An Argument for Gun Control (Part II): Self-Defense

Opponents of gun control often argue that gun ownership is a right that follows from the right of self-defense. In this article I argue that this argument is logically tenuous. After this I examine effective self-defense and argue that while gun ownership can contribute to effective self-defense, gun ownership is not central to nor does it alone prepare one for effective self-defense. All told, guns and self-defense just aren’t as linked as some people would like to argue.

It’s hard if not impossible to argue against the right of self-defense. Few things are as fundamental as preservation of the self. Nonetheless, as with all rights, the right of self-defense also has its limits. To give just one example, imagine a would-be victim shooting an assailant with a shotgun and in the process killing two other uninvolved bystanders. This reckless act would violate others’ right to life. Without delving deeply into the details of this hypothetical situation, the example does show that there must be some limits to the right of self-defense, and these limits are related in part to the harm caused to people other than the assailant.

Relating this to gun control, we have an axiom that says, roughly, “There exists a right to self-defense. This right is limited to not causing undue harm to people other than the assailant.” Following from this is a proposition that says “If owning guns for self-defense causes undue harm to people other than the assailant, then owning guns for self-defense should be limited.” What is not allowed, logically speaking, is to argue from the right of self-defense directly to the ownership of guns. That just begs the question of whether guns are safe enough in the first place. In other words, we can talk theory until we’re blue in the face, but that just doesn’t suffice. As the cliché says, the devil is in the details.

The details depend in large part on the numbers: crime rates, firearm death rates, and use of firearms for self-defense. While these are of vital importance to the issue, I’ll postpone that until my next post to limit the size of this article. In this post I explore general considerations of interest to the issue.

Guns and crime: A common argument holds that more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens will curtail criminal activity [1]; the potential consequences to the criminal from armed defense will outweigh the benefits of the crime. This is certainly sensible, but there is another equally sensible argument. If the social drivers of crime remain unchanged, this would mean unchanged crime rates. If the would-be victims are now more heavily armed, this will only lead to more aggressive and heavily armed assailants and a vicious cycle of increasing weaponization, suspicion, and aggression. What actually happens is an empirical question and to my knowledge there is no basis for predicting one way or the other. Until we find data and statistics, these thought games are no argument one way or another. (What is certain is that many people will be unwilling to give up their guns. They may only be willing if they are certain that nobody else has any. In this country, that is unlikely to happen, making a total gun ban practically impossible.)

Effective Self-Defense: A second concern is with the unsophisticated view of self-defense that many people hold. Let’s be clear: owning a gun does not constitute self-defense. Using a gun effectively is a skill that requires hard work, practice, and discipline (this is part of the reason I don’t own a gun – I don’t have the time and energy to be responsible about it). To quote Sam Harris [2]:

…unlike my friends, I own several guns and train with them regularly. Every month or two, I spend a full day shooting with a highly qualified instructor. This is an expensive and time-consuming habit, but I view it as part of my responsibility as a gun owner.

Gun use requires real skill (especially in life-and-death situations in confined quarters). Additionally, guns are not central to self-defense. Instead, to quote Sam Harris again [3]:

This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.

Owning a gun, if one has the skill and wherewithal to use it properly, may indeed be part of effective self-defence. However, using self-defense just as a rhetorical excuse for gun ownership is dishonest and reckless. I suspect that a more sensible approach to the issue of self-defense is not further liberalization of gun laws, rather tightened controls on lethal weapons combined with liberalization of self-defense weapons such as mace, pepper spray, and stun guns. Whether or not this is a good suggestions, the main argument is that most people are not experts in self-defense. Owning a gun will not suddenly make somebody an expert; it will just make them more reckless.

In conclusion, self-defense and guns aren’t all that closely linked, either logically or practically. Stricter gun regulations are not in conflict with the right of self-defense. Stricter gun regulations can confine the guns to those who can show the good judgement and skill to use a gun in self-defense without being reckless.

Next post: The numbers on crime and self-defense, and after that, guns and the tyrannical government.


