Political Philosophy and the Gun Control Debate:What would Bentham, Mills, and Nozick have to say?

Last Monday, in a press release that marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Aurora, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) said: “We must uphold our oath to ‘protect and defend’ the Constitution and all Americans by expanding background checks and keeping dangerous firearms out of the wrong hands.” After this press release, several parties proceeded to criticize Pelosi’s comments.

Source: gophoto.us
Source: gophoto.us

For example, CNS News pointed out that Pelosi’s oath does not include the phrase “to protect and defend the Constitution,” which is found in the President’s oath. Part of her oath reads: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Moreover, Erich Pratt, director of communications for Gun Owners of America, claimed that the American constitution makes no allowances for gun control. “If Pelosi really wants to apply the lessons from Aurora, Colorado in order to save lives,” Pratt said, “she will work to repeal gun laws that discourage good people from carrying firearms.”

These trivial arguments lead one to wonder how useful rhetorical and philosophical approaches are for public policy—or in this case, toothless nitpicking. While gun rights advocates claim that we just need to better enforce current laws, it is the loopholes and weak policies, coupled with gun lobbying, that make it more difficult to do so and much easier to illegally acquire guns. In April, new gun measures considered by the Senate failed miserably, with only two out of nine amendments passing. Some of the measures that failed included comprehensive background checks, bans and limits on assault weapons, and crackdown strategies on gun trafficking. With recent mass shootings and the tens of thousands of gun-related deaths that occur each year in the United States, the lack of gun regulation is absolutely unacceptable.

But while I can’t argue against policy being more tangible than philosophizing, I believe that there is value in understanding the micro-foundations of legal policies. Through understanding and applying different philosophical approaches to justice, we can expand our appreciation for the significance and complexity of political issues. And more importantly, we can learn to rigorously question our fundamental beliefs and stray a bit further from the traditional left-right dichotomy.

First, let’s talk about the contentious document itself—the one and only, Second Amendment. Many politicians and scholars have argued over the philosophy of the Second Amendment, imposing a historical analysis of the Constitution and regarding it as either an original, inviolable piece or a living document. In 2008, the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia vs. Heller that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to bear arms independent of any collective right. So while people cannot have tanks or missiles, they have an individual right to handguns, because as Justice Scalia puts it, “handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”

The originalist argument is self-explanatory—the Constitution was set in stone when it was ratified in 1787 and it is not an evolving document. On the other hand, the “living document” approach finds that the Second Amendment was written in a different context. Firstly, people still used guns to hunt for food and ward off frequent foreign invasions two hundred years ago. Back then, guns were also used to suppress slave rebellions and fight Native Americans. This is not to say that gun rights advocates are racists, but rather that the Founders’ intents were geared towards state protection, not individual rights.  Moreover, major advances in gun technology mean that semi-automatic weapons with enhanced magazine capacities are  more lethal. Today’ semi-automatic weapons, like the Colt AR-15, resemble military-style firearms and are a  far cry from colonial-era muskets and rifles. Advanced technology calls for advanced safety precautions. In short, gun policies should not reflect a blind adherence to the Constitution, but instead grow with human and technological advancements.

Now, I would like to argue for the necessity for gun legislation on the grounds of social welfare and individual liberty, using the two political philosophies of utilitarianism and possessive libertarianism. Ultimatley, there’s no correct way to approach this complex and contentious issue, but exploring different philosophical approaches invites greater insight. I don’t claim to have a complete analysis or even the solutions to the problem—at most, just some food for thought.

Benthamite and Millian Utilitarianism

Many arguments for gun control are grounded in utilitarian thought. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarian thought, held that the morality of an action was determined by its contribution to overall happiness—an act should be done if it produces the greatest amount of happiness over unhappiness. Articulated by J.S. Mill, the Harm Principle, one of the tenets of modern utilitarianism, states that individuals are free to do as they please unless their actions harm other individuals. Applying the Harm Principle, the general stance is that guns produce more harm than happiness or social utility. First, and foremost, guns cost lives. Two out of three homicides, half of all suicides, and a third of all robberies are committed with guns. In the United States, the total number of handgun deaths from 1980 to 2006 exceeds 32,000 per year, according to UPenn’s Health System. Additionally, the fiscal costs of gun injuries are disadvantageous in the utilitarian calculus. According to the CDC, firearm related deaths cost the United States health care system $37 billion, and nonfatal gunshot wounds cost another $3.7 billion in 2005 alone. This means that the taxpayer money that has gone toward healthcare for firearm injuries could have been invested in more socially beneficial causes, such as education and mental health care.

19th century English political philosopher John Stuart Mill, a notable proponent of utilitarianism. Source: nndb.com

One might say that having less gun regulation is more utilitarian, because having access to guns may save lives. The research reflects otherwise. Firstly, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) showed that across states and high-income nations, more guns mean more homicides. Secondly, research shows that guns are used more often for intimidation than as weapons of self-defense. For example, a survey found that nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property while 50% used guns in an aggressive manner, such as in escalating an argument. Additionally,  another surveyfound that if an assault victim is carrying a gun, they are 4.5 times more likely to be shot and 4.2 times more likely to be killed. The self-defense argument may ostensibly appear utilitarian, but it is not backed up by the evidence at hand.

Possessive Libertarianism

In contrast to utilitarianism, possessive libertarianism is the main philosophical approach for reducing gun regulation. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, political philosopher Robert Nozick fleshed out the baseline for modern American libertarian thought. A proponent of the inviolability of individuals, Nozick supported a minimal state that would only protect negative rights like individuals’ right to privacy and right to not be killed, but not promote positive rights such as social welfare programs or education. A Nozickian thinker would supposedly be opposed to gun control because of choice-based liberty and individual autonomy.

Contemporary American political philosopher Robert Nozick, an advocate of libertarian theories. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But for the same reasons, libertarian philosophy can be used to support the necessity for gun control. Firstly, the idea that individuals should be held accountable for their actions complements libertarian philosophy. As Dr. Jack Russell, professor of philosophy at the University of North Dakota School of Law, puts it: “Nothing is more consistent with the libertarian point of view than registering guns and including serial numbers on every bullet. It is only when a person’s property is traceable, when we can figure out who shot whom, that we can live in a libertarian world.” Members of the NRA themselves care about the responsibility that comes with gun ownership—roughly 75% of the NRA believes in background checks, that conceal carry permits shouldn’t be granted to individuals with violent misdemeanors or assaults under their belts, that permits should only be granted to those who have gone through gun safety training, and that being arrested for domestic violence disqualifies individuals from gun ownership. Moreover, government interference with gun acquisition reflects not a hoarding of power, but rather a responsibility for protecting its citizens’ negative rights. All in all, it appears that stronger gun regulation is consistent with libertarian philosophy.

Utilitarianism and possessive libertarianism are two fundamental philosophies of justice, but neither is right nor wrong. This particular interpretation of both theories reflects a strong need for more rigorous gun policies and constructive conversations on the basis of individual responsibility and greater social concerns. Undoubtedly, there remain many more philosophical questions to ponder. Should there be borders for gun control? Is bearing arms even a fundamental human right like the freedom of speech or the right to assembly?

Ultimately, the problem is not whether the individual is an end or a means to an end; the problem is simply gun violence, which hurts both society and the individual. The solution is not simple, and will also have to take into consideration structural issues of poverty, education, and health care. But the solution, in any case, will have to start with stronger federal gun policies and more effective leadership from our elected representatives.