Value and Gun Rights

The American Dream

I’ve mentioned before that philosophers distinguish between lumpers and splitters. Splitters take a category of things, actions, concepts and show that there are important distinctions to be made within that category such that we should really see it as two (or more) distinct categories. For example, someone might argue that ‘motor vehicle’ should be treated as two categories because cars and motorcycles are importantly different in the skills required to drive them. 

Lumpers do the opposite. They take what appear to be a collection of distinct things, concepts, or actions and argue that in some important respect they are all the same such that we can treat them as all belonging to the same category. For example, someone might argue that apples and oranges should both be considered ‘fruit’ from the point of view of import taxes.

Shortly following the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication, published an article predictably calling for restraint (i.e., do nothing) with respect to gun control legislation. All the standard arguments were there for why gun control legislation is bad. What stood out to me, however, was the euphemistic lumping of guns as mere tools. Here are a few prominent examples :

The unwillingness to leap to a legal solution to mass gun murders requires recognizing that guns are tools, with genuine uses for personal safety, personal fulfillment, and convenience, just as are cars, as well as noticing that a tiny number of people who own or have access to these specific tools ever use them to harm another human.

For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.

Notice the effect on our emotional response to ‘guns’ when we lump them in with ‘tools’ (and refer to them as such). Much of the emotional charge runs out of the word. I have no doubt that this is what the writers at Reason magazine intended. I assume their thought is something like this: [Read in your learned teacher voice lecturing to students] “If we are to understand the issue of gun violence we must take a cold reasoned approach to the issue. There is no room for irrational emotion.” This is Reason magazine, after all.

Setting aside that most philosophers (since Aristotle) reject the view that all emotions are purely irrational, I want to sporatically adopt this lumping convention for this blogpost: Listen, you hysterical liberals, guns are just tools. There are no relevant distinctions between a philips head screw driver and a gun. They belong in the same category. Settle down.

Before moving forward, I need to quickly introduce a technical term. ‘Preference,’ as it is used in every day speech, is sometimes used differently from its more narrow meaning in economics and political theory. Preference, as it is used technically, is always an expression of relative choice or value; it’s an expression of ranking something relative to some other choice. So, I can never just say I prefer a. I must say that I prefer a to something else. 

P = some person;
a = apples
b = bananas

P {a>b} means that some person prefers apples to bananas.

The main idea here is that whatever we choose, we make that choice in the context of available alternatives. How we rank our preferences is an expression of what we value relative to other things.

Now that we’ve got the fancy talk out of the way, let’s move forward and discuss gun legislation.

Preamble: Gun Violence Statistics and Scope of Argument
I don’t want to turn this post into a cut-and-paste of gun facts. I’ll just pick a few so I have something to work with.

In 2013, there were 73,505 nonfatal firearm injuries (23.2 injuries per 100,000 U.S. citizens),[2][3] and 33,636 deaths due to “injury by firearms” (10.6 deaths per 100,000 U.S. citizens).[4] These deaths consisted of 11,208 homicides,[5] 21,175 suicides,[4] 505 deaths due to accidental or negligent discharge of a firearm, and 281 deaths due to firearms use with “undetermined intent”.[4]
In 2010, 67% of all homicides in the U.S. were committed using a firearm.[7] In 2012, there were 8,855 total firearm-related homicides in the US, with 6,371 of those attributed to handguns.[8] In 2012, 64% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides.[9] In 2010, there were 19,392 firearm-related suicides, and 11,078 firearm-related homicides in the U.S.[10] In 2010, 358 murders were reported involving a rifle while 6,009 were reported involving a handgun; another 1,939 were reported with an unspecified type of firearm.[11] (Wikipedia) 

I will add without argument, because you’re all capable of googling, that the per capita numbers of all kinds of gun deaths, gun crime, and gun injury are much higher in the US when compared to other Western democracies even when crime rates are controlled for.

Finally, let me point out that when I vaguely gesture at ‘gun control legislation’ below, I’m referring to some empirically supported combination waiting periods, background checks, licensing, and training–whatever it turns out to be–to reduce some subset of recognized gun violence. By ‘gun-control legislation’ I do not mean confiscating guns or prohibiting their sale (generally). For some reason any mention of gun control legislation is automatically interpreted, by pro-gun advocates, as confiscation or prohibition. This is not what I (or most gun control advocates) mean.

Reread above as many times as you need to.

Let’s Get Philosophical
With the empirical and technical out of the way, let’s get into the philosophy. The pro-gun lobby argues that we should do nothing in the face of gun violence because they want to own and purchase guns in a way that is unrestricted. Let’s express that in the cool unemotional language of economics. Given a choice between 

a = easy access to tools.

b = even attempting to reduce loss of human life.

