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 ; 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 :
…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 :
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.
 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.
 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.