A Philosophical Defense of the Right to Bear Arms February 8, 2016Posted by Sobek in News.
I present to you an essay that I started formulating in my head as I read about a Danish teenager who is being fined by her government for fighting off a rapist. This is an essay in six parts, entitled, “A Philosophical Defense of the Right to Bear Arms.”
In this essay, I will discuss 1. the nature of private violence; 2. the State’s interest in restricting private violence; 3. the State cannot always preserve order or justice; 4. there are, therefore, exceptions to the ban on private violence; 5. if private violence is to be used to preserve order and justice, then it must be used effectively; and 6. violence is more effective when mechanized.
In taking a philosophical approach, I will not be considering the history or text of the Second Amendment. There is nothing philosophical about citing a text and arguing that it means the government may not go beyond its bounds – that is an appeal to authority (here, the authority of a controlling text). Not that the appeal to authority is here illegitimate – on the contrary, when discussing the law, the text of the law is the authority. But that is not my scope. I will also not be considering statistical claims – not about the numbers of deaths, the effectiveness of any anti-gun-violence measures, or numbers of times that guns were used successfully for their intended purpose. This is a purely philosophical inquiry.
I. The Nature of Private Violence
Violence by human means may be done either by the individual – that is to say, privately – or by the State. Violence is a nasty word, but let me here define it simply as using force to get something you want. So that might mean holding a knife to your victim’s throat as you take his wallet, or it might mean the Sheriff brandishing a rifle as he executes a lien against your property, or else it might mean a parent taking away a naughty child’s toy.
Those who decry “gun violence” very rarely use the word violence in any kind of rigorous way. That is unfortunate, because if someone tells you “X number of people died last year due to gun violence,” they are including some instances where an intended rape victim shot her attacker, or a policeman shot a meth-head who was trying to stab another officer. They don’t want a well-defined term, because the more deaths you can lump into the statistic, the scarier it sounds, and the greater the urge to “DO SOMETHING,” regardless of whether that something has any likelihood of achieving the stated goal.
So I am using the term “violence” here as synonymous with “force.” There are, as suggested above, many reasons why I might want to use force. Maybe someone insulted my honor. Maybe someone committed a crime against me, and I would like to punish him. Maybe I am defending my own, or trying to take something from someone else.
Private violence depends on the resources and capacity of the private individual. So if I need to use private violence against my neighbor, and my neighbor is bigger and stronger than I am, my options are either to abandon my design, or else to use greater force through other means. I can use a weapon, if I think that will give me sufficient advantage. In a pre-gunpowder society, that means greater skill with a bow, sword, axe or dagger than my foe. Another option is greater numbers. If you combine greater numbers with superior weapons, your private violence can be highly effective, indeed. And this addition of numbers does not transform the violence from private to State – a gang or mob family or drug cartel uses force through private violence, in spite of its numbers. [And what is the difference between a cartel and a State? I submit it is the consent of the governed! But that is outside of my scope.]
In the event of a quarrel between two individuals of roughly equal prowess and resources, private violence (should it materialize) may take the form of a duel. If each side gathers a small group of followers, especially family members, then the violence takes the form of a feud, as with the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Montagues and Capulets. A feud can be far more destructive than a duel, because it can last long after the death of the original antagonists, or even after the original quarrel was forgotten. Taken to a larger scale and a greater brutality, the private violence can take the form of a gang war or a war between cartels. Here, the wholesale terrorization of the populace is commonplace, and the danger presented by the war helps to illustrate that although I include benign actions in my definition of violence, I also include some very grave threats indeed.
II. The State Has an Interest in Restricting Private Violence
Therefore, because of the nature of the threats, the State has a strong interest in restricting private violence. The nature of this interest is two-fold: to preserve order, and to preserve justice.
The threat to order is well-illustrated by the case of the feud, the gang war, and the cartel war. A duel can be a small affair, and the threat usually ends with the duel itself. But as the violence escalates in scope, the threat to order also escalates. That is because of the threat of bystanders being caught in the cross-fire – say, a mafia bomb that kills a bartender who will not pay protection money, but also kills the innocent patron of the bar. And in its worst forms, large-scale private violence deliberately makes use of terror as part of a campaign of violence. A cartel knows that it is valuable to kill an enemy, but it is far more valuable if no one will work with or support that enemy for fear of retribution. When Scarface watches some hood get murdered with a chainsaw, the gory violence is, primarily, a message to those who survive the incident to spread fear of the group.
