The odds that it is being infringed went down this week when, among other things, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision (.pdf)in which it held that the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms applies not only to the federal government but to state and local governments as well.
Because this isn’t a legal blog, I’m going to pass over the legal intricacies and arguments that the case involved (though they are fascinating) and go to the moral issue in question: Is it a good idea for people to have the right to own guns?
Of course, we are not talking about all people without exception. As the decision in this Supreme Court case as well as the previous one noted, lawmakers can reasonably bar felons and the mentally ill from owning guns. (Personally, I would change “felons” to “violent criminals,” due to the absurd extent to which federal law has started classifying things as felonies; I’d also shore up “mentally ill” to make sure that only those who pose a danger to themselves or others are intended, due to the tendencies to classify everything under the sun as a mental illness, but those are other issues.) The question is: Should ordinary, law-abiding, mentally stable individuals be allowed to own guns?
And by “guns” I mean “firearms that are in functional condition,” not “pieces of disassembled metal that could be taken out of a locked container and/or assembled and/or unlocked and/or loaded and so be turned into functional firearms in a few minutes time.” (Sorry for the verbal gymnastics, but that is the state of affairs to which opponents of gun rights have pushed things.)
So: Should ordinary people be allowed to own guns?
Guns are marvelous tools. That’s why we fight wars with them. On a smaller scale, we also defend ourselves with them, we hunt with them, obtain food with them, control dangerous predators like bears and mountain lions with them, control animal populations like deer that would otherwise suffer unless culled, signal the start of sporting events with them, and use them in marksmanship competitions.
The last two cases are atypical. Starter pistols are loaded with blanks or caps and are or are used in a deliberately non-lethal way. Similarly, marksmanship competitions are not the main use for which guns are intended.
The situations we are concerned with are those in which guns are aimed at their primary targets: animals or humans.
What about animals?
The Church acknowledges that animals do not have rights the way humans do. Consequently, it is never murder to kill an animal and we have the right to eat animals, use their skins, etc. Unnecessary cruelty toward animals is a sin, but this involves an abuse of human nature rather than a violation of an animal’s rights. Activities like hunting, obtaining food, eliminating predators that pose a danger to humans or livestock, and culling animal populations to keep them in balance are morally licit in principle.
Still, these considerations don’t go to the use of firearms that gun control advocates are most concerned about, so let’s look at the issue of using firearms against other humans.
What we are talking about, essentially, is war on the individual scale.
The Church views war as something that is always a tragedy, but it acknowledges that the use of warfare is mortally legitimate when a nation needs to protect its (or others’) interests and there is no less destructive practically way to do this.
In the same way, the Church recognizes an individual right of self defense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. the one is intended, the other is not.”
Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm [CCC 2263-2265].
So we have a right, and at times a duty, to use lethal force in defending life. Does that translate into a right to own guns?
Well, guns are remarkably good tools for administering lethal force—and by extension they are remarkably good tools for keeping aggressors at bay. They are also tremendous equalizers.
Put on your Father Brown hat for a moment and think like a criminal—a home invader. Whose home do you want to invade? One with a bunch of people in it, including at least one large adult male? Or a home with only one person in it, who happens to be smaller, female, and perhaps elderly? If you are a home invader, you stand a better chance at holding your own in the latter circumstance than the former, making it the logical (if monstrous) choice for you.
But suppose the little old lady has a gun! And goes to the range regularly! And has carefully thought through what she would do in the event of a home invasion!
Suddenly you’re on a much more equal footing with your potential victim—even if you, the home invader, yourself have a gun.
And, of course, criminals often do have guns. If the one attempting to victimize you has one, and if you have a right and/or duty to defend yourself against him (which the Church acknowledges you do) then that right entails the means you will need to perform the act of legitimate defense. In other words, it entails a right and/or duty to use a gun—unless you have some other means of effectively defending yourself against an attacker with a gun (e.g., maybe you’re Wonder Woman and can do bullets and bracelets).
Or suppose that your attacker doesn’t have a gun but that he’s just much more physically powerful, agile, and skilled at violence than you are. To exercise your right to or fulfill your duty to perform legitimate defense in such a situation, you need something to equalize matters, and a gun is a very good option. Perhaps the only one.
It would be wonderful if we lived in a world in which all weapons could be beaten into ploughshares and nobody would make individual war any more, but we’re not in that world, yet, and ordinary people still have that right and/or duty to defend themselves and others, using lethal force if necessary.
So there is a significant case to be made that ordinary, law-abiding, mentally-stable people ought to be able to own guns.
Of course, there are arguments against this—that having more guns around increases gun violence, that there would be gun accidents, etc.
There are two sides to this story, as there are to so many, and people on both sides of the issue need to have their facts and arguments vetted.
Statistical arguments are interesting and need to be given their proper weight. So does the question of what you, personally, would do if you (God forbid) find yourself in such a desperate situation.
Because the saying is true: When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.
What are your thoughts?