Gun Arguments (I): Contra Licentiam

This post will discuss some of the strong arguments that give context to the background to the walkout that took place yesterday by many high school and middle school kids. While their passion is palpable, they don’t the time or platform to talk about sophisticated and drawn out argumentation. Instead, I’ll be defending what I take many of their positions to be: a moderate (rather than the extreme view) of gun legislation, including items like closing loop holes in the gun system, banning semi-automatic weapons, banning bump stocks, raising the age limit for buying guns and so on.

When talking of gun policy, there are a few things to keep in mind. One is the context (which I have talked about here and here), another is the moral obligations we have as individuals and as a society, and the last is practical considerations.

To demonstrate, consider polygamy. Adultery has the context of weakening our social fabric as we have it set-up currently (due to most of our institutions affirming monogamy) and the historical context of monogamous religious and secular marriage traditions. Concerning our moral obligations, the issue is less easy to argue. As long as all the adults are freely consenting, it doesn’t seem obviously immoral bar concerns of exploitation of women (or men, if there are multiple men and one woman). Practical considerations, however, are the real reason polygamy cannot be legalized. If we allow the marriage of more than two people, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to limit the number after that. The advantages of marriage, largely aimed at making it easier to raise children, could become available to everyone at no cost (everyone in America could get married to each other for instance). The only easy way to accomplish legalizing polygamy would be to cede our current legal construct of marriage for the libertarian view of marriage, removing the legal aspect completely.

These concerns can outweigh each other, but moral aspects usually take precedence. If there is only ambiguous moral reasons for legalization but huge practical problems with doing so, then the practical problems will probably outweigh the moral reasons. Sometimes, however, moral reasons for a policy are so strong that no amount of practical obstruction should prevent their implementation (implementing racial equality after the Civil War, unsuccessful though it was).

My goal for this post will be to give arguments against the extreme view of gun legislation: complete freedom with regard to firearms. I will describe this view as best as I can and follow the description with moral and practical arguments against it. If I am successful, one must hold at least a moderate view and is able to hold the opposite extreme view, e.g. complete removal of gun rights from private citizens.

I will write in the next section as though I were a proponent of the licentiate view (from the Latin for “license”).


This view is characterized by two traits: (1) the moral right to self-defense and freedom and (2) the legal instantiation of (1). Most people accept the right to self-defense, but few realize that this includes being able to fight back from a level playing field, legally and morally speaking. If I have a right to self-defense but am unarmed while the aggressor is armed, then my right is not self-defense so much as it is a right to attempt unlikely heroics. There is a real consideration in the origin of the phrase “You’ve brought a knife to a gunfight.”

As I mentioned earlier, the case for licentiate relies on two considerations: moral and practical. The moral consideration seems straightforward: if firearms are the most common way to wield deadly power as a criminal, that power must be equalized. This can be done in two ways: by allowing the victims the same power (the view of licentiate) or eliminating the power completely (the view of the prohibitionist). The second part to the moral argument is that while prohibition advocates may be on the same moral ground with regard to the power dynamics of criminals and their victims, the licentiate has moral advantage: it gives greater freedom to private citizens. Removing gun rights is a limitation on freedom and we shouldn’t limit freedom when there are better options available.

Licentiate is morally preferable, but even if it were morally equal to prohibition, it would still win on practical grounds. America is swamped with guns. We have 101 registered guns per 100 citizens, not counting all the black market and unregistered firearms that reside in America. The prohibitionist must show that a ban on guns will be effective at deterring crime and that the ban will be effective at reducing the number of guns in America to manageable levels.

Finally, the burden rests on the prohibitionist in a more profound way than I have laid out already. The licentiate has the Constitution on its side already. Let’s dispense with a few bad arguments against it while we’re here. The full text of the 2nd 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.”

Some say that the grammatical structure is ambiguous, or that the grammar implies restrictions of some kind. None of this is true. The framers of the Constitution were well-versed in Latin and the amendment is emblematic of the latin case of ablative absolutes. You can read more here, but suffice to say that the ablative absolute means there is a bit of a preamble (“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,”) and then the statement (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”). This amounts to saying “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state; that said, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Furthermore, even if the grammar required some sort of restriction, it is unclear what that would be. The right is a right of the private citizen, so the well-regulated militia clause seems to put, at most, an upper bound of a well-regulated militia today (National Guard) that uses assault rifles. It also puts a lower bound on gun legislation of what was available to well-regulated militia then.

There is a lot to be said by the prohibitionist, it seems, to convince anyone that licentiate is not preferable to other positions.

