Gun Control: A Conceptual Analysis

What The Gun Debate Is Really About

By Professor Lester Hunt (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

July 14, 2016             Picture: Carlo Allegri/REUTERS

This article is part of The Critique’s July/August 2016 Issue “No Silver Bullet: Contending With The Complexity Of The Gun Violence Debate In The United States”

What on Earth is “Gun Control”? At first sight, it seems very odd that it should be a center of bitter controversy. After all, regulations and statutes are supposed to control human behavior. If “gun control” is simply the attempt to control gun-related behavior, it seems hard to see how someone could be against such a thing. It is perhaps not too surprising that people who favor gun control often view those who say they oppose it as enemies of plain common sense.

A closer look at the positions of people who declare themselves angrily opposed to “gun control” only adds to one’s bafflement. Gun control’s declared opponents do not seem to be opposed to all regulations and statutes that aim at controlling the relevant human actions. The laws that provoke their ire, and stir up controversy, do not seem to include safety regulations, such as ones aimed to ban guns that might accidentally discharge. Nor do they include laws that prohibit guns to a class of people – such as children, convicted criminals, or people with a history of some relevant sort of mental illness – on the grounds that they are deemed to be insufficiently trustworthy users of these weapons.

Is “gun control” a functionally meaningless phrase, a mere weapon in partisan disputes, a sort of verbal stick to beat opponents with? If it is, then perhaps it should be retired from use, as doing more harm to public discourse than good. Clearly, there are words that do deserve such a fate. The word “fascist” seems to me a plausible candidate. Most of the people who are described that way today would never apply it to themselves. It communicates no meaning but a whiff of authoritarianism and a strong odor of disapproval. It is simply a vague term of abuse.

“Gun control” does not seem to behave this way in practice. It does not seem to be emotionally loaded, and unlike “fascist,” it is not disavowed by those to whom it is applied. There are plenty of people who say they are against it, and there are also many who say they are for it.

I think it actually does have a definite meaning and it is not too hard to say, fairly clearly, what it does mean. I think it is well worth doing so, because it does mark the boundaries between the sides of a very real disagreement. It is a disagreement, moreover, that marks a very fundamental difference between people – just the sort of difference that is illuminatingly called philosophical.

Surely, everyone who has observed the controversy about gun control has noticed that among the combatants there is often a sharp and profound conflict between their attitudes toward guns themselves. To some extent this a difference of feeling, even of passion, but I believe it also reflects an underlying issue that is a matter of logic and theory as well as emotion. It seems to me that, at the core of the debate, sometimes hidden well below the surface, lurks a very real disagreement about what we might call the moral status of guns themselves.

The moral status of a thing lies in the fact that there are features of the thing that indicate that, by its very nature, it is morally suspect and questionable – or indeed the opposite of this, that it is somehow privileged by moral considerations that concern the very nature of the thing. In the case of guns, the possibility that will be most obvious to many educated people will be that the status of guns is of the former, negative sort.

There are other things that are often treated this way including, for example, pornography, alcohol, tobacco, and various other psychoactive drugs. In addition to objects or substances, there are also some services that are often treated in this way, such as prostitution, nude dancing, gambling, and abortion. When such goods and services are not prohibited altogether, like cocaine, they are subject to laws that make them less available. This is how the law treats alcoholic beverages.

“At the core of the debate lurks a very real disagreement about what we might call the moral status of guns themselves”.

Often, their sale is legally restricted to those who are specifically licensed by the state to sell them. The main function of such licensure laws is not to make sure that such goods are only provided by people who have some relevant professional expertise. They are intended to limit provision – period.

For the same sort of reason, the authorities use zoning regulations to limit the geographical areas in which sales may be made. They also prohibit sales during certain hours of the day or certain days of the week to make it more difficult to gain access to goods and services that fall under the shadow of official disapproval. They place burdensome “sin taxes” on their sale.

Though many such measures fall short of outright prohibitions on a good or service, they nonetheless place various hurdles and speed bumps in the way of those who want access to them. They function to make such goods and services are less available than they otherwise would be.