The anti-legislation person’s (P) preference ranking looks like this: 

P: {a>b}

Easy access to tools is more important than any attempt to reduce the loss of human life.

Let me reframe that. The average annual death toll from guns is 30 000. Now suppose some piece of legislation could reduce the average gun-related death toll by a paltry 10%. That’s 3000 human lives saved every year. Now, imagine we put 3000 people into a theatre and we say to someone who loves tools: 

You have a choice: we can make everyone wait [insert some trivial number of days] to receive a tool or we can let these 3000 human beings die unnecessarily, and repeat the same thing every year.

The choice the anti any legislation tool-lover makes expresses their preference ranking. More specifically, they are expressing the ranking of their values. The anti any legislation position says, in the language of economics: There is more value in everyone getting tools promptly and without hinderance than there is in 3000 people/year dying preventable deaths.

This, simply put, is the ‘preference ranking’ of the anti-any legislation position.

But It Won’t Work
Now, I know what you’re thinking. But gun control legislation won’t work!!! 

Really? How do you know? Most (but not all) of the evidence points in the other direction for some but not all kinds of gun violence. The exceptions to this trend in the literature are outliers which the pro-tool lobby cites ad nauseam, ignoring the general trend. Why not introduce targeted legislation to address the kinds of violence that seem to respond to legislation in other countries? 

Let’s see what this denial of even attempting targeted legislation expresses in terms of value rankings. In doing so, let’s grant that no one really knows for sure (in the Cartesian sense) whether a particular kind of tool regulation (that somehow works in just about every other Western democracy) will work in the US. Refusing to even try some targeted legislation expresses the following value ranking:

a = easy access to tools  

b = even bothering to try to prevent the loss of 3 000 lives/year

P: {a>b}

In everyday English, this preference ranking expresses the following: 

It’s more important for me have easy access to tools than it is for me to even try saving 3 000 human lives per year from preventable death. That is, me owning a tool and being able to buy tools with minimal restrictions has more value than even trying to prevent the (preventable) loss of 3 000 human lives. 

What the gun-control advocate fails to see is that life’s meaning, purpose, and value comes from owning tools. Tools, not human relationships, not cultivation of ones virtue nor talents, not contribution to one’s community, not preventable human death, are what matter for the good life. A purposeful and meaningful life depend on, above all else, easy, unrestricted, and unfettered tool ownership.  

In support of this view, Aristotle, in The Nichomachean Ethics famously argues that certain external goods are required in order to live the good life. He writes

But nevertheless happiness plainly requires external goods too, as we said; for it is impossible, or at least not easy, to act nobly without some furniture of fortune  GUNZ. There are many things that can only be done through instruments, so to speak, such as friends and wealth and political influence AND GUNZ: and there are some things whose absence takes the bloom off our happiness, as good birth, the blessing of children, GUNZ, and personal beauty; for a man is not very likely to be happy if he is very ugly in person, or of low birth, or alone in the world, or childless, and perhaps still less if he has worthless children or friends, or has lost good ones that he had, OR CAN’T BUY A GUN IMMEDIATELY WITHOUT A BACKGROUND CHECK.


But America Is Different (We’re Special)
It is a common trope of the gun control advocate to bring up how, among comparable Western democracies, tighter gun control legislation correlates positively with lower gun death. What these tool-haters fail to appreciate is that our magical American culture is different! Americans have nothing in common psychologically or sociologically or culturally with other human beings. None of the widely studied tendencies of human behavior apply here. Ipso facto, of all the possible gun control legislations that whose number are limited only by the human imagination, we can with absolute confidence and certainty say that none of them will work here. There is no conceivable way that legislation that works on just about every other human culture on the planet–especially those most resembling our own– could work here. Simply ridiculous to even try.

First of all, this line of thinking is right on both counts. The culture here is different. People here would rather own tools, unfettered and unrestricted, than attempt to reduce the total 30 000 human lives lost per year to tool violence. That, however, is a cultural problem, not something to puff your chest up about. 

Now, here’s the really cool part. “Scientists have determined/studies show” that humans have the capacity to reflect on their practices as revise them in light of those reflections. We are not stuck in the culture we find ourselves in! This is shocking, I know. You might need to pause to catch your breath. 

And so, while it is true that current American tool-loving culture makes it difficult to save potentially tens of thousands of lives/year, with some reflection on its values, it could! All it takes is having the thought that the more or less unrestricted access to tools isn’t as valuable as tens of thousands of human lives/year.

As it stands, the but-American-culture-is-different-therefore-we-shouldn’t-even-try value ranking looks like this: 

a = Maintaining tool-loving at the epicenter of American culture 

b = attempt something to reduce the 30 000 lives/year that are lost. 