The terror, the violence against innocent people, the corruption, all of these are profoundly disruptive of public order. There is less incentive to start a business and support your family if it may be destroyed at any moment by an errant (or targeted!) explosive, or if large men with knives can take the fruits of your labor at will. No one will plant the fields if they do not believe they will harvest and eat the grain. Nothing about society can function if order is not preserved, and the preservation of order is a primary justification of the existence of the state in the first place.
The State also restricts private violence to preserve justice. Consider again the idea of the duel. This is not a case where the danger to the public is great. Duels are fought according to strict (although odd, to modern readers) rules in order to preserve the peace, insofar as possible: to give the possibility of satisfaction for some perceived wrong rather than demanding blood.
But duels do not serve the ends of justice. If someone has done me wrong – if it can be established by all fair-minded people everywhere that I am in the right and that justice is on my side – then by dueling, I nevertheless risk death, and that even though I am innocent. I will not try to define justice here, but assuredly justice, whatever it is, cannot be satisfied with me bleeding to death in a field while the guilty party stands above my body with a smoking pistol.
If I believed that God would always allow the just party to win the duel, then dueling would be consistent with justice. But that does not appear to be the case, as a consideration of the conflict between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr would show. Accordingly, private violence is not consistent with the ends of justice or public order, and as such, the State has an interest in restricting it.
III. The State Cannot Always Preserve Order or Justice
In writing this essay, I was interested to learn that the Fourth Lateran Council outlawed duels in 1215. But according to a PBS feature on dueling in America, it was public opinion rather than legislation which ended the practice here. The article suggests that anti-dueling legislation had little effect, which is consistent with what I’ve read in Russian novels and with the sad tale of Mr. Hamilton.
The reality is that people do not always follow the law, do not always respect the rights of others, and sometimes behave contrary to order and justice. In short, they deserve to become the subjects of violence, whether by the State or privately.
In some cases, the State is effective at remedying an issue, removing private violence from the victim , preserving order and justice, and punishing the wrong-doer. If someone breaks my car window, and is caught, and then forced to pay for the cost of repair as well as my personal inconvenience, then justice is done, and it is good that I did not need to use private violence to vindicate my rights.
Other problems are not nearly so easily vindicated. If a man rapes a woman, he may be caught, he may be charged and convicted and sentenced to incarceration. But no amount of punishment can really bring as satisfactory a conclusion to the whole affair than if the woman had not been raped in the first place – at least, I hope you agree with me on that point. It is better if the home invader is stopped from murdering a family than if he is caught after the murder and punished for it. It is better if the would-be embezzler is stopped from committing his crime than if he steals the money, spends much of it, and must pay back whatever fraction remains.
When a man is in the process of attempting a rape, the victim may call out for help, may even use a phone to call the police. But the police cannot reasonably be expected to arrive in time to stop the rape, unless by sheer chance. We are faced here with a situation where the State can and must allow the citizen, the private actor, access to private violence in order to preserve justice. This is the part of the story where, we hope, the intended victim draws a gun and shoots the rapist. The crime of rape was not completed, the State acknowledges the victim’s right to use private violence in the instance, and the story has a happy ending.
IV. There Are Exceptions to the Ban on Private Violence
There are, therefore, exceptions to the State’s restrictions on private violence. Most obviously is the right of self-defense, or of defense of others. These rights, I assume, you will take as a given, but hopefully this essay will illuminate in part why we have those rights, why the State has and must made an exception for the use of private violence, and also the extent and contours of those rights.
It is well-settled law in America that deadly force may not be used to defend your property. This issue arises in the case of a property-owner who knows his property is subject to break-ins, burglary, theft, and vandalism. In frustration, he builds a spring gun, so that the next hapless burglar to intrude is shot and killed. This may not be, says the law, because the value of life is so much greater than the value of whatever property may be vandalized, that such a use of private violence cannot be countenanced. So it has been for ages.
But is that such a wise rule? Remember, the State must restrict private violence, the tendency toward which predates and exists concurrently with the State, to preserve public order. But what effect does that rule produce? Imagine you own that building. It is burglarized and vandalized with some regularity. It is too remote to visit the place constantly, surveillance equipment does not deter the guilty party, and locks are simply cut through. So you call the police, and what will they tell you? They will write down a report, of course. They might send someone to look at the vandalized property, although that is not certain. If it’s just a case of vandalism, there is no way the police will look at your surveillance footage, or dust for fingerprints, or make plaster casts of shoe prints in the mud outside. Your private property is of little or no concern to the police. Not that they are malicious, but they recognize their limitations. So no, you will not get much help from the police in the face of serial break-ins. The State is telling you, in effect, that your property is meaningless, so little of a priority that you cannot reasonably expect satisfaction. You will not get your property returned, you will not receive compensation for the loss, and the perpetrator will probably not be caught.
