Author’s Note: I wrote this essay a while ago, but I was reluctant to post it. The timing didn’t seem right. However, I’ve been inspired to publish it by Sam Harris’ excellent piece on the subject. Harris’ analysis is the best I’ve yet read on this issue. In what follows, I respond to Jeff McMahan’s analysis in the New York Times, which is easily the worst.
In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there is renewed interest among Americans in having a “national conversation” about gun control. More accurately, the conversation is about gun bans. I would distinguish between gun control, which comes in degrees and which most reasonable parties to the discussion would support to some extent, and gun bans which call for the unlimited restriction of certain types of firearms, usually handguns and semi-automatic rifles. These terms are often conflated in the current debate, with those calling for gun control actually advocating gun bans. For the sake of clarity, the difference should be acknowledged. To his credit, Jeff McMahan in a NYT op-ed is unambiguous. He calls for the United States to “ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.” Unfortunately, this is as much credit as I’m willing to give him.
How shall I put this charitably? His arguments leave much to be desired. In fact, they seldom rise to the level of arguments. Instead, McMahan is content with mere assertions. I feel compelled to challenge these assertions, not because I have an interest in guns per se, but because I have an interest in self-defense strategies, of which gun ownership is a part. Hence, I have a corresponding interest in defending the right of self-defense against those who would erode it. McMahan’s argument, among it’s other flaws, fails to take self-defense seriously. This is not to say that I find all arguments for gun control unreasonable, but that McMahan’s are so flawed that I can’t help but address them. If you want to make a case against guns, this isn’t the way to do it.
So, where do I begin? First of all, McMahan offers no evidence whatsoever for his assertions. No data. None. I challenge anyone to find a number anywhere in the vicinity of his argument. This is all the more strange because McMahan frames the issue exclusively along utilitarian lines. He briefly considers that persons have the right to self-defense, and thus possession of firearms, but quickly discounts this as a right that can be easily overridden to prevent social harms, a right that we completely abrogate to the state, or a right the exercise of which would be unnecessary under a gun ban. Each of these assertions is profoundly dubious and the arguments for them are sloppy if any are offered at all. I’ll get to that. For the time being, it suffices to make the point that in an argument structured along utilitarian lines there’s nary a number to be found, no reference to any empirical data, no utility ‘calculus’ whatsoever. Only speculation about what should be and must be according to McMahan. This is armchair philosophy of the worst kind and will likely be regarded as such by the general public. McMahan appears to be so ensconced in the ivory tower that he’s lost touch with the real world.
However, in the real world, there’s a very strong chance that you will become the victim of a violent crime. According to Sam Harris, “the average American has a 1 in 250 chance of being robbed, assaulted, raped, or murdered each year.” The risks are real and your ability to defend yourself, should the occasion arise, could mean the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, McMahan seems to fit this profile that Harris describes: “In my experience, most people do not want to think about the reality of human violence. I have friends who sleep with their front doors unlocked and who would never consider receiving instruction in self-defense. For them, gun ownership seems like an ugly and uncivilized flirtation with paranoia.” It is not. I do not own a firearm, nor do I have any immediate plans to do so, but I think that a rational argument can be made that the state should not restrict citizens’ means of effective self-defense without a very compelling reason. As I will argue, McMahan hasn’t provided such a reason.
For example, in opposing the guns-for-self-defense argument, he says, “But when more citizens get guns, further problems arise: people who would once have got in a fistfight instead shoot the person who provoked them; people are shot by mistake or by accident.” What evidence does he offer to show that homicides and accidental deaths involving guns occur with more frequency than instances of defensive gun use? None. He just asserts it. Again, when one is making a utilitarian argument, it might be prudent to actually run the numbers. The whole thrust of McMahan’s argument is that private gun ownership causes more harm than good to society and, as such, the state ought to ban them. But he never bothers to demonstrate net harm; he just assumes it.
Now, one could question this utilitarian starting point. Since I’m not an American, I don’t really care about the Second Amendment or District of Columbia v. Heller. Nevertheless, I think that American gun proponents are correct in framing the issue as one of rights and not, as their opponents do, in terms of utilitarian considerations alone. As McMahan’s essay demonstrates, the debate over gun bans focuses almost exclusively on utilitarian considerations, i.e. do guns increase or decrease the net happiness? Proponents of gun bans seldom consider that the citizens’ right to self-defense is violated by their proposals. If they do consider it, they seem to treat it as a trivial right that can be easily overridden by consideration of the harms caused. However, the right to defend oneself is not a trivial right, nor has McMahan made the case that the harms outweigh the benefits. These claims could all be defended at length. For a detailed defense of these theses, I refer the reader to Michael Huemer’s peer-reviewed article “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?” But I’m game. I’ll play by the utilitarian’s rules. Since McMahan doesn’t bother to look at the numbers, I’m more than happy to do so.
