Guns in America are a matter of political philosophy not public health

by Thomas R. Wells

Gun-rights-unarmed-citizen-is-merely-a-subjectThe proponents of gun control in America are losing the argument and will continue to do so. Their complacency, typical of the left, 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.

I. The Public Health Argument Doesn't Work

Guns are indeed an excellent killing technology. They are really very good at transforming an intention to kill into its achievement. However, that doesn't mean that they are a particularly significant cause of death and it is rather ridiculous to imply that removing guns from citizens would change death rates much. America is not 42nd in the world for life-expectancy because of guns, but because of much more significant effects like the social gradient in health.

Let's go into this a little more.

We hear a lot about the large number of deaths caused by guns in America – now up to 33,000 per year. This seems like a big number. It is nearly as big as the rate of death from car accidents (another area in which America is an international outlier, by the way). But 2/3 of gun deaths are suicides. Most of those deaths would still occur if people didn't have access to guns. Many murders committed with guns would also go ahead without them, albeit with a smaller chance of success.

Mass killings by individual loonies get far more attention than they deserve. It feels like there are a lot of them, and perhaps they are even increasing – 133 between 2000 and 2014. But in a country with 320 million people and poor funding of mental health services there are always going to be murderous loonies making the national news somewhere. These atrocities make for wonderful news stories, full of pathos and inspiring great moral indignation. But they are statistically irrelevant to Americans' public health. They are not an argument for gun control.

The overarching assumption that murders are caused by weak gun control laws is weak. The decline of gun control began in the 1980s, but the murder rate in America has actually fallen by half since then (back to what it was in 1950). The reason is that rates of violence have a lot more to do with social conditions and inequality than with particular technologies. Most of America is nearly as safe as Western Europe, but some areas of concentrated hopelessness have the murder rates of Central America. The real causes of violence are something America is particularly bad at addressing, among rich countries, perhaps because the left in America spends most of its time campaigning for things that have little to do to with social justice.

In conclusion, the left seems to be confusing the subjective feeling of vulnerability to violence that people living in a society with extensive gun ownership feel with the objective statistical facts of risk. This is one reason why their official arguments are so unconvincing. The other is that they have brought a statistical significance result to a political philosophy fight.

II. Locke or Hobbes?

The real concern of gun control advocates is not risk, but vulnerability. Gun rights make many Americans feel afraid of what other citizens might do. They worry about maniacs with high-powered large-magazine weapons turning up at their children's school, or at their church, or on their subway car, or breaking into their homes. They argue that they are entitled to freedom from fear, and they demand that the state acknowledge and provide this. They want the freedom to live as civilians rather than in a state of militaristic hypervigilance (‘condition yellow'). As a European I feel much the same way. But as a political philosopher I acknowledge that the practical legitimacy of their claim depends on whether they can bring the rest of America to accept it.

There is a reason most gun control advocates are on what passes for the left in American politics, and why they are often mocked as ‘European'. This is fundamentally a dispute about how citizens should relate to the state, and especially a dispute between those who see the state as a guarantor of security (after the timid absolutism of Hobbes) and those who see it as a guarantor of liberty (after the rebellious Locke).

This brings me to what guns do for people. Of course they do various things. They are beautifully made objects that also, as the liberal gun-lover, Dan Baum, puts it, like sky-diving give off “a little contact high from the Grim Reaper”. But they also make people feel more powerful and thus, indirectly, more in possession of their political rights as citizens: less willing to put up with being over-managed and under-respected by the state.

Dan Baum again.

Going armed has connected me with an entire range of values I didn't use to think much about—self-reliance, vigilance, muscular citizenship—and some impulses I'd rather avoid, like social pessimism and irrational fear. It has militarized my life; all that locking and loading and watching over my shoulder makes me feel like a bit player in the perpetual global war in which we find ourselves. There's no denying that carrying a gun has made my days a lot more dramatic. Suddenly, I'm dangerous. I'm an action figure. I bear a lethal secret into every social encounter.

