America's decades long national argument about guns is not a normal political debate about addressing policy to problems, but about what kind of politics to have. It is fundamentally about how citizens should relate to each other and the state, and that makes it a matter of political philosophy, Politics with a capital P. That in turn explains why the debate seems to go round and round in circles, and the division and frustration it inspires.
Of course it is up to Americans to decide what kind of society they should have, not philosophers, and certainly not foreign ones like me. Indeed, part of my argument is that even this most fundamental question must be decided politically, by the people, and not by appeal to the special authority of sacred constitutional principles or social science or even philosophy. Philosophers' pronouncements of truth and rightness have no special authority over politics, nor should they. What philosophical analysis can do is offer new perspective and argumentative resources by which a political debate such as this one might be improved from its toxic stalemate.
So what does my philosophical perspective come down to? First a diagnosis. Both sides of the gun control debate know they are right. But only one side recognises it as a fundamentally philosophical dispute. The other has systematically evaded the real debate about values in favour of the faux objectivity of a statistical public health argument. Second some positive advice. The advocates of gun control 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'm going to have to be blunt. Gun control advocates rely excessively on a public health case that is not only much weaker than they believe it to be but also crowds out the kind of arguments that might actually win over their opponents. 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.
Guns are an excellent killing technology. They are extremely 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 (on which see the research collected in Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level).
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 to matter requires considering it in context. 2.6 million Americans die every year [CDC]. Gun deaths represent just over 1% of deaths, and two thirds of those are suicides. From a public health perspective, 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, and thus it is technically true that 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 - just 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 shooting yourself in a passing moment of despair: Just don't buy one!)
The mass killings by individual crazies that so dominate the news cycle are actually the very weakest part of the public health argument for gun control. It feels like there are a lot of them – 91 since 1982, according to the database assembled by Mother Jones, a lefty online magazine. Maybe their frequency is up, and maybe their average death toll is rising, thanks to the easy availability of more powerful guns. 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. Such atrocities make for wonderful news stories, full of pathos and inspiring great moral indignation. But while the extensive TV coverage may make many Americans feel afraid, a few dozen 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 legislators 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. That is a failure of politics but not of gun control.
In conclusion, America's gun control advocates seem to be confusing the subjective feeling of vulnerability to violence that comes with living in a society with extensive gun ownership with the objective statistical facts of risk. Perhaps this is due to their faith in the special power of facts to convince opponents – from the Latin to overcome/conquer – and thereby allow them to win a values debate without doing the hard work of making a values case. If so, the first problem is that the numbers hardly add up to an irresistible force. The second is that they have brought a statistical significance result to a political philosophy fight.
My argument so far may seem like politics as usual: just another attempt to knock holes in the public health case for gun control. Some readers may have already written me off as an NRA stooge with British spelling. But I intend it in another way. By showing the inadequacies of the public health case even in its own terms, I hope to persuade the proponents of gun control that a different kind of argument is required. Instead of trying to overpower their opponents with facts, they must attempt to persuade them of the values of gun control. That requires getting clear about their own vision of citizenship and government – a political philosophy of peace, not mere safety - and recognising and responding to the philosophical arguments gun rights advocates make.
Specifically, I believe that the underlying concern of gun control advocates is not objective statistical risk to our lives, but a feeling of vulnerability as citizens. Gun rights make many Americans feel afraid of what other citizens might do and that subjective feeling matters in a way that mere statistics cannot. Americans 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 at an open-air music festival.
In this light, mass killings matter not because they present a significant public health risk to our lifespans to be analysed like car accidents or cigarettes, but because they are deliberate attacks on our society to be analysed like terrorism. Mass killers are nearly always loners lacking the political organisation and agenda of regular terrorists, but they nevertheless 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.
It is a truism of political philosophy that a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for the legitimacy of any state is its ability to provide its citizens with freedom from fear. But there are different routes to this. Some believe that they can only overcome this feeling of vulnerability with the right to carry a gun of their own (hence the spike in gun sales after every mass shooting). Others want the freedom to live as civilians rather than in a state of militaristic hypervigilance always ready and alert to respond to deadly attack.
