Gun Control: The Issues (1). (Exchange)

By LaFollette, Hugh | Criminal Justice Ethics, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Gun Control: The Issues (1). (Exchange)


LaFollette, Hugh, Criminal Justice Ethics


Although most of us assume that we must either oppose or support gun control, the issue is far more complex: we must decide who can own which guns under what conditions. But to simplify discussion, I will say that those who support most availability and are opposed to most restrictions on guns advocate a "serious right to bear arms," whereas those who oppose greater availability and support more substantial restrictions are "gun control advocates."

Those who claim that we have a serious right to bear arms contend that this right is morally fundamental. (2) If advocates are correct, then they have the justificatory upper hand. For were this a fundamental right, it would not be enough to show that society would benefit from controlling access to guns. (3) The arguments for gun control would have to be overwhelming. Yet there is also a hefty cost in claiming that this is a fundamental right: the evidence for the right must meet especially rigorous standards.

I argue that the right is not fundamental, but derivative. Each of us has a fundamental right of noninterference: we should be allowed to live our lives as we wish, as long as we do not thereby harm others. That general right derivatively protects personally important activities, and owning guns is, for many people, very important. This intermediate conclusion is still significant because derivative rights also cannot be restricted without good evidence although the evidence need not be as overwhelming as it would have to be to override a fundamental right. Admittedly, there is a serious question whether controlling guns is wise public policy because there are costs associated with making any activity illegal, especially one, like owning guns, in which so many people in the United States desperately wish to engage. However, because guns are inherently dangerous and we have good empirical evidence to suggest that owning them is risky for others, we cannot categorically reject government limits on who can own which guns and under what conditions.

Whether gun control is ultimately legitimate depends on the evidence about the risks of owning guns relative to any benefits. Assessing that evidence must occur in two stages. First, we must understand and evaluate the armchair arguments for and against gun control. Armchair arguments are not, as some suppose, peripheral to the debate. Their role is crucial because they are used both to frame and to critique empirical studies. They help us know what to look for and what to ignore, and they give us a perspective from which to evaluate empirical studies. But we cannot stop there. We must also assess those studies. Unfortunately, the information we wish to find is, by its nature, difficult to extract. Because we cannot do formal controlled studies, we must rely on some amalgam of cohort, cross-sectional, and time-series studies.

What do those studies show? On the one hand, we do have evidence that the availability of guns does increase violent crime: "The correlation between any-gun prevalence and the overall murder rate is .67, while it is .84 between handgun prevalence and overall murder rate. …

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