Those who argue for overall harm from private gun ownership, often appeal to the 1 in 43 statistic. A 1986 study by Kellerman and Reay concluded that a gun is 43 times more likely to be used in a criminal homicide, suicide, or accidental death than in self-defense. Hugh LaFollette puts the statistic this way: “For every case where someone in a gun-owning household uses a gun to successfully stop a life-threatening attack, nearly forty-three people in similar households will die from a gunshot.” However, as Huemer notes, this is a misleading way of putting the statistic.
Firstly, 37 of the 43 deaths in the Kellerman and Reay study were suicides. Arguably, those who are suicidal are able and willing to find other methods to accomplish their goal. Moreover, as Huemer also points out, restricting gun ownership for the purpose of preventing suicide, even if such a policy were effective, is arguably not within the prerogatives of the liberal state. However, even if one includes suicide in gun death statistics, defensive gun use still exceeds the number of suicides and homicides combined (see below).
Secondly, the number of accidental gun deaths has been declining, though it’s still a public safety concern. Admittedly, however, owning a gun increases the chance that you or a family member will be injured or killed by that gun. But the risk can be overstated. Compare, for example, that having a swimming pool increases one’s risk of drowning. Driving a car increases one’s risk of dying in a road accident. Smoking increases one’s risk of dying of cancer. But these risks are not prima facie reasons for the state to restrict access to swimming pools, cars, and tobacco (although it may well regulate their use; likewise with guns). Individuals are responsible for performing their own risk assessments.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Kellerman and Reay did not consider — nor does McMahan — the many times a gun prevented a violent crime without even being fired (the majority of cases). They only considered cases in which someone was killed. Moreover, they only counted cases as ‘self-defense’ that were determined to be such by the police or prosecutor (they didn’t even consider self-defense cases that were later found to be such in a court of law). But, again, this ignores the many reported (and many unreported) cases in which merely threatening a criminal with a gun was sufficient to deter him from committing a violent crime. The numbers on defensive gun use are impressive. Several studies have shown that Americans frequently use guns for self-defense. From Huemer’s article:
Probably among the more reliable is Kleck and Gertz’ 1993 national survey, which obtained an estimate of 2.5 million annual defensive gun uses, excluding military and police uses and excluding uses against animals. Gun users in 400,000 of these cases believe that the gun certainly or almost certainly saved a life. While survey respondents almost certainly overestimated their danger, if even one tenth of them were correct, the number of lives saved by guns each year would exceed the number of gun homicides and suicides. For the purposes of Kleck and Gertz’ study, a “defensive gun use” requires respondents to have actually seen a person (as opposed, for example, to merely hearing a suspicious noise in the yard) whom they believed was committing or attempting to commit a crime against them, and to have at a minimum threatened the person with a gun, but not necessarily to have fired the gun. Kleck’s statistics imply that defensive gun uses outnumber crimes committed with guns by a ratio of about 3:1.
I believe that this point demonstrates an availability bias at play in the the gun ban proponent’s argument. It’s easy to count the mass shootings and ignore the many cases in which defensive gun use (including pointing and brandishing, not just firing) has protected life and property. The number of such cases vastly outnumber the cases of gun crime, including mass shootings, yet McMahan completely fails to consider them at all in his non-existent utilitarian calculus. The empirical data suggest that it’s exceedingly difficult to make an argument against guns on utilitarian grounds; not that McMahan makes a careful attempt.
