Assessing Gun Legislation from a Philosophical Perspective
by Spencer Couch
Contrasts are often drawn between American and European styles of gun legislation. Specifically, critics of U.S. gun policy often point to lower murder and crime rates in several European states with more comprehensive gun-control legislation. However, in many respects, this is a false equivalence. The largest European state, Russia, boasts a population less than half that of the United States, and the population of Virginia alone exceeds Switzerland’s. Moreover, we can cherry-pick facts to bolster one side of the debate or the other, but the empirical method cannot reflect the epistemological complexity of mankind – this complexity is the fundamental problem in drafting reasonable non-partisan gun legislation and effective regulations.
This raises several questions: To what extent can we condemn the “guns don’t kill” rationale? Should we look at causation or just consequence? It would be false to claim that guns don’t kill people. Granted, firearms are inanimate objects with no agency, and it is the combined will of the agent and force of the gun that creates such a powerful effect. If the issue is agency then perhaps a solution rests in addressing the shortcomings of our mental health industry. We should review how we administer psychotropic pharmaceuticals and look at the incentives that guide institutional behavior. The pharmaceutical industry has a hand in politics, and its well-being is entirely grounded on the ability to peddle these drugs at prices above marginal cost. The Federal Drug Administration, as the (proverbial) barbarians at the gate, needs to ensure that drugs are not falling into the wrong hands. Moreover, the FDA needs to reduce the incentive for actors in black markets to generate cheaper substitutes so that individuals are not over-consuming a potentially potent unregulated substance that, in effect, can lead to dangerous behavior.
How [the young] view guns, whether as a tool for safety or an instrument of trouble, is integral to the long-term viability of our legislation.
Like most proponents of common-sense legislation, I have supported the notion that comprehensive background checks ought to precede owning a gun. However, it may not always be the case that application cleanly follows from theory. In many crime-ridden towns, usually ones with high welfare distribution per capita, activists often argue that the police are an unreliable deterrent to local crime. Any actor who is inclined to commit a crime, if they have even a modicum of foresight, will not want to have his name registered into a massive bureaucratic information base before he proceeds. Therefore, while the law-abiding individual waits patiently for his background check to process so that he may use his gun, for whatever reason, the criminally intent expedites his purchase through a secondary black market (not to mention the inception of the 3-D Printer), dispensing with the serial number on the gun and maintaining the necessary degrees of separation from local government to reduce his odds of getting caught. This is merely a thought experiment, but it is interesting to consider even logical, straightforward legislation that portends to address a fundamental problem often results in an unwelcome outcome.
Consider the alcohol industry and how effective anti-prohibition rhetoric has been. Consumption of alcohol has a gamut of consequences ranging from risky sexual behavior to drunk driving and domestic violence. However, instead of prohibiting the consumption, we institute preventative measures by means of education and regulation. Alcohol has been marketed by both advocacy groups and large manufacturers as something non-threatening and relaxing. Given that the opprobrium attached to guns is largely the result of the media’s relentless pillorying and asymmetrical coverage of the issues, would we appreciate guns more if there were formal education, or if our advertisements supported the idea that guns service sporting and defensive needs, not criminal ones? We have young and impressionable minds in this country. How they view guns, whether as a tool for safety or an instrument of trouble, is integral to the long-term viability of our legislation. If our gun commentary continues to demonize and undermine the philosophical and political underpinnings of the second amendment, it will breed contempt for the law and therefore bad actions will follow.
A balanced commentary will naturally lead to a denouement with an unbiased rallying cry for smart legislation that will help prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands, but will not obstruct responsible citizens from owning guns for sport and protection. Each side of this argument has constituencies that are extreme (the rhetoric often boils down to patriot groups vs. hippies) and moderates (millennials) and they have both perspectives with merit and truth. The usual cadre of politicians with extreme views will rely on ad-hominem and appeals to emotion to condemn the law. Moderates tend to muse about the need for a fix, but can barely offer a murmur.
The politicians are not the only actors, though. Gun legislation is a polarizing issue with a great deal of money and mudslinging being thrown in either direction. Notions like arming teachers and principals are simply consequences of our elected leaders’ inability to pass reasonable gun regulation legislation. Militarizing our public educators is not a solution; it’s an inflexible view that ignores the active shooter problem. The National Rifle Association (NRA) could do a better job of not acting like zealots, but at the end of the day, the best way to stop a man with a gun is another man with a gun. That opposing force can be a cop or a citizen, but we cannot always rely on the omnipresence and accessibility of cops.
After seeing the militarized responses that police have become so fond of, I would rather have common-sense gun laws with just enough regulation to prevent the mentally incompetent from mishandling a gun. But that will never happen when Washington is gripped by an “all or nothing” dichotomy crafted by the extremes from both sides. Ultimately, it’s a political narrative that only benefits the interest groups. Almost every claim to having a “gun law solution” has been closer to a gaffe than a shrewd political statement. If we cannot enact policy that will bring about immediate material change, then we need to concentrate on the endgame: education. Only through understanding and cultural change can we hope to end or even diminish the scourge of gun violence. TKO