No Silver Bullet: Contending With The Complexity Of The Gun Violence Debate In The United States

No Silver Bullet

Contending With The Complexity Of The Gun Violence Debate In The United States

By Guillaume A.W. Attia (Editor-in-Chief)

July 01, 2016         Picture: Getty Images.


The murderous shooting rampage at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando punctuated the absurdity of the American political struggle over the legal status and proliferation of guns in the country. On the one hand, this was yet another horrific mass shooting executed through the use of the sort of firearm some political activists have tried for many years, and through repeated accusations of political opportunism following other notable mass shootings (Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newton, and San Bernardino), to regulate for the sake of public peace and security. On the other, the intensified political pressure and online resentment occasioned by the suffering in Orlando, was another painful reminder of the social and psychological burdens of gun ownership in America: the defensive posture provoked by the constant media vilification of guns and the lifestyle of their owners, as well as the difficulty joining in mourning with other patriots without being perceived as disingenuous or callous for supporting U.S gun culture.

The frustration was palpable on both sides, but more so on the democratic political front, where futile filibusters and sit-ins were organized with mere media coverage as recompense. With the political stalemate vividly evidenced by another cycle of post-shooting impotence, President Obama and other Democrat leaders called for the people of the United States, including the many law-abiding gun owners in favour of “common-sense” gun control laws, to exert enough political pressure on the Republican Party and The National Rifle Association to force genuine political change on the issue of guns in America. However, despite the President’s well-founded faith in the good will and resolve of the American people to move the discussion forward, it is not at all clear whether or not the American public is sufficiently informed about the complexities of the gun debate in the United States to smoothly create this sort of political progress.

Given the political debacle over guns in congress, doesn’t the notion of a civilian-led overhaul of current gun laws and policies underestimate the difficulties involved in adjudicating the best route on such issues? A cursory exploration of some of the lingering questions of U.S gun politics reveals a public policy issue not amenable to simple answers. For one, are guns strictly speaking the problem or should the blame for all of this violence be placed squarely on the people who use them? Is the issue “gun violence” or “gun control”? What exactly do these terms even mean? Aren’t most people in favour of gun control anyway? If so, what exactly is the subtle philosophical difference between the different pro-gun control positions? Is gun control different from gun prohibition? Is the latter even currently a viable political option? Wouldn’t a wholesale gun ban infringe on citizens’ constitutional rights? Doesn’t the constitution of the United States allow its citizens to have guns in case of governmental abuse of power? Or should people rethink this narrative too? These are some of the basic questions that are bound to expose the intricacies of the philosophical literature on gun control in the United States, and will hopefully not only help to clarify the nature of the ongoing political debate, but also impress on the minds of a rightly fed-up American public, the necessary reality that there is no “silver bullet” for this enduring political problem.


Article #1: “Gun Control, A Conceptual Analysis: What The Gun Debate Is Really About” by Lester Hunt (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“Gun control” is sometimes defined by those who advocate it as any regulation that is aimed at controlling guns or gun-related behavior. This immediately implies that gun control is something no sane person would oppose. Why, in that case, is there a controversy about it? I propose to define it instead as legislation that is aimed at or best justified by the goal of restricting the availability of guns, or some major class of guns (such as handguns), to competent, law-abiding citizens. This definition identifies an issue that reasonable people can disagree about. Indeed, it indicates deep ethical differences between these same reasonable people.

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.

Article #2: “Gun Violence In The United State: Does The Trigger Pull The Finger Or Does The Finger Pull The Trigger?” by Lance Stell (Davidson College)

Virtually everybody supports gun control. Disagreements among pro-controllers arise because of divergent views about violence, the goals of gun control and the management of gun-related stigmatization. This paper elaborates and evaluates these divergent views. The truth does not lie somewhere in the middle. One side (the finger pulls the trigger) is better knowledgeable about guns and current law. Its views stressing agent-responsibility for gun-wrongdoing and agent-centered stigmatization for it are more defensible ethically than the view that stresses gun-causation (the trigger pulls the finger) to the virtual exclusion of agent-causation and responsibility.

