Last year I began writing reviews of gun-related books for CHOICE, a publication of the Association of College & Research Libraries that helps academic librarians find new titles to add to their collections. The reviews themselves are only a couple hundred words long, so it’s tough to say anything substantive in them, but being a reviewer allows me to see and read some books I otherwise wouldn’t. Case in point: Debating Gun Control: How Much Regulation Do We Need?
This book, part of Oxford’s Debating Ethics series, presents opposing moral views of gun control by two philosophers. In the 8 chapters of Part I, Lester H. Hunt of (my graduate school alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison) offers “The Case Against.” The core of his argument is that gun ownership is a right that deserves special protection because it facilitates the fundamental right to self-defense. In a nutshell: “If there is a right to use force, including lethal force, in self-defense, then there is a right to own guns, including handguns” (p. 26).
In the 8 chapters of Part II, David DeGrazia (of George Washington University) argues “The Case in Favor.” His case for gun control rests on the negative social consequences of gun ownership in terms of public safety. He calls this “the consequentialist case” and it is based on the large number of intentional and unintentional injuries and deaths due to firearms.
The subtitle’s framing of the question of gun control as “how much regulation” is needed is most descriptive of the debate presented. Hunt’s anti-restrictionism advocates minimal but not no regulation. Similarly, DeGrazia characterizes his view of the level of morally justifiable regulation as “moderately extensive.” Because the two authors do not go back and forth from chapter to chapter, what is presented is not how many would imagine a debate, though there are implicit references to each other’s arguments in each of the two parts. Overall, two distinct and opposing ethical positions toward gun regulation are presented fairly clearly and persuasively.
I am going to get the most intellectual mileage from two particular passages:
A gun is a tool, a product of human technology; and like any technological device, it exists to solve problems. (p. 8)
To understand guns and their attractiveness to people, we need to understand what guns DO for people. Like helping solve the problem of thirst using a tactical bottle opener.
Also, like good philosophers, defining terms and making conceptual distinctions is a big part of this book. A significant distinction made by Hunt in his case against gun control is between punishment or deterrence of and defense against crime:
Punishment and deterrence of crime are functions of the law. Defense against crime – meaning by that phrase either self-defense or one agent’s active defense of another – are services of a fundamentally different character. . . . [T]he state and its legal system do provide punishment and deterrence and do not provide defense in my sense. (pp. 28-29)
Those who look to the criminal justice system to defend them from crime are barking up the wrong tree. The police, in particular, have a duty to provide “protection” only as a public good offered to all citizens through deterrence, not a duty to defend any particular individual. The consequence of this is significant:
Because the level to which [the police] provide this public good [of protection through deterrence] always falls short of perfection, in the sense that there will always be some crime and some consequent likelihood of suffering attack, some people will have good reason to make up some of the resulting deficit by taking defensive steps on their own. Those who take such steps are not poaching on territory that rightly belongs to the state and the law; they are doing something that the system has made very clear it has no obligation to do at all. (p. 30)
As Hunt himself recognizes, this gives philosophical rigor to the contemporary saying, “when seconds matter, the cops are only minutes away” (p. 31).
This is actually the perfect lead-in to some issues my students and I have been grappling with in my Sociology of Guns Seminar. Hopefully I can get to those here sooner rather than later.