There are thus two views of government and citizenship in play. In one political philosophy, government is there to help good citizens defend their rights and liberties for themselves. In the other, government is expected to guarantee security directly by removing the sources of fear.
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).
Banning guns would save some American lives, though not as many as the standard presentation of the public health case implies. But the same logic would justify banning cars. Of course no one proposes that because it is generally agreed that cars provide benefits that outweigh their dangerousness. (Even environmentalists who refuse to drive a car for moral reasons aren't motivated by road deaths.) It is a symptom of their political blindness that gun control advocates refuse to admit the obvious political fact: that guns have benefits as well as costs.
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 all points on the political spectrum responded to 9/11 by demanding the federal 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, including their right to revolution if the state fails to fulfil its responsibilities. 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 allows some collective action problems to be overcome, thereby enhancing the provision of public goods and law and order that make everyone better off. But otherwise it should get out of the way so that people can get on with their own business.
Even when limited to its proper domain, faith in government is distinctly limited. Government is analysed as any other institution, a vested interest whose powers 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.
I want to emphasise here that this is an interesting and even attractive political philosophy. It deserves to be taken seriously. 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.
So how do guns relate to this political philosophy? Contra certain second amendment fantasists, armed citizens do not deter government tyranny by putting a power behind the people's theoretical right to revolution. Nevertheless, gun rights do reflect and support a different vision of the relationship between citizens and state.
Having in your pocket a device capable of a miniature whirlwind of mayhem makes people feel more like something to be reckoned with. Unlike the sheeple who have reduced themselves to pathetically pleading for the government to save them from bad guys, 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.
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.
Gun control advocates cannot win this political debate by mobilising their own supporters with morally indignant recitations of the statistics, nor by delegitimising their opponents as mentally ill. Besides falling far short of the ideal of democratic deliberation this is also a strategic failure. 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 the difference between a political philosophy of peace and a Hobbesian tyranny of frightened sheeple. They might, for example, explain that progressivism is 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.
The pragmatic view I have in mind embodies a healthy and heartily American skepticism of the state without lapsing into the paranoid cynicism of some contemporary followers of Locke. For example, while progressives see the state as a partner in society's projects of self-improvement, that is because of its special powers to make laws and raise money; not because it has some special faculty of judgement that supersedes that of the citizenry. It is a partner not an overlord, valued for what it can help achieve in terms of problem-solving, not because it deserves awe and respect as the constitutional sovereign, representative of the true will of the people, Hobbesian saviour, or what have you.
One aspect of that is an orientation to localism in time and space, since that is the scale at which problems generally need to be solved. As I noted, American gun violence is highly localised and closely related to socio-economic failures that state and city governments have many tools to address, and which America's decentralised democracy puts within reach of ordinary citizens to demand. The trouble with pragmatism as a method of politics is that solving real problems is difficult and produces many failures along the way. In contrast, campaigning for a law has a pleasing simplicity, even if it is as useful as a ban on cancer.
Pragmatism requires an experimentalist see-what-works attitude rather than merely applying your theory of society to every problem, and giving the same answer to every question. The law and order approach that began in the 1980s and is now finally being rolled back was predicated on such a theory, a foolish one that divided the world into bad guys and good guys, and assumed that bad guys could only be controlled by deterrence. It abjectly failed to address the circumstances of violence and the right of citizens to be free of it. A pragmatic politics would have demanded more evidence of real world success before expanding such draconian powers of the state against its people. And it would have scrutinised individual policies relentlessly - from the overarching war on drugs to minimum sentencing and racial profiling - to see how they might be reformed and improved.
Moreover, while a pragmatic politics respects what works, and thus the known quantity of inherited institutions, it has no particular respect for tradition in itself. That is because even institutions and laws that successfully solved or prevented problems in the past - such as the second amendment defence against tyranny and the return of the English - may end up causing new problems if they do not evolve to fit changing conditions and needs.
Properly explained, progressivism seems to satisfy many of the concerns that draw Americans to Locke's philosophy of defending individual rights against the state. The unpopularity of such pragmatism on the right seems to relate to disagreement about what counts as a problem in the first place; such as whether gender- and racial inequality are things the state should do something about. But that is a normal political disagreement between those more or less satisfied with the status quo, not a disagreement about how politics itself should go.