Professor Lance Stell earned his Bachelor of Science in Philosophy from Hope College. He continued on to the University of Michigan where he earned his MA and PhD in Philosophy. Dr. Stell has worked at Davidson College since 1976.

Article #3: “Gun Rights & Noncompliance: Two Problems Of Prohibition” by Michael Huemer (University of Colorado Boulder)

Private gun ownership should not be banned, for two reasons: (1) Gun prohibition would prevent some individuals from protecting themselves, thus making the state effectively an accomplice in many crimes. (2) Restrictive gun laws tend to be ignored by criminals and followed only by innocent citizens.

Michael Huemer received his BA from UC Berkeley in 1992 and his PhD from Rutgers University in 1998. He is presently professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of more than 50 academic articles in ethics, epistemology, political philosophy, and metaphysics, as well as four brilliant and fascinating books that everyone should buy: Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001), Ethical Intuitionism (2005), The Problem of Political Authority (2013), and Approaching Infinity (2016).

Article #4: “Our Dignity-Right To Guns: Armed Self-Defense & Gun Control In The United States” by Daniel Demetriou (University of Minnesota)

Perhaps the biggest disconnect between philosophers and non-philosophers on the question of our moral—not legal—right to guns is over the importance of arms to our dignity. This essay argues that we have a moral right to resist with dignity and that (with certain qualifications) violent resistance is more dignified than nonviolent resistance. Since in some cases dignified resistance will require violence, and since effective violent resistance will sometimes require guns, we have a right to own or carry guns if they are necessary often enough for effective dignified resistance. Since this right holds (to some degree) even when nonviolent means would better achieve the security aims of potential victims, the bar for justifying gun rights is lower than commonly assumed.   

Dan Demetriou is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He has published a number of articles on honor as a moral value and psychological motive, and co-edited (with Laurie Johnson, Kansas State) the forthcoming Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Lexington Books).

Article #5: “Gun Rights, Tyranny & Rebellion: John Locke, The American Constitution & The Right To Bear Arms” by Robert J. Spitzer (SUNY Cortland)

The idea that American citizens possess a “right of rebellion” against the government is a long and persistent belief within elements of the gun rights community. Many believe that the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” in the Bill of Rights somehow encompasses or protects such a right. Yet this idea is rarely examined in the context of the purposes of government, the functioning of a democratic society, and the effectuation of such a right. This article examines this idea, arguing that it is utterly incompatible with the very idea of American governance. The greater prospect to fear is not a tyrannical American government, but those who believe that they possess an autonomous right to wreak violence on democratic structures.

Robert J. Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at SUNY Cortland. He is the author of 15 books, including five on gun policy. His most recent book is “Guns across America” (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Article #6: “The Political Philosophy Of Guns: Would America Really Be A Better Society Without Them?” by Thomas R. Wells (University of Witten/Herdecke)

The proponents of gun control in America are losing the argument and will continue to do so. Their complacency that they are on the right side of history has blinded them to the fact that they have chosen to fight on the wrong ground. They keep harping on about guns killing people. As if guns were like cigarettes, and as if the numbers were big enough to matter. They need to take the political philosophy of the gun rights movement seriously and show that a society without guns is a better society, not merely a safer one.

Thomas R. Wells is visiting professor in theoretical philosophy at Witten-Herdecke University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher’s Beard.


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GettyImages-501948278Tonya McKelvey-White of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and a group of mourners sing "Amazing Grace" while waiting for the start of the burial of Reverend Clementa Pinckney at the St James AME Church in Marion, South Carolina June 26, 2015. Reverend Pinckney, a widely admired state senator and pastor of Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was among the nine people killed when a gunman opened fire during Bible study last week.  REUTERS/Randall Hill
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