – registration and compulsory training would go a long way to decreasing the risks of gun ownership. Its easy to compare Australia with the USA but its not really an accurate comparison – we have vastly less people, a significantly different social welfare approach and nothing even approaching the gun culture of the USA, even before semi-autos were banned. Still inclined to think the Australian situation of no guns and low crime is better, but if you can minimize the risks of gun ownership then there isn’t really a problem.

  4. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Violent Videogames | The Ethics Of

  5. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Circumcision | The Ethics Of

  6. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Drones | The Ethics Of

  7. Pingback: Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Libertarianism | The Ethics Of

  8. Pingback: Current Event Case Analysis – Christian Ethics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s