Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Take a position: Gun control

Ryan Murphy thinks we should go off the beaten path in blogging. His answer is apparently to jump into the middle of culture war issues that are (if it can be conceived of) more purposeless and unsatisfying than the average economics blog post!

So be it!

He proposes we start with gun control, and that we take a position on it.

I find Ryan's consequentialist arguments all good, although they don't push me personally one direction or the other (in other words, I don't weight consequentialism very highly in answering this question). The one consequentialist argument I do take seriously, though, is that widespread gun ownership offers a defense against extreme oppression. Personally I'm not worried about that in the modern United States. You could dramatically reduce gun ownership rates here and I wouldn't worry that we'd be subjecte to tyranny any time soon. But that wasn't always the case, and indeed the gun culture almost certainly contributed to the emergence of political orientations here that make tyranny so unlikely today. The other point is that you never know what's going to happen in the future. Even though I doubt dramatically lower gun ownership rates would lead to tyranny any time soon, if we had lower ownership rates in the future any emerging threats of tyranny could be a lot more effective.

Notice this is actually an argument about gun ownership. It doesn't do any good if guns are legal and nobody owns them.

I don't really care all that much about the impact on crime, although of course poking around in the data is always interesting. Guns are tools. Guns don't kill people... you know the rest. Some people hate the cliche but it's pretty ironclad. There are lots of tools that help criminals out. You gotta be a criminal before those tools become dangerous.

Then Ryan moves on to deontological arguments.

He mentions a "right to rebellion". I don't know if I'd put it in so many words, but lets put it this way: if you rebel and you win it's a moot point about whether you had a right to. If you rebel and you lose it turns out you're actually a traitor and not a rebel so the question of whether you had a right to rebel is once again a moot point.

Certainly we have a right to self governance, and that of course opens the door to attempts at rebellions (regardless of whether a particular attempt is justified). I would change Ryan's wording a little and say that it's hard to conceive of self-governance without gun ownership.

I agree with Ryan 100% on the Constitutional argument. Come on liberals. Guys like Ron Paul feel like they can pick and choose what they want to be in the Constitution, and toss out the general welfare clause. That's wrong. We shouldn't be cafeteria Constitutionalists just because Ron Paul is.

Even if it weren't in the Constitution, what basis is their for restricting gun ownership? I can't think of a good one.

Now, I think a lot of heat is generated over specific gun control laws that is unfounded. In the recent Heller case about D.C. I was glad about the ruling - that law was clearly aimed at preventing people from having guns. I think there are probably a lot of licensing laws and things like that that make complete sense. Your right to do something isn't violated by the public interest in keeping things orderly and safe. I have a right to own property, including a car - but there are still licensing and safety laws associated with that. Some may be unwise, but those sorts of laws don't seem to violate the second amendment to me. They should probably be avoided at the federal level, though.

Just as a matter of disclosure - I don't own a gun and my parents never owned a gun. I've fired one a couple times. I've always thought it would probably be a good idea to learn how to shoot one if not own one, and I still may. But obviously it's never been pressing enough for me to get off my butt and do it. So none of what's written above is coming from the mouth of a gun owner or enthusiast.


  1. I find the most persuasive argument to be related to the concept of the presumption of innocence. As a general rule, in democratic and free societies, we should assume that people are not going to act in ways that are harmful to others. That presumption can of course be rebutted, but I don't think it's appropriate for a free society to in effect say that the average citizen cannot be trusted with a firearm.

  2. Before replying, the text doesn't say guns its says, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms."

    Now, first, what is your test for what are "Arms?" Is it, for example, funtional or static. If the bad guys now have tactical nuclear bombs, of what good is a muzzle loading rifle to you? If functional, why is only this part of the Constitution alive?

    1. You don't need a functional approach to the Constitution to allow handguns but not nuclear weapons. Read the Constitution as it would have been understood by an informed reader at the time of its writing and transpose that understanding to the present day. Arms would have meant things like personal firearms. Modern personal firearms are just a modern version of the same thing. Nuclear weapons on the other hand are a different thing entirely.


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