So what then to do? The State is at once telling you, you may not use private violence to solve your problem, because in this case, violence is the sole purview of the State. But the State refuses to exercise violence to vindicate your rights. You must, therefore remain a victim in perpetuity, or else oppose the State in its arbitrary restrictions on your rights.
Seen through this lens, the problem with the current scope of the law concerning self-defense and defense of property is easily observed, and as easily corrected: abolish the law that says you cannot use private violence to protect your property, where the State either cannot or will not use violence on your behalf.
My attitude on this matter, say in the case of a shop owner whose store is being smashed by rioters, is that the property destroyed was all insured anyway, and the owner will be recompensed. But why should the owner be forced to pay the increased premiums for a fully preventable disaster? Because the premiums will be increased. And if they are not, why should the insurance company suffer the damage caused by a rioter, through no fault of the company, when the damage could have been prevented through the use of violence (State or private)?
Human life is precious, and of far more value than things. But some people so act as to forfeit any claim on their lives, because they knowingly risk death. If you break into the power substation and electrocute yourself, your foolishness does not mean you deserve death, but it is a natural, foreseeable consequence. If you drink to intoxication and then drive on a busy highway, you do not deserve to crash and die – that is, death is not the appropriate penalty for your behavior – but death is a natural, foreseeable consequence. Just so, if you break into a warehouse to steal or break another man’s property, capital punishment by the State is not appropriate, but death may still be the natural and foreseeable consequence. It is time that our legal system recognized this.
Consider this recent case: a Colorado man was assaulted by an armed invader, and tied up in his own home. The invader took the man’s car keys and went to flee the scene in a stolen car. The homeowner escaped his bonds, got his gun, and shot at the robber. The robber was struck and killed. As you may suspect, the homeowner now faces homicide charges for his actions.
Under the current state of the law, the Colorado man is clearly in violation. He has no right to armed self-defense except to protect against an imminent threat to life, and when the robber is fleeing the scene (in the victim’s stolen vehicle!) he does not pose any threat of death or physical injury. The State will allow private violence, but does not extend its tolerance so far. But what if the man had not shot? The perpetrator would have driven away in the stolen car. What is the likelihood it would have been found and recovered? Or, if recovered, that it would be undamaged and still drivable? But the State is not concerned with such problems – the homeowner must simply accept his fate, and that in the name of Order, but at the expense of Justice.
Remember that the State does not owe you protection. Not for your life, not for your health, and not for your property. If you call the police for help and the police do not arrive, you cannot sue for relief, you cannot make demands on them that they repay your loss. That is an extremely important point: you gave up your right to use private violence to the State, on the assurance that the State would exercise violence on your behalf, to vindicate your rights while preserving order and justice. Where the State refuses to exercise violence on your behalf, it has no moral right to refuse your use of private violence to vindicate your rights.
If all of that is true in the case of an injustice wrought by some petty crook against your moveable property, how much more so in the case of an injustice wrought by the State itself? You can sue the State to vindicate your rights. In America, that might even work, because our country is relatively un-corrupt, compared to other nations. But even if you win, the State has the ability to make your ordeal as miserable, expensive, time-consuming, and humiliating as it wants.
To the extent that the State upholds its bargain to use violence on your behalf, in order to preserve justice and order, you have an obligation to yield up your use of violence to the State. But no one, not the most ardent Statist, believes that the State can and will always use violence on your behalf, in a timely manner, such that justice and order will prevail. Exceptions must, therefore, exist in the State’s restriction on private violence.
V. Private Violence to Preserve Order and Justice Must be Effective
It is one thing to admit that the State cannot always preserve order and justice, and that therefore private violence must sometimes be admitted. But it is something else entirely for the State to allow the means for such violence to be effective. No one will be satisfied if a 90 pound woman is attacked by a 250 pound aggressor, and the local constable looks on, smiles benevolently, and gives the woman permission to struggle for her life. We would all regard that constable, correctly, as a monster.