Obviously, the thinking behind such laws is that some goods or services are the sort of thing that should not be too readily available, that there is an ever-present possibility that society has “too much” of that good or service. Outright bans simply constitute the extreme case of laws of this sort. Those who support such bans believe that any amount of the good or service is too much.

Obviously, many people see guns as belonging in this category: they are apt to say things like “there are too many guns out there,” and that a solution to such problems would be better laws that restrict “the availability of guns.”

I propose defining gun control legislation as being this sort of law: that is, it is legislation that is either intended to treat guns, or some major class of guns, this way or is best justified by arguments that support such treatment.

Laws that forbid guns to a class of unreliable users, such as children or violent criminals, do not qualify as cases of gun control because they are based on considerations about the users and not primarily about the thing used. It is equally clear, though for a somewhat different reason, that safety regulations do not qualify as cases of gun control. They do not make guns less widely available but rather (if they are successful) more safe.

Understood in this way, gun control is not gun regulation but gun restrictionism. The attitude toward guns that undergirds gun control, thus defined, is a familiar one, and it is surely not difficult to understand. If we think of guns in terms of the intention with which they were originally invented, or the intentions behind the way they are continually redesigned and improved, one can easily see how one would think that their very inception is morally special, so to speak, and not special in a good way.

They are conceived and intended to destroy – if not people or animals then some other sort of target. They are conceived in destruction and even if this does not quite mean that they are conceived in sin then at least it might support the idea that they are liable to special treatment by the coercive powers of the state.

This sort of idea gains even more support if we think of guns, not in terms of the intentions with which they are created and improved by inventors and engineers, but in terms of the role they play within the intentions, the values, and the overriding goals of the civilians who possess them. The factor I have in mind is most pronounced and conspicuous in the case of handguns, which are not popular for use in hunting. If a civilian possesses a handgun, it is in some cases for use in crime or, in many more cases, in self-protection against crime. Even the latter of these two purposes is one that some will find disturbing.

If I acquire the means of lethal force for the purpose of possible use against a human being then, even for a legitimate defensive use, I am thinking of my relations with my fellow human beings in a certain way. A gun is a tool, a product of human technology, and like any technological device it exists to solve problems. If the problem that needs to be solved exists between the gun owner and another human being, it is obvious that the imagined solution rests on some disturbing assumptions.

The owner assumes that there are situations with absolute conflicts of interests between human beings. In such situations, there is no appeal to reason, no compromise that is acceptable to all parties, no consensus that to be reached. The only option is to resort to force. Worse, the owner is assuming that it may be beyond the power of the state to preempt this use of force, to make it unnecessary for one to protect oneself.

“A gun is a tool that exists to solve problems. If the problem that needs to be solved exists between the gun owner and another human being, it is obvious that the imagined solution rests on some disturbing assumptions”.

These are very disturbing thoughts, especially if one holds a broadly liberal view of life: a view that places a high value on peace, harmony, and the use of reason to resolve differences. But, surely, it is impossible to deny that these thoughts are true. There are situations in which there are fundamental clashes of interests and in some of these the appeal to reason is beyond one’s reach. Accordingly, fairness and reason itself require us to understand that there are other possible views of the moral status of guns that fall well within the realm of decent civilized values.

One very obvious alternative view would be to maintain that it is nonsensical to attribute a moral status to mere inanimate objects, that this is as true of guns as it is of any other mere thing. One can morally evaluate human actions, human individuals, and groups and organizations of individuals (Planned Parenthood, The National Rifle Association, etc.) but not things. People have moral attributes, but guns are morally neutral. This view of the matter no doubt animates some of the anti-restrictionist movement [See Stell for a more detailed discussion of the relationship between the nature of guns and their use by human beings].

However plausible this view is, there is another quite different attitude that seems to be expressed in much of the anti-control literature. As odd as this might sound to some people, much of the pro-gun literature is just that: not merely pro-gun-rights but pro-gun.

Many in the anti-restrictionist camp view guns not as neutral but as positively good. Those who fail to understand this will fail to understand important features of the gun control debate – most especially how deeply important it is to some people.

