Thursday, 8 October 2015

America's Guns: A Problem of Political Philosophy not Public Health

It's the political philosophy, stupid.
The proponents of gun control in America are losing the argument and will continue to do so. Their complacency 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. They need to take the political philosophy of the gun rights movement seriously and show that a society without guns is a better society not that it is a safer one.

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; only a particularly exciting one. The idea that forcibly removing guns from citizens would reduce death rates in any appreciable degree is a triumph of moral indignation over statistics. America is not 43rd in the world for life-expectancy because it kills so many people with guns, but, principally, because of the social gradient in health that follows from its shameful levels of socio-economic inequality.

Let's go into this a little more.

We hear a lot about the large number of deaths caused by guns in America, around 33,000 per year. This sounds like a big number. But understanding whether a number is big enough that it should scare you requires considering it in context. 2.6 million Americans die every year [CDC]. Gun deaths represent just over 1% of deaths, much less if you exclude suicides. Many other causes of death seem much more deserving of our worry, and also more likely to yield to government intervention.

This point is reinforced by the difficulty of saving the lives of the people presently killed by guns, which follows from the central role of human intentions in their deaths. For example, the number of Americans who die in traffic accidents is now about the same as those killed by guns, a point which some gun control advocates recently made much of. But these figures are not compatible with gun death statistics and are extremely misleading in relation to the gun control debate because gun deaths are nearly all non-accidental. 

When a government introduces new safety regulations for car manufacturers or drivers - airbags, seatbelts, motor-cycle helmets - it can reasonably believe that every death it removes from the traffic statistics represents a life saved (or at least a death postponed: everyone dies of something in the end of course; surviving into old age is the leading cause of cancer). But a government cannot have the same confidence that a death removed from the gun statistics represents a life saved. There are 11,000 gun murders per year in America [CDC]. Guns are an instrument deliberately employed for the purpose, but there are obviously other instruments, albeit less effective ones. Many murders presently committed with guns would still occur even if all of America's 300 million civilian held weapons magically disappeared. Likewise, suicide. Impulsivity is clearly a major factor in suicide, and guns, like the Golden Gate Bridge, greatly facilitate the transformation of suicidal impulse into death. But at least some proportion of the 22,000 Americans per year who kill themselves with guns [CDC] would presumably find another way to kill themselves if they didn't have a gun. (Also, of course, you don't need the government to save you from killing yourself with a gun: just don't buy one!) 

Mass killings by individual crazies are the very weakest part of the public health argument for gun control. It feels like there are a lot of them – 72 since 1982, according to the database assembled by Mother Jones, a lefty online magazine. Maybe they are even increasing. 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. That extensive TV coverage makes many Americans feel afraid, but a couple of dozens deaths per year are statistically irrelevant to public health. They do not add up to a case for gun control.

Even the overarching assumption that weak gun control laws cause murders is underwhelming. The rollback of gun control laws by judges and Republican politicians began in the 1980s, but the murder rate in America has actually fallen by half since then, back to what it was in 1950 [CDC]. 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 in particular cities like Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore have the murder rates of Central America. The real causes of such violence are ones that America, among rich countries, is particularly bad at addressing, perhaps because the left in America spends most of its time demanding things that have little to do to with social justice.

In conclusion, America's gun control advocates seem 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?

I think the underlying concern of gun control advocates is not risk - the unconvincing claim that guns are a threat to public health - but vulnerability, which they have been much less articulate about. Gun rights make many Americans feel afraid of what other citizens might do and that subjective feeling matters. They worry about arguments over parking spaces turning into gunfights and about racist fools shooting their son for wearing a threatening hoodie. And they worry about maniacs with military style weapons turning up at their children's school, or their church, or their subway car. These citizens believe that they are entitled to freedom from fear, and they want the government to acknowledge and provide this. They want the freedom to live as civilians rather than in a state of militaristic hypervigilance always ready and alert to respond to deadly attack. 

In this light, mass killings matter not because they present a significant public health risk to be analysed like car accidents or cigarettes, but because they are a form of political violence to be analysed like terrorism. Mass killers are nearly always loners lacking the political organisation and agenda of regular terrorists, but they likewise engage in symbolic violence against civic institutions, such as schools, that is particularly terrifying exactly because it is so impersonal: the victims of their violence are merely interchangeable extras in the screenplay they are trying to produce. Mass killings are not interpersonal squabbles but deliberate attacks on the peace itself, and this is something citizens have the right to hold their government responsible for preventing. 