[1] This division into law-abiding and criminal is problematic. It simplifies a complex reality into two broad categories: the good guys and the bad guys. This is highly subjective and ignores that due to circumstances all of us could suddenly find ourselves in the “criminal” category. In a heated argument between two neighbors, they will each think of the other as the bad guy. Of course, if somebody is entering your house wanting to kill you, the distinction is clear, but in many cases it isn’t. On top of all this, the categorization tends to hide any social drivers behind actions. Still, the terms are convenient and common, so I use them.
[2] http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-riddle-of-the-gun
[3] http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-truth-about-violence.  These two articles are both well argued, level-headed, factual, and bound to challenge anybody’s unexamined assumptions. If you haven’t read them yet, I recommend them.

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11 Responses to An Argument for Gun Control (Part II): Self-Defense

  1. danielmullin81 says:

    You’re quite right: owning a gun will not make one an automatic expert in self-defense. I don’t think anybody who sees gun ownership as *part* of a comprehensive self-defense strategy should argue in such a way. Since you’ve already read two articles by Harris (who I think is excellent on this subject) may I suggest a third? http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/faq-on-violence. Some of what he says (especially question 3) has a bearing on your argument.

  2. I’ll give that article another looksee. One non-lethal self-defense weapons, I admit that I was just throwing an idea out. I haven’t examined it closely. The article you link seems to suggest that such an approach may not be effective. I’m willing to let that go – it’s not central to the claim that controls on gun ownership are not in conflict with the right to self-defense.

  3. Duke says:

    I’m not sure I follow your reasoning. You claim the right to self defense only applies if it does not cause undue harm to others. That most certainly isn’t true. Police often injure bystanders while defending themselves or others. Military actions can cause great harm to children and innocents. These unfortunate events are considered accidents. Police or security guards never get charged with a crime while trying to defend themselves. Using a gun negligently is a crime but certainly not all accidents are negligent. You should consider revising your statement. Besides, what are the alternatives? Are people supposed to instantly assess possible dangers and then allow themselves to be killed if there’s the slightest risk to others? Don’t you feel this might be unrealistic given the police certainly don’t follow it.

    You make the claim that owning a gun as an excuse for self defense is dishonest and reckless. You give examples of non-gun self defense as alternatives. Exactly which of those alternatives will keep you from being shot or stabbed to death? You can’t outrun a bullet nor stop a knife. Every option you gave would most certainly get you killed. In other words, there are no alternate means of self defense in many life-or-death situations. Why do you think police carry guns? Why is Obama surrounded by them? Why to the wealthy have armed security with their children? They do it because guns bring safety. Your statement about how only “experts” can safely use a gun is also unsupported. Have you ever shot a gun? I assume you realize it only requires pointing and pulling a trigger. Personal assaults happen at a distance of a few feet. It does not take a sharpshooter to hit someone at that range. It’s hard to miss. The longest distance anyone would need to shoot is 10 or 12 feet. Gun owners must be educated in weapon safety but no one needs sniper training. Education necessary for self defense (especially in the home) can be gained by nearly anyone. Saying it’s dishonest to have viable self defense is rather extreme and untrue.

    Your post basically says the pubic is too reckless and dangerous to be trusted with guns unless they are “experts” (which number very few). The rest should be rendered defenseless (and maybe killed by criminals) rather than take the chance they might hurt you. Given there are over 200 million guns in this country and virtually all crime is committed by criminals, drug gangs, and the mentally ill, I do not have a clue how you arrived at that conclusion. The average gun owner seems to do extremely well controlling the weapon.

    • I’m grateful to have readers like you who take the time to post thoughtful comments. Even though in the rest of this reply I am arguing against you, I am thankful you took the time to post. I apologize for the delay responding. I’ve been quite ill the last few days. I suppose I should clarify a few things. I doubt we’ll reach a point of agreement, but I can at least make clear what I am trying to say. I’ll take your comments in order.

      I agree with you that in any act of self defense there could be an accident. I agree as well that not all accidents are negligent. The point of my example was to show that there do exist *some* cases where the response is ethically disproportionate to the danger. To give one more example, imagine if in the recent Clackamas mall shooting, a patron had drawn an Uzi and sprayed several clips in the general direction of the shooter. I think we can all agree that this doesn’t count as self-defense. The right of self-defense is *not* absolute.

      Regarding your comment about police and military, I agree that they do not (usually) get charged for crimes for hurting others. This is in part because they are well trained, follow protocol, and are subject to internal review after each action. This is far more stringent than the burden placed on civilians and I don’t think the two situations compare well. (I also believe that a significant number of war “accidents” should be prosecuted as war crimes; this, however is another topic for another day.)