But this is not the end of the argument. For it seems to me that despite Locke's central place in the theory of America, his ideas have not actually done much service. Recall that Locke's account is most associated with individuals hanging on to their personal rights (to life, liberty and property) even while agreeing to live under a government. Critics of progressive liberalism complain that a government dedicated to solving social problems will often trample over the rights of individuals that stand in the way of increasing aggregate welfare. We need individual rights to prevent such excesses, they say, and therefore we need Lockean constraints and a muscular citizenry that will insist on them.
One thing to point out is that however inspirational Locke may have been for its founding fathers, 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.
But more importantly, a muscular citizenry has become a goal in its own right rather than merely a means to restrain government. And that is a mistake incompatible with a civilised society. 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 victim (or else a villain), in a pre-political Homeric world in which society is no more than a band of heroes. Hence the strange belief - which appears central to the gun rights movement; see for example the popularity of stand your ground laws - that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and the government has no right to interfere in what the good guys get up to. 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.
Still, a society of sheeple uninterested in anything but getting on with their own small lives is an appalling prospect. There should be heroes: citizens willing to stand up for more than themselves.
Fortunately the choice is not binary. The second approach to debating gun control is to disentangle guns from the ideal of strong citizenship.
Let's start by uprooting the myth. Handguns, or even those AR-15s that are so popular with mass shooters recently, are not going to stop the US army from crushing you if that's what it has a mind to do. (Fatuous comparisons with terrorist insurgencies like ISIS or the Taliban will not do. Unless your idea of strong citizenship is extorting concessions from the government by threatening a terrorist campaign against your fellow civilian citizens.)
Gun rights may induce a feeling of political significance and that feeling may be of significant power. Yet, the first thing to note is that this feeling is founded on a delusion as great as that of the sports enthusiast who looks up from his bowl of Buffalo wings to shout instructions at the football players on the TV screen. And, second, gun rights, like Buffalo wings, introduce new health problems of their own into society.
This is 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 against tyrannical government. Gun rights introduce a new fear and distance between fellow citizens, whether they choose to arm themselves or not. 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."
Here is where the feeling of vulnerability to guns comes into political significance. Guns were supposed to protect society from threats, including from its own government. But instead they undermine its health from within, weakening civil society and leaving us unable to relate to each other except via the legalistic forms controlled by the state or else down the barrel of mutual suspicion, as in a spaghetti Western. The great irony of gun rights is that they actually make citizens more dependent on the state and less able to resist it because we lose the sense of solidarity that a civilian society so readily supports.
This is an entirely different conception of public health than the calculation of individuals' statistical risk of being shot. It directly addresses the very concern gun rights activists claim to be defending, the very benefit they claim makes guns worth having.
But there is one more line of positive argument to make. For, fortunately, gun rights are not the only path to strong citizenship. If heroic citizenship is about taking up your share of responsibility to protect yourself and others from tyrannical lawlessness or legalised tyranny then America's own history shows that gun rights are not necessary for it. The civil rights movement is probably the most impressive demonstration of the power that citizens can mobilise against tyrannical government, but there are plenty of other more recent models of strong citizenship, from the progressive liberalism of #blacklivesmatter to the classical liberalism of Edward Snowden.
These movements succeed, when they do, by relying on the social relations that gun rights undermine. They do not shout up at the government demanding to get their way or else. Instead they bypass the government and address the people themselves. ‘Here's a problem', they say, ‘and this what we think should be done. If you agree let's tell the government what to do.'
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 appal 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 a philosophical argument about what kind of politics to have by appealing to the objectivity of death statistics. Significance is a value judgement not a mathematical operation. One cannot prove that America has a disproportionate number of gun deaths without engaging with 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 philosophy of gun rights and what it actually achieves.
This essay has been heavily revised since first published here. More or less this version appeared in The Critique’s July/August 2016 Issue “No Silver Bullet: Contending With The Complexity Of Gun Violence In The United States”, and on ABC's Religion & Ethics site (October 2017). An earlier much shorter version was published on 3 Quarks Daily.
Note: 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.
Note: 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.