As a European I am drawn to the same civilian view of society. But as a political philosopher I acknowledge that its practical legitimacy depends on whether its advocates 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 the state as a guarantor of security (after the timid absolutism of Hobbes) or 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 lefty 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 seeing, all powerful government. This plays a significant role in American politics too - just look at how Americans from left to right responded to 9/11 by demanding the government do whatever it took 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.   

A citizen not a victim. Source
This is an interesting and even attractive 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. Unlike the 'sheeple' who have reduced themselves to pleading for the government to save them, these citizen heroes willingly take up their share of responsibility to protect themselves and others in society. Such faith in their own powers and abilities spills over into political citizenship. By making citizens feel less dependent on the institutions of the state to guarantee their freedom and security, guns allow them 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. John 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 encouraging its benevolence. His natural rights arguments and assumptions permeate America's founding documents and the logic of the Second Amendment itself.

Delegitimizing the opposition: Source
Gun control advocates cannot win this political debate by mobilising their own supporters with morally indignant readings of the statistics and sidelining the opposition as illegitimate, such as by claiming that supporting gun rights is a symptom of mental illness. 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 a respectable form of liberalism - in fact a Deweyan pragmatic form indigenous to America - and a more effective partner for advancing the freedoms of individuals than America's version of Locke.

It can't be that hard. On the one hand, despite Locke's central place in the theory of America, the actual history of American government doesn't seem to hew very closely to Locke's values and constraints. The American social contract was apparently compatible with the genocides of Native Americans, economic dependence on racial slavery, the suppression of women, mass conscription in wars of choice, moralistic laws against contraception and homosexuality, and so on.  

On the other hand, the goal itself is all wrong. Where every citizen must retain responsibility for upholding the law and judging the use of deadly force, every individual must be a hero (or else a villain), in a pre-political Homeric world in which society is no more than a band of heroes. This is neither attractive nor feasible nor Lockean. A society fit only for heroes is not a fit society to live in, but rather resembles a nostalgic fantasy of movies of the Wild West. 

The second approach is to disentangle guns from the idea of strong citizenship. Handguns, or even those AR-15s 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 produce a feeling of political power but it is based on an illusion. As the civil rights movement demonstrated perhaps most impressively, gun rights are not necessary for heroic citizenship, for taking up your share of responsibility to protect yourself and others from tyrannical lawlessness or legalised tyranny. But the alternative models for heroic citizenship offered by progressive liberals like the #blacklivesmatter activists or classical liberals like Edward Snowden do not inflict the kind of damage to social relations that guns do.

Because besides fostering political assertiveness in defence of classical liberal views of the state, extensive gun ownership also undermines the very society it is supposed to defend. Gun rights introduce a new fear and distance between fellow citizens, whether they choose to arm themselves or not. This is the point where gun control advocates need to do a better job of articulating their sense of vulnerability to guns and why it has political significance. For example because, as the philosopher Firmin DeBrabander argues, an armed society is a polite society not because everyone in it recognises that others deserve respect, but 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.

I share the intuition of many Americans that there is something very wrong with a society in which peace is supposed to be achieved by each individual's fear of every other's capability for deadly force. I understand their appall at the gun rights pundits lining up on mainstream media after every atrocity to sombrely declare that the only solution to bad guys with guns is for good guys with guns to step up and volunteer to guard schools. This is not the kind of society I would want to live in either.

But the problems with this society are not the actuarial risks it imposes on individuals, nor even the defiant take it or leave it attitude towards government associated with the second amendment. Rather it is the relations between citizens that suffer most in an armed society. This is a harm that at least a large proportion of believers in gun rights could be persuaded to take seriously, since it undermines the very integrity and resilience of society, and thus its independence of government, that is central to their political philosophy.

The challenge for gun control advocates is to discipline and focus their moral indignation: they cannot win an ideological argument by appealing to the objectivity of statistics. One cannot prove that America has a disproportionate number of gun deaths without considering the positive value attributed to gun ownership, just as one cannot use the number of traffic deaths to straightforwardly prove that cars should be banned. To win the politics they must win over their opponents or at least weaken their vehemence. That means leaving aside the question of whether or not guns kill 'too many' people and engaging instead with the contradiction between the motives of the political ideology of gun rights and what it actually achieves.