      I accept that I made the remark on non-lethal alternatives for self-defense without deep thought. I’m willing to let that one go. It doesn’t affect the rest of the argument.

      Yes, I have shot guns (listed in the article previous to this one). I’m a mediocre shot, but I suppose I can hit a target at point blank… with my eyes closed. What I haven’t done is shot in confined space (like a house), with poor lighting, at a person, in a stressful, life-and-death situation. I expect that I would mess that up royally. Have you shot under those conditions? If you haven’t, do you really believe you are well prepared to do so? Go play paintball or airsoft. Do you make it through the day without getting shot? This is where the stuff about experts comes into play. What I mean by expert is simply somebody who has rehearsed the necessary skills enough to act instinctively in a specified situation. I believe that any ordinary citizen, with enough work, can attain enough expertise to use a gun for self defense.

      Lastly, about the overall conclusion of the post: you are simply mis-reading it. The point I am trying to drive home is that if your true interest is effective self-defense, there are a number of considerations that are much more important than owning a gun. A gun *can* form part of the whole self-defense portfolio, but it’s not primary. Buying a gun willy-nilly doesn’t enhance significantly your ability to defend yourself. In terms of the greater argument on gun control (or gun rights), self-defense doesn’t have much to say. The regulations on gun ownership could be way stricter than they already are and they still wouldn’t infringe on the right of self -defense.

      • Duke says:

        I appreciate your reply and I’m sorry to hear you’ve been sick. I hope it wasn’t this flu bug that’s been devastating the land.

        Gun control is a highly emotional subject. We must be careful to separate the facts from the emotion or no progress can be made on either front. We all have opinions but they don’t make reality. It’s here most people run into trouble.

        In your example of the mall shooting, you say reckless use of a gun would be wrong. That’s true, but It doesn’t matter if you use a Uzi or a pistol. No one should be spraying the mall with gunfire. It also applies to police. You’re simply making the assumption a patron would be negligent but the police wouldn’t. The problem with that argument is there are no facts to back it up. The number of accidental police shootings are magnitudes greater than by an average person. Your chances of being accidentally shot by police are very high indeed compared to almost anyone else in society. If you plan to take away the public’s right to defend themselves because of accidental fire, the police should also be included. There is no factual basis to allow them the ability to defend themselves while denying it to others. Do you plan to do that?

        I might be misinterpreting your point on paintball and the enclosed room but you seem to be saying inexperienced shooters couldn’t defend themselves without mishaps. Can you name anyone who can get through a paintball session without being shot? Even professionals get hit. Fortunately, paintball has nothing to do with self defense. I’ve attended self defense classes and they teach the situations you must deal with. It involves sitting at home when a door is kicked in or thugs rush into the garage behind you. You might be driving when a carjacker jumps in the next seat or maybe a parking lot and someone grabs you from behind. In all cases you are being physically attacked from a few feet away. Here is your situation – you have at most 5 seconds to defend yourself. You cannot call the police and you cannot run. If people could run away the murder rate would be near zero.

        Those are the legitimate self defense situations taught in class. They are taught because they are the most common. No one tells you to have a wild west shootout across the mall while diving behind tables like a Hollywood movie. Indeed, that never happens. When was the last time you heard of anyone doing such a thing? Self defense is up-close and you have no options. It is also very often successful. At least 2 major studies have said there are 1.5 million successful cases of self defense in the U.S. each year. There are less than 100 people involved with mass murders each year, as in Sandy Hook. The facts clearly say the benefits of self defense outweigh the negatives. To say otherwise will demand some serious proof that doesn’t seem to exist.

        You say buying a gun willy-nilly doesn’t enhance your ability to defend yourself. On what facts do you make that statement? All the data I’ve seen totally contradicts it. Based on the numbers, guns save thousands of lives. It’s true a gun does not guarantee safety but no one ever said it did. Self defense can fail with or without a gun. The question is – does allowing an armed public do more harm than good? Based on FBI crime statistics and the department of justice numbers, the answer is no. Allowing the ability for the public to defend themselves is an overall good policy.