Failure to grasp the attitudes that underlie a position will cause us to see some participants as unreasonable at best and as fools, lunatics, or scoundrels at worst, rather than as the basically rational and well-meaning people that they generally are.

“Many in the anti-restrictionist camp view guns not as neutral but as positively good”.

The basis of the view that guns are good is the same in kind as the basis of the anti-gun view: for the partisans of this view, guns are by their nature entangled in a dense network of intentions, values, and overriding goals.

The view is rooted in part in the fact that a gun, like any other technological device, is a freedom-extender: it enables one to do things that one could not otherwise do. This simple fact supports a link between this particular technology and an important moral value: responsibility for the rights of the innocent, both one’s own rights and those of others.

Large corporations routinely hire armed guards to protect their property and the lives and bodies of their customers from the depredations of criminals. Small businesses typically cannot afford to do this. In place of such professional services they are apt to substitute self-protection, often in the form of keeping a gun on the premises.

In the pro-gun literature, these simple facts connect gun ownership with a powerful array of moral ideas and ideals. The divide between the pro- and anti- sides of this debate is so great that many on the other side will wonder what “ideals” could possibly be involved in owning a gun for purposes of shooting people – even allowing that “shooting” is unlikely in any one case to actually happen and that the “people” involved are attackers- and invaders of one’s home or business.

To such people, it would come as no surprise that the anti-gun, pro-control literature is strongly focused on the evils of violence, in particular on the suffering, injury, and death caused by guns. It might be more surprising that the pro-gun, anti-control side is also focused on, even obsessed with, the evils of violence and of acute or chronic threats of violence. Yet the way in which the two literatures view the evil of violence is quite different.

Granted that violence is evil, what is evil about it? To activists who defend gun ownership for purposes of protection, the evil of crime is not only a matter of injury and pain but, even more, defilement and degradation [See Demetriou on the importance of dignified self-defense].

Rape, assault, murder, and theft are violations of one’s dignity. They compel what is yours – your car, you wallet, perhaps your body – to serve the purposes of the criminal, in complete disregard of your purposes, just as if you were a mere passive thing, with no goals of your own. They violate your dignity by violating your autonomy.

The only real remedy for such violations is agency: seizing control of your own life and employing what is rightfully yours to serve your own legitimate purposes. Thus, though it may be much better to live a life where defending your rights is not something that you have to do for yourself (perhaps because you are wealthy enough to live in a low-crime area or to pay others to do it for you), there are good reasons why arming yourself for protection is not an entirely regrettable option. Such reasons are rooted in principles that are fundamentally ethical.

You may have noticed a certain similarity between the ideas I have just been attributing to pro-gun activists and ones that are central to the ethics of Immanuel Kant. I don’t think the question of whether these notions are really and truly in the spirit of the Kantian tradition need concern us here. The resemblance is enough to suggest that some of the notions involved are not only ethical but indeed rooted in the moral thinking of modern Western liberalism.

Among the divides underlying the gun control debate is one between two sides of the liberal tradition. One focuses on the liberal value of empathy for injury and suffering, while in the other the emphasis is on the equally liberal ideas of dignity and autonomy. I am tempted to call the former tradition “compassion-based,” but for the fact that both are based on compassion of a sort. What they have compassion for is in each case somewhat different. For one, what is important is rescuing human beings from pain while the other places more importance on repairing individual dignity and self-respect.

I, personally, have a good deal of sympathy for the dignity and self-respect side of this divide, but for the moment that is actually not my point. Rather, I urge the reader to understand that the two sides of the gun debate are separated by contrasting ethical ideas, and that unless we keep this in mind we are apt to seriously miss the point of the debate.

Lester Hunt
Lester Hunt
Lester H. Hunt, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is co-author, with David DeGrazia, of Debating Gun Control: How Much Regulation Do We Need?, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is also the author of Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue and Character and Culture.
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Gloria Lincoln-Thompson carries her 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol in her waist band during a rally in support of the Michigan Open Carry gun law in Romulus, Michigan April 27, 2014.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTR3MTZ3A truck with a sticker indicating the number of weapons and hand guns is pictured in Port Saint Lucie, Florida, U.S. June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX2GA46