An earlier version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily. An extended version was published in The Critique’s July/August 2016 Issue “No Silver Bullet: Contending With The Complexity Of Gun Violence In The United States”

UPDATE: I accidentally batch-deleted 100 comments, including some very good ones on this essay. I have tried to reconstruct them from my original email notifications here.


  1. Why do you believe political philosophy really underlies behind the scenes and implicitly everyday instinctive reactions to policy debates?
    Do you posit some kind of unconscious

    1. It's not unconscious. Gun rights people talk about it constantly. I can hear them from Europe.

    2. Yes but nobody invokes Hobbes or Locke, do they?

    3. Oh I see what you mean now. Locke isn't often mentioned by name, but appears indirectly by his influence on the Founders and founding documents of America, especially evident in the Declaration of Independence. America was founded in a revolution in the name of English liberties and against English tyranny, and its justification drew heavily from Locke.

  2. Fantastic! I have been engaged in the gun debate for some time on Facebook, Twitter, family and friends. I will put this advice to good use.

  3. Your argument falls apart at the point at which there is a minimal number of deaths attributively to guns. Yes, gun deaths are often exaggerated, and yes, there are things more deadly than guns. But, this is all irrelevant. Your desire to make yourself "feel more like something to be reckoned with" is not more significant than preventing gun deaths. It is simply game theory. Yes, you may be safer with a gun. But, if everyone else gets to have a gun, everyone else is less safe.

    1. I don't think your argument would convince many gun rights advocates. They seem to focus more on taking responsibility for their own safety than actually being safer but feeling like a helpless victim.

    2. Their desire to feel a safe with a gun does not trump the rights of others to feel safe without a gun. Because if the former is applied to everyone, then no one is safe.

    3. >Their desire to feel a safe with a gun does not trump the rights of others to feel safe without a gun.

      Isn't that more or less the conclusion of my essay?

  4. "On the other hand, the goal itself is all wrong. Where every citizen must retain responsibility for upholding the law and judging the use of deadly force, every individual must be a hero (or else a villain), in a pre-political Homeric world in which society is no more than a band of heroes. This is neither attractive nor feasible nor Lockean. A society fit only for heroes is not a fit society to live in, but rather resembles a nostalgic fantasy of movies of the Wild West."

    There is nothing heroic about exercising the right of self defense. It's a common ability of all living creatures. It is foreign to you because you are domesticated livestock and you had your claws and teeth removed at a young age.

    Your position is invalid as all forms of gun control are enforced by humans with guns, and given that the nation-state has a well documented history of being the greatest mass murderer, it's quite foolish.

    " Rather it is the relations between citizens that suffer most in an armed society. "

    That has not been my experience.
    People are much nicer in gun country.

  5. Thank you for the article.

    I struggle with the gun control debate as a professional Soldier due to the moral responsibility assumed by the government for the death or injuries of citizens who would have chosen to carry a weapon but denied by the state.

    In the case of a criminal use of a firearm it is the fault of the individual. this is based on the assumption that gun control is an action by the state juxtaposed with our current gun friendly environment which is simply a lack of government action.

    The state, a faceless and abstract construct which cannot face significant consequences becomes complicit in these events through direct interference.

    Gun control would save many lives. The difference is that through permissible gun laws the State is like a billionaire who chooses not to foot the bill to send TB medication to Africa. He is simply choosing not to save lives.

    Imposing gun control is more like the death penalty, with the exceptions that the victims committed no crime and are not offered protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

  6. Like Brad Keselowski this week, you've gone straight into the wall at turn one.

    I think the real leaders of the gun-control movement know perfectly well what the philosophical issue is. Hillary Clinton isn’t that much of a fool.

    But the political battle won’t be judged by academics awarding points to the side that understands the issue best. It’s being judged and voted on by the public, and the public can be manipulated to fear the widespread availability of guns.

    Gun rights only began winning the public debate over gun control when the discussion began to address the question of how many people get killed by gun control. Because the people can ALSO be manipulated to see themselves as endangered by a LACK of guns.

    You're simply making the classic 1980 argument for gun rights. I recognize it because I was making it myself, back then. I didn’t know any better; I had accepted that Mo Guns = Mo Deaths. But then there were the studies by Kates and Lott and Kleck, and that all changed.

    It’s good to have the facts AND the philosophy on the same side, of course, but the notion of using philosophical arguments on the general public has been so thoroughly discredited that I hate to see anyone wasting electrons on it.

    1. I would like to reply, but I don't understand your point or how it relates to my essay. Care to try again?


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