Amidst so many mass shootings, like the recent massacre in Parkland Florida, the gun control debate has begun to steer much of our political discourse. Unfortunately, opponents in this debate end up talking past each other due to the vague meaning of gun control. So, it’s crucial to define the kind of gun regulations most gun control advocates favor. I think once we clarify this kind of gun control, many supporters of gun rights will probably get on board. For those that don’t, I’m going to show why the most popular arguments against moderate gun control fail.
I’ll start by noting that any reasonable person favors some gun control. For example, most would agree that children ought to be prohibited from purchasing hand guns. Most would also agree that people afflicted with severe mental illnesses should also be prohibited from purchasing guns as well as people with a violent criminal record. So, we can all agree that our right to bear arms ought to be constrained to some degree. This means that it’s reasonable to favor some degree of gun control. The crucial question is how much gun control ought to be implemented.
I’m going to argue that that moderate gun control ought to be implemented by showing that arguments against moderate gun control are weak. I’ll focus on a ban on assault weapons. Portions of my argument draw from David DeGrazia’s paper, “The Case for Moderate Gun Control.”
To ensure we’re on the same page, I’ll define moderate gun control as consisting in the following policies:
- Universal background checks
- A ban on assault weapons
- Passing a rigorous safety course to own guns
- Required safe storage requirements and safety features on guns
- A national database of all gun owners
Some of these policies would need some clarification for a more nuanced debate. For example, it’s not clear what would count as an assault weapon, how rigorous a safety course would be, or what would bar someone from purchasing a gun given their background check. In any case, the details needn’t concern us here since there is no federal law requiring these policies in the U.S. I’ll address the arguments against moderate gun control in order of what seems to be popular.
Here’ one of the most popular arguments against moderate gun control: even if the government puts restrictions on gun ownership, the bad guys will still get guns if they want to; so, there’s no reason to put any restrictions on gun ownership. I see this reasoning frequently: If someone wants to do a mass shooting, they’ll find a way to get a gun to carry it out, even if assault weapons were prohibited. But this is a poor argument. It implies that restrictions on any activity for the sake of preventing massive harm is unjustifiable, because some people will be able to evade these restrictions if they’re damned determined. By the same line of reasoning, the government shouldn’t restrict our freedom to buy anthrax or nuclear weapons. The problem with this argument is that just because someone could obtain something that would create massive harm if they were determined, doesn’t mean it should be prohibited.
Another popular argument claims that moderate gun control infringes on our right to own guns as established by the second amendment: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The Supreme Court has established that the second amendment grants us a right to own guns. However, just because we have a right to something doesn’t mean this right ought to be unconstrained. For example, the first Amendment grants us the right to free speech, but there are reasonable constrains on this right. A right to free speech doesn’t warrant slander or yelling “fire!” in a crowded movie theatre. A right to free movement doesn’t warrant loitering on private property. Similarly, having a right to bear arms doesn’t entail that this right should have no constraints. So, moderate gun control is consistent with having a right to own guns.
Here’s a further argument against moderate gun control: Many Americans want a right to high powered assault weapons to protect themselves for when a catastrophe occurs and the state is no longer able to protect them. I think post-apocalyptic fantasies galvanized by entertainment media and our subconscious desire to escape our mundane lives is the culprit behind this reasoning. In any case, this argument is misguided. If we have a right to things we need to survive an apocalypse, then we have a right to land, food, water, shelter, and medicine. Perhaps we do have such rights. But if we do, then a socialist state is warranted. This is something most gun rights advocates are opposed to. If fear of the apocalypse is what’s driving American’s craving for guns, then maybe we should address that fear. I’m not sure how to do that, but perhaps growing trust in the powers that be is a start. That means cultivating democracy.