        A successful gun control argument is hard to build because there are no facts to back it up. They use emotional appeals like the Sandy Hook tragedy without understanding only 100 people a year are involved out of a population of 320 million. The chances of being killed by maniac is 0.000000…..on to nearly infinity. Even our overall homicide rate is only 4.8 per 100,000 people. That works out to 0.0048%, or less than being killed by a hammer. Now consider most experts say half the homicides are drug gang related and the chances drop even lower. People have a hugely exaggerated idea of the threats from maniacs or their neighbors. Virtually all shootings are the result of crime and if you take away the public’s ability to defend themselves against it, the result is more suffering.

        • Again, my apologies for the delay. This time I have only a day job and poor time management to blame.

          I should clarify that when I use the phrase “gun control”, I don’t mean a complete and absolute gun ban. This is simply unrealistic in the US. What I mean is that we need to tighten the regulations surrounding gun ownership.

          I agree that police can go over the top with violence (as the recent episode with Christopher Dorner showed us). I was just making a logical argument that there are *some* limits to self-defense. That’s all. Read nothing more into that example.

          You seem to be a responsible person regarding self-defense. That’s good. If you’ve trained to react well in those situations, then a firearm may help you significantly. Do you accept that a firarm will be more useful for you than to somebody who hasn’t had your training? My point is simply that self-defense is a whole package – it involves training, the proper mindset, and, yes, perhaps a firearm. I don’t think the first step in self-defense is gun ownership. As such, I don’t think that self-defense makes a good argument for lightly regulated gun ownership. You can still tighten ownership regulations significantly while preserving the right to own weapons for self-defense.

          I keep promising to talk about the numbers and I do intend on doing that soon in another article. Yes, you cite evidence that says that gun ownership reduces crime. There is also evidence that suggests that those numbers are grossly overinflated. You suggest that we need to be careful about analyzing this issue. I agree and I’d like to press you back on this issue. Let’s see where *all* the numbers lead us without cherry picking the data that reinforce our preconceived conclusions.

          Lastly, I agree that the numbers don’t provide a compelling argument for gun control. I wrote about that previously (https://weeklybraindump.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/how-not-to-argue-for-gun-control/). Utilitarian ethics are not, however, the only or best way to analyze issues – although they should certainly provide a rational point of reference.

          • Duke says:

            When you say we need to tighten the regulations surrounding gun ownership, I assume you mean expanding the ban on who can own them. We already have laws preventing ownership by criminals and the mentally ill. No one can own automatic weapons or a gun over 50 cal. No one can purchase explosive devices such as dynamite or the materials to make explosives. In general, you cannot buy military hardware such as miniguns used on aircraft nor other devices like missiles, rockets, and bombs. Machine guns have been outlawed from the general public since prohibition. It is illegal to own a fully automatic weapon unless you have a Class 3 permit and those are extremely expensive. They are also approved by the FBI, take up to a year to obtain, and will only be granted for specific guns of interest to collectors. No one can simply walk into a gun store and buy a automatic military weapon and haven’t been able for 60 years.

            The laws regulating who can own a particular gun will fill a book. Factor in State laws and it becomes even more restrictive until you get to NY where it’s virtually impossible to own a gun at all.

            So, the first question to answer is – will more laws make any difference? They certainly haven’t helped NY or Chicago become safe havens. It’s hard to explain how cities with the most restrictive gun laws also have the highest crime rates. People concoct lots of excuses but the fact remains they are full of crime. If the laws help, it’s not apparent, nor can it be said they do much. There is no convincing answer for it, either.

            If public ownership of guns is an overall bad policy, then removing guns should drastically reduce violent crime. I’m not aware of any legitimate study showing this to be true. I’ll refer you to a previous link I provided:
            http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/1440764.stm

            The BBC is hardly a radical right wing organization, yet the study they mention claims gun crime went up 40% after guns were confiscated. The US is generally ranked below Britain in terms of overall violent crime. The argument for gun control becomes weak when you look at real data.

            I don’t know specifically what laws you wish to implement concerning gun ownership but (as you can see) the track record isn’t very good. Criminals simply ignore the laws while honest people become unable to defend themselves. The result is increased crime.

