Personal Armament #
Before we talk about this at all, I want to get one thing out of the way:
The 2nd amendment does not make gun ownership right or wrong. Laws - including the constitution - do not dictate morality and ethics. We all know there are unjust laws and many choose to break them because of it. So, if you use the argument “But Muh Constitution!” you’ve already made a bad argument.
To begin, let’s suppose that self-defense were not a problem because everyone was nice. Why own a gun?
Basically, the only reasons left are related to sporting and hunting (which for guns at least, is almost entirely a sport nowadays). And even keeping guns for that reason carries risks.
A laxly secured gun can be stolen, misused by friends or family, or used in a suicide rather than a homicide. Even worse is when they are unsecured around children.
Okay, sure, you can do some advanced gun security, including using “smart guns” which can only be fired by the owner; however, that still means they could be used by the owner, most notably for domestic violence. Of course, now we’ve left our “Everybody is nice” scenario, though.
While the actual usability of a handgun for self-defense against burglaries is questionable (you are vastly more likely to be shot with your own gun by a burglar than the other way around), what about the philosophy of self-defense in general?
This comes down to two arguments, both of which are based on evidence.
The Leviathan: The Case Against Personal Self Defense #
In his book The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously explains why government (in his case, a strong monarchy) should have a monopoly on the use of violence.
First, he observes that before large-scale societies, the life of humans was “nasty, brutish and short.” This is because of the anarchy trap, which pulls groups/clans into generations long blood feuds and cycles of violence, grievance upon grievance piling up.
He also points out why these feuds start, which previous philosophers missed: it is rational to strike pre-emptively without a cause. If you live near someone you don’t like, you know that sooner or later, you’ll be fighting them. Why wait until they attack first? If you attacked now, you could get the upper hand.
Subsequent archeology bears this out. Humans living in Africa tens of thousands of years ago had an adult homicide rate of approximately 25% – described as a murder rate today of 25,000 per 100,000 people.
While one could easily write this off as a bunch of tribal “wars”, it is not at all. Lots of people within tribes killed each other. And this pattern of violence is borne out by later history as well.
During the middle ages, as the current nations of Europe began to take shape, violence declined according to historians. Even in times of peace, it was higher in the 15th century than the 16th century. Why is that?
Thomas Hobbes argues it’s because of government, specifically monarchy. When people live under a monarchy, they must delegate their use of violence to the crown. The job of this “leviathan” is to keep a monopoly on the use of violence, and punish those who use it on their own.
Feuding lords centuries earlier would just round up peasants and family, and march into their peer’s territory and take things. The crown, however, doesn’t want such needless death and destruction from any taxpayer. Instead, that lord would have to go to court and arbitrate the dispute peacefully.
This not only reduced violence, but Hobbes argues changed the way Britons thought about violence to begin with, creating a “deterrence” effect. Only those without access to fair justice – serfs in England and subjects out in “rural” Scotland – kept their “deadly quarrels”. Historians today back that up with data.
You can see this principle operating today in the United States: the “deadly quarrels” of the masses are mostly occurring in neighborhoods and among people who do not trust the police to settle their disputes.
Many communities of color have a good reason not to, which explains the “inner city” violence statistics. On the other hand, rural whites in certain parts of the country settled by Scots fleeing british tyranny have an “honor culture”, wtih the idea that one must personally defend honor – not delegate that to the state. This used to be the basis of duels, a widespread practice in the US, but died out except among these whites during the 19th century.
Above a very low background level of 2-3 murders per 100,000 – crimes of passion and the like – most of the homicides in the United States take this form. Even the majority of mass shootings in the FBI statistics are just “extra deadly quarrels”, focused around those the shooter knows personally and has grievances with.
Following this bit of sociology, no one should personally own a gun unless they are at great personal risk: cops, licensed private eyes, current and former spies, and so forth.
However, there is a counter-argument to this.
Anarchistic Decline: The Case Against Hobbes #
Many anarchists believe that Thomas Hobbes was wrong, and cite modern statistics which suggest violence is driven by other things.
There is a well-known mystery in sociology circles: a sharp rise in all crimes, violent and not, during the middle decades of the 20th century, followed by a precipitous decline.