Another argument against moderate gun control claims that enacting moderate gun control would undermine our freedom to recreate as we want. Militia organizations in the United States, for example, adopt a lifestyle of training with high powered assault weapons, which would be banned under moderate gun control. Many would argue that they have a right to adopt this lifestyle, which requires owning and training with such weapons. Many other gun owners also enjoy recreational activities using high powered assault weapons. So, some opponents to moderate gun control argue that banning high powered assault weapons would undermine citizens’ rights to recreate or adopt a lifestyle that depends on owning these kinds of weapons.
The freedom to live as we please is a cornerstone of democracy. However, the government is justified in constraining this right when it poses a significant threat to the public. For example, recreational activities that involve bomb making ought to be constrained by the state since this would pose a significant threat to the public. Similarly, this kind of constraint is warranted regarding recreational activities that involve owning weapons such as assault rifles. The presence of these kinds of weapons in the public — along with bombs or hazardous chemicals — poses a significant threat and so the right to own them ought to be regulated. Like bombs or hazardous chemicals, high powered assault weapons could easily kill masses of people if obtained by someone with malicious intent. This is something Americans are all too familiar with.
Another argument claims that enacting moderate gun control would place us on a slippery slope toward a ban on all gun ownership, which would be a flagrant violation of our second amendment right. This argument is weak for at least two reasons: first, two landmark Supreme Court cases — McDonald v. City of Chicago and District of Columbia v. Heller — established that citizens have a right to bear firearms. These cases set a strong legal precedent that protects citizens’ right to own guns, which makes it unlikely that enacting more rules on gun ownership would inevitably lead to a complete ban on gun possession. Second, many other countries like Germany and England have enacted gun regulations that go beyond moderate control and these countries have no plans on banning guns. If countries with very strict gun control regulations are not on a path to banning gun ownership, then it’s highly unlikely that moderate gun control in the United States would likely lead down the path to a complete gun ban. The high importance Americans place on the right to bear arms lends credence to this. It’s worth noting here that even if there was no right to bear arms, this would not entail a ban on guns.
Another argument against moderate gun control claims that we have a right to self-defense and moderate gun regulations would undermine this right, since owing guns is a means to defending ourselves. One problem with this argument is that moderate gun regulations would still allow people to possess guns for the sake of self-defense. Citizens would simply have to go through a few more hoops to own a gun. With moderate gun control, citizens would still be able to own a gun for the sake of self-defense. Another problem with this argument is that a gun is neither the only, nor best means to defense. In most situations where one must defend herself against assault a Taser or pepper spray is just, if not more effective than a gun.
Many argue that a gun is necessary to thwart a mass shooter. This may or may not be the case depending on the situation. But even if it is, moderate gun control allows people to own guns. So, claiming that a gun would be necessary to defend a crowd against a mass shooter isn’t an argument against moderate gun control.
If moderate gun control prohibits carrying guns in public institutions, then this argument against moderate gun control may carry more weight. Many gun rights advocates argue, for example, that teachers ought to carry firearms to defend against and deter mass shooters. There is a lot to be said to address this claim, but I’ll just point this out: if it comes to a point where teachers feel the need to carry guns to deter or defend students against mass shooters, then surely something horrible has gone wrong in our society. And what has gone wrong is a complete failure to regulate gun ownership.
Another argument is that moderate gun control would undermine our right to defend ourselves against a coup d’etat. I hear this argument frequently among gun rights advocates: if moderate gun control is enacted, then we will not be able to defend ourselves when the government attempts to remove our constitutional rights. There are at least two reasons why this argument against moderate gun control is weak. First, it’s highly unlikely that a coup d’etat will occur in the United States given our historical track record and our political system of checks and balances. Second, if a coup d’etat occurs, citizens owning high powered assault weapons will serve as little defense against the weapons of the state. Cultivating democracy and citizen engagement is the best weapon against abuses by the government.
Gun violence is a major problem in America. It’s reprehensible that our government has done little to address this since the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012, which left 20 children dead. A civilized country doesn’t have to live in fear of its own citizens. Moderate gun control would be a big step forward.