            But adding more restrictions to gun ownership also has a legal barrier. The recent Supreme Court ruling declared the public has a Constitutional right to firearms. It went on to say certain limits could be placed on them such as criminal ownership, but they did not say the government could simply ban guns from law abiding citizens. If you consider some people “too untrained” to own a gun, you are taking away Constitutional rights when they haven’t done anything wrong or broken a law.

            You are basically saying some people can be deemed “dangerous” when they’ve done nothing and then use that excuse to take away their rights. Where else do we do this? The government doesn’t take away your driver’s license without a reason. They don’t target people as “dangerous” drivers unless they’ve broken laws or had massive accidents. Cars kill more than guns yet no one proposes we start targeting innocent drivers as dangerous before they’ve done something wrong.

            I don’t know what laws you propose but they appear to be limiting gun ownership to “experts”. Who knows what expert means but it would more or less boil down to police and the military. The government can define the term to be anything they please so it would quickly reach that point and it seems it is your intention too. As we’ve seen, massively disarming the public would only increase violent crime, so it’s a bad idea. Denying Constitutional Rights to innocent people is also wrong.

            As for me, I do not carry a gun. I do not own a carry permit nor do I want one. I am not a member of the NRA or any other gun rights organization. I am well trained in firearms but do not hunt or otherwise use a gun. I am not a Republican, right wing, or Tea Party member. I am just someone who’s looked over the FBI and Justice Department crime numbers to see there is no compelling argument for gun control. I examine the propaganda put out by the Brady Group and other gun grabbers to find an appalling lack of truth. I am tired of lies these people spread and I’m tired of the constant attacks on our Constitution. Please understand, I’m NOT lumping you in that horrid mix. You seem to be honestly concerned with reducing violence and that’s to be applauded. I’m just pointing out gun control would make things worse. I have no ax to grind. I’m stating facts as I found them.

            • I feel that you are reading *much* more into what I am saying than what I intend to say. This may be in part due to the title. Perhaps I should call it “musings on gun violence and gun laws”. I haven’t reached any conclusions yet (in fact, I’ve argued myself out of some). Because of this, many of your criticisms are a bit premature. You’re arguing against claims I haven’t yet made.

              I’m aware of the British experience, but we must be careful not to make it a universal conclusion. The Japanese expereience with gun bans is highly positive. Much of it is cultural, and I concede that in the US, a gun ban would likely follow the British experience.

              This particular article is talking only about self defense. The ultimate conclusion, and one I still stand by, is that the right to self-defense (by itself) doesn’t make a strong case for the right to gun ownership. There are other considerations – for example, you mention constitutionality. These topics are important and must be considered, but they’re outside the scope of this article.

              Regarding what controls (other than bans) may be helpful, I propose that gun licenses should be more stringent than a driver’s license. Guns are, after all, tools designed to kill, so I would like to see at least as much control of them as there is control of who drives. I might suggest regular re-licensing, including a skills test and a psychological screening. I would also like to see regular re-registration of guns to make sure that the weapons are in the hands of those licensed to use them. I would not be opposed to creating an independent organization to conduct the screenings. This independent organization could also be in charge of screening law enforcement officials regularly.

              I appreciate your interest and I appreciate being taken to task about my claims. I would like to close this discussion for now. I intend to write one more article on self-defense (looking at the numbers), then one on the idea of an armed populace being a conterweight to a tyrranical government, and finally a short piece condensing and summarizing the previous articles and reader comments. I hope you can comment on those and perhaps, offer an article of your own.

              • Duke says:

                I have written at length on gun control in my blog and other internet sites. I’ve provided the various FBI and Justice department reports along with charts and graphs. I’ve also analyzed a few studies from the various gun control organizations. I didn’t reference anything I’ve done because this is your blog and I did not want to hijack it with links somewhere else. Your blog isn’t about me and should belong to you.

                Please understand it was never my intention to take you to task. I personally feel discussions are welcome but it was never my intention to be rude in any way. If anything I said seemed otherwise, I apologize.

                I think we should all share information we’ve uncovered. The internet is a great way to access vast amounts of data and tap the expertise of others. Since gun control is an area I’ve researched many years, I wanted to share what I discovered. I’m sorry if it didn’t come across that way.

                So, I’ll leave you in peace and wish you well. I appreciate your time answering my comments. It was great discussing the topic with you. All the best to you.

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