The gun rights movement seems to me to reflect a ‘heroic' vision of citizenship, and hence of society, that taps into an enduring strain of rugged individualism in America's political psychology. Most Western polities are characterised by an overwhelming emotional and institutional dependence on a beneficent, all controlling government. This plays a significant role in American politics too – just look at how Americans responded to 9/11 by demanding the government do whatever it take to make them feel safe again. However, America also has a long Lockean tradition which emphasises the enduring independence of the individuals who make up a political society. This political philosophy has been resurgent on the right since the Reagan revolution.

In this vision, government is seen as a convenience not a necessity, an institution that should depend on society rather than the other way around. Government makes some social goals more achievable, but otherwise it should get out of the way so that people can get on with their own business. Even limited to its proper domain, faith in government is distinctly limited. Government is analysed as any other vested interest, an institution that can be dangerous as well as useful to society. The wide distribution of power throughout American society, including the power of violence conferred by civilian gun ownership, may be socially inefficient, but it is supposed to reduce such dangers. If guns are sometimes used against society that may be a price worth paying to maintain a free society.

This is an interesting and far from unattractive political philosophy. For example, America's social contract does not depend on the government in the same way that Europe's do. If their government were to collapse, go wrong, or to be toppled by invasion, I think Americans would be temperamentally far better prepared to get on with things than Europeans.

Guns may be irrelevant to actually preventing government tyranny, but having in your pocket a device capable of a miniature whirlwind of mayhem does make people feel more like something to be reckoned with. It thus indirectly supports a muscular conception of an independent citizenry. By making people feel less dependent on the institutions of the state to guarantee their freedom and security, guns allow people to believe that they are in a position to bargain with the state rather than to submit, like frightened sheep, to its authority to decide what is best for them.

III. How to Argue for Gun Control

Those advocating gun control need to recognise that the gun rights movement has become entwined with a philosophical view about the soul of America. This presents a greater challenge than they have tended to acknowledge. Locke's political philosophy is part of America's DNA. America was founded upon a Lockean view of the social contract, a device for securing and extending the liberties of citizens rather than advancing aggregate social welfare (or social justice); for resisting tyrannical government rather than appealing to its benevolence. His natural rights arguments and presumptions permeate America's founding documents and the logic of the Second Amendment itself.

Hey you with the gunsGun control advocates cannot win this political debate by trying to mobilise their own supporters with moral indignation and sideline the opposition, such as by claiming that supporting gun rights is a symptom of mental illness and hence illegitimate. This is not a fringe movement that can be shouted down or voted down, but a constituency that must be substantially won over for a political shift of this magnitude. Gun rights activists talk constantly about their political philosophy. Persuading them means taking their ideas seriously and convincing them of the value of gun control in their own terms.

I see two (complementary) paths for achieving this.

The first is for gun control advocates to engage directly with the political philosophy debate, which they haven't really done up to now. They should articulate and defend their own vision of political society and citizenship, which at present seems rather woolly. They should explain why the progressive state is not a Hobbesian tyranny but properly liberal and a better defender of universal rights and justice than America's version of Locke.

It can't be that hard. On the one hand the historical record of America isn't so very Lockean in its values and constraints – its social contract was compatible with the genocides of Native Americans, economic dependence on racial slavery, mass conscription in unnecessary wars, moralistic laws against contraception and homosexuality, and so on. On the other hand, the goal itself is all wrong. Where every individual must retain responsibility for upholding the law and judging the use of deadly force, every individual must be a hero (or else a villain). This is neither attractive nor feasible. A society fit only for heroes is not a fit society to live in, but rather resembles a nostalgic fantasy version of the Wild West.

The second approach is to disentangle guns from the idea of strong citizenship. Handguns, or even those AR-15 assault rifles that are so popular, are not going to stop the US army from crushing you if that's what it has a mind to do. Gun rights are therefore mainly about individuals' feeling of power and hence political assertiveness. But they have other effects too, as analysed by philosopher Firmin DeBrabander. An armed society, he argues, is a polite society only because everyone is afraid to say or do anything that might be considered threatening.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite.