Should We Get Rid of Guns?

You will not be surprised to learn that my answer is no, but what I’d like to discuss in this week’s column is an argument by an eminent philosopher that we should. Robert Hanna is an authority on Kant (Objectivist readers will already see trouble ahead), and in an article published online this month, “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument for Gun Abolitionism,” he calls for the repeal of the Second Amendment.

He presents his argument for gun abolitionism in two versions, short and long, and oddly the key premises of the short argument are ones that most readers of the Mises page will accept: “1. Coercion is forcing people to do things, by using violence or the threat of violence. 2. Coercion is always rationally unjustified and immoral, because it treats people as instruments and mere things, and directly violates their human dignity.”

You might wonder, “How could you possibly derive support for gun abolitionism from these premises? Hanna has restated the nonaggression principle, and isn’t the right to self-defense, including the right to own guns, an implication of that principle?” If you ask this question, you have failed to notice something, and the fault is not yours. Hanna’s second premise differs crucially from the nonaggression principle, in a way that is so implausible it’s easy to overlook. Unlike the NAP, the second premise does not say that coercion is unjustified, except in response to aggression, or, better phrased, that use of force or threat of force to resist aggression isn’t coercion at all. It says that coercion is always wrong, and this includes the use or threat of violence to repel force initiated against you. From this premise, the argument proceeds apace: the main purpose of guns is coercion and guns are involved in an enormous amount of coercion; owning or using guns is immoral; the Second Amendment gives people the right to own and use guns; therefore, the Second Amendment should be repealed and a universal ban imposed on guns.

The second premise might well support gun abolitionism, but it seems extraordinarily implausible. It would in essence say, “Coercion is wrong, but using force or its threat to resist coercion directed against you is also wrong.” Who but an absolute pacifist, meaning by that someone who not only rejects all war but also violence in all social relationships, could take this idea seriously? And the premise goes further than pacifism, if that is understood as forbidding the use of violence in all circumstances. That view doesn’t rule out the threat of force, so long as you don’t carry out the threat. By the way, there is a parallel between the second premise and Kant’s theory of revolution, as it is often interpreted. Kant thought that political revolutions are always wrong but that if a revolution succeeds, it is wrong for the former government, or anyone else, to overthrow the new regime.

When we come to the long version of the argument, it turns out that Hanna’s aware of the implausibility of the consequences of his second premise. He thinks he can hold on to the second premise while avoiding these consequences. He says,

Moreover, please don’t let the fact that under some critical—in the sense of “involving a crisis”—circumstances, then minimal sufficiently effective, last-resort defensive, protective, and preventive moral force is indeed rationally justified and morally permissible, perhaps even morally required, conceptually confuse you. More precisely, it’s true that under some special critical circumstances, when things are not equal, when all else has failed, and the only way to stop bad people from doing something horrendously immoral, and in direct violation of human dignity—for example rape, torture, murder, mass murder, genocide to you, to someone else, or to many other people, then you might be coerced by these people, as Hamlet says, to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.”

Hanna can’t have it both ways. The long version of the argument denies just what the short version asserts, i.e., that coercion, in his definition any use or threat of violence, is always wrong: it says that coercion can be permissible or even morally obligatory. He tries to get out of this predicament with a transparent evasion: he says that if you use defensive violence, you have been coerced by the perpetrators of coercion to a coercive response. This isn’t a slip: he repeats this a few sentences later. He compares a case where you use defensive coercion to a situation where you “are being coerced by bad people—say by threatening you with a gun—into taking opioids.”

But if someone attacks you, he isn’t forcing you to use force to defend yourself. Someone who fires a gun at you probably prefers that you don’t fire back. Maybe Hanna means that in certain situations, you have no choice whether to respond with force, so your doing so is excusable, but this is mistaken. You do have a choice how to respond.

If the long version of the argument is accepted, i.e., it’s all right, or maybe even required, to use defensive violence, then there is no argument at all for gun abolitionism. Hanna has first given us an absurd premise that does lend support to gun abolitionism, withdrawn the premise in a way that eviscerates the argument for gun abolitionism, and then pretended the second argument is just a minor variant of the first. Given these gross errors, it’s a comparatively minor failing that he has misread the quotation from Hamlet that he uses to characterize defensive violence. When Hamlet talks about “taking arms against a sea of troubles,” he isn’t thinking about how to resist bad people; he is contemplating suicide.

Hanna does make a good point about the Second Amendment. Many people who oppose private ownership of guns say that the amendment applies only to people serving in the militia and isn’t an individual right to keep and bear arms, but Hanna correctly notes that the amendment

says that “the people,” that is, all Americans, have the moral and legal right “to keep and bear arms,” that is, the moral and legal right to own, carry, or use guns, unconditionally…. The further historical question of whether the original intention of [t]he 2nd Amendment was to establish a moral and legal right to own[,] carry, or use guns for militias only, or for all Americans, is irrelevant. (emphasis in original)

That is an excellent point and remains so even though he misdates the amendment’s ratification to 1788, the year before the new government under the Constitution came into effect.

If you know him only through this article, you might not suspect that Hanna has published outstanding philosophical work. But not this time.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.