McMahan also argues that an armed citizenry depowers the police because the latter lose their monopoly on force. Again, he doesn’t bother to count the instances in which armed civilians have assisted law enforcement (a police officer notes this point in the comments section of McMahan’s article). He never substantiates his claim that civilian gun ownership makes police more trigger-happy. Again, he simply asserts it. But let’s consider McMahan’s philosophical point about the state’s monopoly on force. His interpretation of the social contract is idiosyncratic to put it politely. I don’t know of any political philosopher who would say, as McMahan does, that the social contract requires a surrender of our right to self-defense in its entirety. Under the social contract, we’ve abrogated some of the responsibility for our protection to the state. Indeed, this is perhaps the primary function of the state and I’m not suggesting that civilian gun ownership is in any way a substitute for professional police forces and armies (a straw man that McMahan sets up). However, there are instances when the state cannot intervene, or not in time, to prevent citizens from coming to harm. McMahan denigrates this consideration as reducing personal security to a matter of self-help. But this is just more ivory tower idealism. In answer to McMahan’s naivete about the power of the police — even under the idealized conditions he envisions — to protect citizens from harm, I can do no better than quote Harris:
Why can’t civilized people like ourselves simply rely on the police? Well, look around you: Do you see a cop? Unless you happen to be a police officer yourself, or are married to one, you are very unlikely to be attacked in the presence of law enforcement. The role of the police is to respond in the aftermath of a crime and, with a little luck, to catch the person who committed it. If you are ever targeted by a violent predator, whether you and your family are injured or killed will depend on what you do in the first moments of the encounter. When it comes to survival, therefore, you are entirely on your own. Once you escape and are in a safe place, by all means call the police. But dialing 911 when an intruder has broken into your home is not a strategy for self-defense.
The state is not omnipotent; it cannot guarantee citizens’ safety in every instance. In such cases, the state must allow citizens the right of effective self-defense. Since this right is so fundamental – indeed it provides the rationale for the social contract in the first place – we would need a very compelling reason to override it. As we’ve seen, McMahan hasn’t provided such a reason on utilitarian grounds.
But he has an answer for this: if there were a ban on guns, that would decrease the opportunity for armed criminals to assault citizens and consequently, decrease the occasion for citizens to have to defend themselves. In the ideal world he envisions, only the police are armed; neither criminals nor citizens are. As modal logicians would say, that’s a possible world but it’s not a feasible world. Consider this plausible intuition: a gun ban will disarm law-abiding citizens more effectively than it will disarm criminals. Those with criminal intent are not likely to comply with a gun ban. Thus, a gun ban is not an effective means for keeping firearms out of criminal hands. Rather, it disproportionately disarms the general population, thereby producing more potential victims who criminals can now reasonably assume will be unarmed. Therefore, it is not true, as McMahan asserts that criminals and law-abiding gun owners are on the same side in opposing gun bans; criminals are in favor of gun bans.
Consider another plausible intuition: increasing the risk to criminals of armed civilian resistance will have a deterrent effect on crime. Now, I don’t pretend to be a macho, gun-toting tough guy. I don’t own a firearm, but let’s say that my law-abiding neighbor does. If a would-be home invader knows that between my house and my neighbor’s he has a 50/50 chance of being met with armed resistance, he might not think it worthwhile to take the risk. If he knows that there’s a reasonable chance that he’ll be met with armed resistance, he’ll have to perform a very different risk assessment than he would if he could reasonably assume his potential victims were unarmed. As a result of this assumption I’m safer, despite remaining unarmed, than I would otherwise be. Therefore, it’s not the case, as McMahan asserts, that those who choose not to own firearms are the worst off. Rather, allowing citizens to own guns, even if they choose not to exercise that right, may still prevent crime.
But we don’t have to rely on intuitions as McMahan is wont to do; we can learn a lesson from recent history. In 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, a man shot and killed 16 kindergartners and their teacher. Under public pressure, the Blair government implemented a comprehensive gun ban in 1997. Despite the ban, violent crime increased. In particular, crimes committed with banned handguns increased by 46%. The effect of the ban in the British case was to empower criminals by disarming their victims. The gun ban, coupled with legislation that severely punished those who defended themselves, fostered an environment in which criminals were the only party armed and protected by the law. A dangerous situation indeed. The predictions of gun ban advocates didn’t come to pass. Although McMahan makes a vague passing reference to international comparisons, he fails to mention this very salient case study.
Again, none of this is to say that reasonable arguments cannot be made for gun control, or even for banning certain types of weapons (though I’m skeptical about the effectiveness of such measures). I’m simply arguing that McMahan hasn’t provided us with a good argument — or any argument as opposed to mere assertions — that would give Americans reason to “ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.” Given the scope of the ban he advocates, one would expect a little more by way of argument, not to mention empirical evidence. He simply hasn’t given us any reason to believe that private gun ownership produces net harm. As an argument on utilitarian grounds, it’s a hopeless failure.