The fact is, sometimes private individuals need to resort to violence, and that is so regardless of the fact that not all private individuals have the physical size or prowess necessary to do so against a determined attacker. In such cases, it is not permission alone – it is not the State’s guarantee of leniency in the event that you should survive the encounter, or a promise not to prosecute if you should injure the man who is trying to injure you, that is of any worth.
Such an attitude, such a posture, is very much like the wicked man in the Epistle of James: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)(NIV). The apostle used this absurd situation to illustrate the relationship of faith and works, assuming every reader would understand the absurdity. Yet some fail to see the absurdity, apparently, and indeed embrace it, when they admit the right to self-defense, but deny the ability to give substance to that right.
Effective, private violence is not restricted to the use of force, but also the credible threat of force. When the Sheriff goes to repossess a building, if he anticipates resistance, will bring with him trained deputies, bearing the insignia of the county, with bullet-proof vests and powerful weapons. The Sheriff does not do this in the hopes of he will need to use force, but because he hopes that the credible display of force will cause his adversary to yield, and because if force should become necessary, he wants to end the conflict quickly and effectively. If a man confronts an intruder in his house, and the intruder surrenders without a fight upon realizing the homeowner has a firearm, then force has been effectively deployed even without physical harm.
VI. Violence is More Effective When Mechanized
One of my favorite essays I’ve ever read is about how guns make civilization possible. The author writes effectively and persuasively that “[t]he gun is the only personal weapon that puts a 100-pound woman on equal footing with a 220-pound mugger, a 75-year old retiree on equal footing with a 19-year old gang banger, and a single guy on equal footing with a carload of drunk guys with baseball bats. The gun removes the disparity in physical strength, size, or numbers between a potential attacker and a defender.”
Guns are tools. They are like hammers and saws and drills, in the sense that they are inanimate objects, without moral value in and of themselves. They can make a job easier, or they can be misused to cause great damage. To me, the words, “I’m anti-gun” sound as silly as “I’m anti-hammer.”
With that in mind, and this might sound a little odd, I don’t think that guns have any special place in our constellation of rights, per se. We don’t have a Second Amendment because guns are awesome, or cool, or loud and explodey. We have them because the Framers recognized their importance as a tool; because tyrants also recognize that importance; because tyrants understand the need to remove that tool in order to effectively tyrannize a populace.
When a private citizen needs to use private violence to preserve order and justice, a gun makes that job easier. Just as a table saw makes the job of cutting one board into two boards – it could be done with other tools (with enough time and determination, you could cut that board in half with sandpaper), but the table saw is the most effective tool for the situation, and therefore the most appropriate to use. Just so with a gun. If you want to stop an intruder, there are many tools you can use, and then there is the appropriate tool.
I have watched training videos on what to do in the event of an active shooter situation, and they all focus on the Run/Hide/Fight principle. Run if you can, hide if running isn’t an option, and fight if options A and B fail. What you should not do is simply lay down and die, or hope that the attacker dies of a stroke, or sit passively and get murdered. And in every one of these training videos, if you get to the Fight stage, the video producer recognizes something very basic, very simple, and yet so important – arm yourself. Grab a chair, grab a stapler, grab a binder or a coffee pot. Grab whatever you can to inflict the maximum amount of damage on your attacker, because something is better than nothing. But you know what is better than something? The right tool for the job, that’s what. You can attack an active shooter with a coffee pot, if that’s all you have, but wouldn’t you rather have a rifle at that moment, as well as the training to use it properly? Of course, because it’s the right tool for the job.
Humans are awfully clever creatures. We have spent the last 100,000 years dominating the other species on Earth by building better tools than them. We build better alarm clocks, better toothpaste tubes, better CERNS, better magnifying glasses, and better pointed sticks. Along the way, some awfully clever humans figured out how to propel little bits of metal through a tube using explosions. That’s incredibly cool. Then we refined that process and made it better and better – just as we did with alarm clocks and toothpaste tubes – to better accomplish our goals. To deny ourselves the use of those tools in the situations where they are most needed is the height of foolishness. To deny ourselves out of a sense of civility or honor, faced with an opponent who knows nothing of civility or honor, is madness.
It is not merely in historical or Constitutional argument that the right to bear arms finds its basis, but in pure, philosophical inquiry. If this discussion has any utility, it is to illustrate not that we have a right to bear arms, but why we have that right, apart from a statement in the Constitution. This reasoning, therefore, applies equally well in societies that restrict or deny the right entirely.