P: {a>b}

In plain English, there is more value is continuing to place some kinds of tools at the center of cultural identity than there is value in the lives of the very people who inhabit this community.

To be American means easy access to tools. This matters much more than 10s of thousands of preventable American deaths. Easy access to tools make us who we are. Without our tools and easy access to them we float adrift in a sea of despair with no other possibility of meaning and purpose in sight. Our culture, nay! our very way of life and identity would disintegrate before our eyes without easy access to tools. If 30 000 of us must be sacrificed/year for this end, so be it! We have deliberated and decided what truly matters.

Self-Defense/Protect My Family
Recall the passage from Reason magazine:

For the vast majority of their owners, guns are no more worthy of banning than any other element of their peacefully enjoyed liberty, one tool among many to shape their chosen life and leisure. Banning something that tens of millions of people innocently value and imposing onerous costs on American citizens, generally downward in socioeconomic terms, is a recipe for disaster.

People need to chill. All the anti-legislation people are saying is, “hey man, I just want to be able to own tools.” Of course, not everyone just wants to own tools merely to love them and hold them and squeeze them. Some people make the argument that owning guns is an extension of their inalienable natural right to self-defense. 

For the moment I’m going to ignore that (a) from the right to self-defense it doesn’t follow necessarily that you have a right to every means of self-defense and (b) gun control legislation is not the same as gun prohibition. I want to continue to focus on preferences and their ordering.

It’s not that people merely want the right to own tools it’s that they want the right to ensure the physical safety of their person and family. Guns are merely…uh…tools in this pursuit. Amiright? 

Let’s grant that people have this right. It’s not unreasonable after all. We can then ask the question: Are you and your family safer with a gun-tool in the house than without a gun-tool in the house? If you and your family are safer without a gun-tool, then if your concern truly is safety, you will get rid of your gun-tools. This is something to which there is an empirical answer. It’s a verifiable and falsifiable matter. More on that later…

For now, take my word that as it turns out that you and your family are less safe with gun-tools in the house. So, if you insist on keeping gun-tools in your house then your concern really isn’t safety or self-defense. You value having gun tools more than you value you and your family’s safety. We can express the preference ranking like this:

Hypothetical: You and your family are less safe with a gun-tool in the house. 

a=have gun tool in the house.

b=you and your family’s safety. 

P: {a>b}

If they hypothetical turns out to be true then the preference ranking says this: There is more value in having a gun tool in my house than there is value in the safety of myself and my family.

This being a hypothetical, for fun let’s see what the literature says regarding safety and gun ownership…

For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides. 

Domestic violence assaults involving a firearm are 12 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily forceLinda E. Saltzman, et al., Weapon Involvement and Injury Outcomes in Family and Intimate Assaults, 267 JAMA, 3043-3047 (1992) 

Abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm

More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun. U.S. children and teens made up 43 percent of all children and teens in top 26 high income countries but were 93 percent of all children and teens killed by guns. 

In 2010, children and teen gun death rates in the U.S. were over four times higher than in Canada, the country with the next highest rate, nearly seven times higher than in Israel, and nearly 65 times higher than in the United Kingdom. 

U.S. children and teens were 32 times more likely to die from a gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die from a gun suicide or a gun accident than all their peers in the other high-income countries combined. A child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes. 

Huh. It looks like having gun-tools in the house actually makes you and your family less safe than not having gun tools in the house. Obviously, this isn’t all the literature there is on the matter but the trend is fairly clear.

I could carry on like this all day but the structure of the argument is the same with each iteration. Every objection to even trying out a piece of gun control legislation that targets a subset of gun violence can be expressed as a preference ranking–an ranking of values.
The anti-even-bother-to-try any legislation position always prefers owning a tool to saving human lives. That is, easy access to a tool is always more valuable than human lives.

No irrational emotions needed. This is the cold-hard language of reason.

Loose Ends
“But legislation can’t prevent mass shootings.” My reply is simply to copypasta the intro from a post I made a few years ago:

Mass shootings represent only a very small fraction of gun-related homicides (about 1% depending on the study you read). Even if we increase this number by a factor of 10 we’re still only looking at 10% of gun-related homicides. From the point of view of policy then it makes sense to argue that preventing mass shootings shouldn’t be the primary focus or starting point of gun policy. (Not to say it shouldn’t at all be the focus of policy, only that there are perhaps better starting points, and lower hanging fruit).
Consider: Suppose policy aims to reduce mass shootings but not other forms of gun violence (primarily from hand guns). Even if that policy reduces mass shootings by 50%, of total gun homicides it’s a hollow victory. If however policy reduces other homicides by just 10%, as an absolute number of lives saved, that policy is much more successful. (Assumption: gun violence policy ought to reduce total homicides and injury from guns).

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