Sociologists have tried to explain this in many ways, from legalizing abortion, to changes in education, to drug policy, to gun control. But none of them quite fit. The most interesting one I’ve come across, which is a pretty good fit for the curve is, based on the phase-out of leaded gasoline.
The point here, however, is not which explanation is correct. It is to point out an example of a secular trend which is not affected by the “deterrence” of the leviathan.
As another example, consider something else the leviathan deters against: property crimes. These crimes have been on a secular decline, accelerating in the past several years, and ever more so during COVID. The size of police budgets hasn’t changed. Instead, people have become less mobile (even during lockdowns), and poverty has been reduced, especially child poverty.
These social causes, in the Anarchist view, are the real causes of all crime, including violent crime. Living under a leviathan, they argue, has shown people that it is actually in their own self-interest to arbitrate rather than reach for violence as a tool at all.
Many middle-class people have learned not to rely on the police if their cars are stolen, merely their insurance company to take that risk for them pay them out. Even more than that, the majority of citizen see the current methods of “justice” as doing more harm than good, and this still holds true even for those that are victims of serious crimes: rehabilitation is preferred over long punishment like lengthy prison sentences. (source)
Restorative justice programs are based on this premise: there is no need for leviathan punishment to deter crime, people see arbitration and recompense positively on their own merits.
Anarchists want to use this argument to completely get rid of the leviathan, but that is a larger topic. The main point is, under this rubric, anyone who wants a gun should get one – because as a secular trend, very few people want one. It trusts those individuals to have a good reason, and still see themselves as part of a community.
Other Arguments You Should Think About #
Assuming we agree on X, what about Y?
- if we agree guns are okay, what guns?
- Limits on firing rate?
- Limits on magazine size?
- if we agree that some people shouldn’t have guns, who?
- Mental health checks?
- Should you need a license to own any gun?
- How do we keep these restrictions from being racist or classist?
- if we agree that guns are useful for self defense, when is shooting someone right?
- Is it okay to shoot strictly to defend property?
A note on statistics #
Many pro or anti-gun stats you read are bullshit, or at least framed into being bullshit. My favorite is anything relating to “Do gun control laws work?” because, depending on where you look, the answer varies, and like, no shit the answer will be different depending on if you’re looking at an already high crime, marginalized community with distrust of the police or a low crime, wealthy white suburb.(1) Really, the biggest problem here is that we’re trying to work with to many variables and assumptions about what can be changed - the effectiveness of gun control will depend on an areas education level, poverty rate, culture, and obviously the crime rate. That said, it’s also pretty obvious the homicide rate (and so crime rate) will be influenced by the number of guns- though the direction of that influence may change depending on the other factors! Basically, if you want numbers that mean anything, you need to ask more specific questions.
So What Do? #
Read arguments and decide for yourself. I can see both sides as reasonable (2).
Oh, and don’t ever tell me that you need a gun “just in case we have to overthrow the government.” After January 6th, 2021, I will not tolerate that bullshit.
Required viewing: Texas Students Opt For C*cks Not Glocks: The Daily Show (YouTube)
- This also brings up the question of "Are Gun Control Laws Racist?" if they're heavily targeted at minority neighborhoods, and yeah, that's a legitimate point. in 2021, the Rittenhouse case (where a white, 17yo openly carried an AR-15 shot into a crowd that was protesting the death of Jacob Blake, a black man that was murdered by police, was ultimately fonud not guilty) makes an interesting point of the disparity between the treatment of gun ownersip based on skin color. That said, while it is possible for gun control laws to be racist directly - such as targetting specific neighboorhods - it is more likely that the law is written well intentioned but executed with prejudice, such as when MLK was denied a concealed carry permit even after his house had been firebombed. This moves the question into one about police and executive branch refrom though, which isn't the point of this section.
- ...sort of reasonable. Unfettered, you can buy an AR-15 at any WalMart with no background check is obviously crazy. Similarly, saying absolutely no guns ever isn't really right, as many people do enjoy them for sport, even at shooting ranges which are nutritiously incredibly safe. I really don't think many people are arguing for either extreme though, so really all I ask is that you give it some real thought and consider where you fall on that spectrum.