Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Aurora Tragedy Once Again Exposes America's Love Affair With Guns

Last night's horrible tragedy in Aurora was perpetrated by a lone gunman with an unidentified motive. While more information will undoubtedly lead to more of an understanding of what led this man to do what he did, there is one thing that we do know at this point: if he did not have access to these weapons, this tragedy would not have happened.

Advocates of gun ownership have many strong points in the ongoing national discussion of the place of guns in our culture. In America's early days, gun ownership was near a necessity. Without a national army, local militias would band together to make up the army when war or other conflicts broke out. Thus, the bill of rights guarantees the people that "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Today, population density and the increased prevalence of the handgun has changed the dynamics of the country. Weapons are used less for hunting and self-defense than they are used for gang violence and crime. The conditions of our country have changed, but our laws have not changed with them.

The question before us is whether our gun policy in America does more harm than good. In rural areas, it makes sense to allow for rifle ownership. Allowing controlled hunting helps stem the tide of problems such as deer overpopulation in these areas, and rifles are not generally used for killing sprees or gang warfare in rural areas.

But when we look at the situation in America overall, there is little reason to say that citizens need handguns, shotguns, or automatic assault rifles. The question is this: can the government sufficiently enforce such a law without overstepping the bounds of liberty? This is an empirical question that needs research to bear out. In the United Kingdom, they have been able to do it, but the United States is admittedly a very different country demographically than the UK.

Past the empirical point, if we were able to establish that legislation with proper enforcement could lead to decreased gun-related murders, the question would be this: are we willing to curb the liberty of owning a gun so that people can have the liberty of life? In order to answer this question, it is useful to refer to philosopher John Rawls' distinction between liberty and the value of liberty as put forth in his book Political Liberalism.

A liberty is described as an ability to actually do something. The value of that liberty is how our situation allows us to take advantage of that liberty to live fulfilling lives. The mistake that many gun-rights advocates make is that they see liberty in black/white, yes/no terms. This is characterized by understanding the concept of liberty without understanding the concept of value of liberty. While allowing broad gun ownership almost undoubtedly contributes to the case of liberty in the strict sense, it creates a great threat to value of other core liberties.

And which liberties are threatened by gun ownership? In Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech in his 1941 address to congress, Roosevelt lays out four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Defenders of guns find themselves enamored by the shiny seduction of the firearm, and we all feel it. But when Americans live in a country where they fear late night walks because of the threat of a weapon, when a young family in Denver needs to think twice about take their child to the theatre because of what happened a couple of weeks ago in a theatre downtown, that is when we have taken our obsession with want a little too far. Gun owners cling to guns as a protection, but our only way to become free from fear is to give up our want, and the only way for them to become free from their want is to give up their fear.

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