Contra Licentiate

This view has a strong case going for it. The first thing I want to point out is that there are two things to consider when weighing evidence. The first is how strong the reasons are before we look at the data, and the second is which position the data supports and how much. There is an interesting relationship between these two considerations: given enough data, the prior considerations can get swamped by the data. No matter how much the prior considerations favor one position over another, enough data to the contrary can easily tip the scales the other way, sometimes massively (the astute reader may notice that this is Bayesian in nature).

Similarly, there are two foci around which the case for Licentiate is argued: that reduction in gun regulation does not help society (an empirical claim) and that even if it did, our right to bear arms would still be enough to support owning guns.

First, the prior considerations. It does seem like guns equalize power. I stand a better chance at fending off an armed aggressor if I am also armed. Similarly, we do have a right to bear arms in our Constitution. Additionally, it seems like Licentiate would permit more freedom than a regulated or prohibitionist view.

These considerations fare a bit worse in the posterior. As I pointed out in a previous post, legal rights don’t necessarily need to be retained. They are usually based on a natural right or some other fundamental moral concept; in this case, probably a right to self-defense. It seems very improbable that the right to bear arms is a natural right or a moral right except insofar as it derives from some concept of self-defense. I certainly can’t conceive of any argument for the alternatives.

If the right to bear arms is derivative from our right to self-defense, then this collapses to another empirical question: are we better off if we have our own defense or if we are defended (by another; third party or state). Additionally, concerns about freedom will also depend or collapse into empirical concerns, since we already accept that freedom can be abrogated for legitimate concerns like public health or safety.

This brings us to the empirical questions. Does owning a gun make you safer? The answer depends. Consider suicides: suicides by firearms outnumber two-to-one homicides by firearm. Research (here by Harvard) shows that preventability of suicide is directly correlated to the availability of swift and lethal means to accomplish it. In other words, if you are having suicidal fantasies, the availability of a firearm to do so quickly, effectively, and without pain will vastly increase the probability of following through. Thus, we see that availability of guns in general may not be good. The life you might save by removing them from easy access may be your own.

Let’s consider cases of self-defense, where most are more comfortable arguing. Stand Your Ground laws remove the restriction that one must retreat if possible rather than ‘stand one’s ground’ and use lethal force. This sort of freedom should, if our prior intuitions are on track, result in more public safety. This turned out not to be the case. Stand Your Ground laws resulted in an increase in gun-related homicides, while aggression factors (which shouldn’t change based on gun laws, e.g. non-firearm-related gun homicides) remained stable.

But Stand Your Ground laws are not strictly about guns in the sense that many might prefer. What about actual gun restriction?

This is where it gets tough. After all, the moderate doesn’t want to advocate for the prohibitionist standpoint. They are a moderate, not an extremist in the other direction. Instead, the moderate wants to find examples that support a moderate position: licensure of guns in the same way we license other deadly substances and objects (think chemicals or cars), power and deadliness available to citizens should be limited (i.e. no assault rifles, bump stocks, and so on), closed loopholes in our current system or a new system that encapsulates what needs done, and so on. One example here might be that five of the top ten states for firearm homicide are states without licensure requirements. Another might be that all ten of the bottom ten states for firearm homicide rate also have the most stringent gun legislation. Another collection of studies shows that places known to be without guns are not robbed at higher rates than places known to have guns (this looks to be good evidence against our President’s “soft-target” claims). Guns don’t even appear to be more beneficial than other deterrent weapons like mace in self-defense situations. As a last example, guns in the home are more often turned on intimate partners than for self-defense.

Even the most stringent gun laws in America will usually fall into the moderate viewpoint, but international data (i.e. comparison to Australia) will not easily do so. Thus, the moderate will want to avoid data that shows that even stricter gun legislation (i.e. complete ban of guns) to be more effective or the moderate will argue that benefits of efficaciousness is worth the loss in autonomy. One might see a tension here, and I will return to it later: the moderate may have a good case against Licentiate, but the moderate must also resist the prohibitionist position as well.

To review: the Licentiate view advocates for as few gun restrictions as possible, relying on our intuitions, right to bear arms, and ideas of self-defense. These points fail for a few reasons. First, although our intuitions give us a strong push toward Licentiate, they can be swamped by the later data. Second, our right to bear arms is merely a legal right or it is moral right deriving from our right to self-defense. Our right to self-defense is not impenetrable, however: it concerns what makes us safer. The data does not appear to support that we are safer when we have a gun (or at least no safer than we would be with much less deadly weapons); therefore, it seems unlikely that gun ownership can be justified by appeal to self-defense. Finally, there is a positive case to be made about deadly substances that we largely already accept: deadly substances and tools should not be readily available. We already regulate cars, alcohol, deadly chemicals, and so on. It should not be a surprise that some regulation might be necessary for gun ownership as well.

To look forward to: can the moderate resist both the Licentiate and the prohibitionist?


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