Gun control part 3: the precautionary principle and utilitarianismon January 25, 2013 at 6:23 pm
In situations where there are potential dangers associated with actions, but the evidence is unclear as to whether these harms exist in actuality, the precautionary principle is the logical way to proceed. The precautionary principle holds that if an action has the potential to cause harm, and the evidence itself is uncertain, then the action should not proceed until evidence is shown that it is safe. In other words, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Now this principle is problematic if doing nothing is just as risky (or is suspected of being just as risky) as undertaking the action in question. In the case of firearms, where gun advocates argue that violence will increase if more stringent gun controls are introduced, while gun opponents argue that lives are being lost if they are not, we might find ourselves in a bind as to which way the precautionary principle should be applied.
When it is considered that the evidence on the risks and harms associated with gun control are uncertain (see part 2), but it is more certain that firearm homicides will decrease if stricter gun controls are introduced, then the logical course of action is to introduce greater gun controls.
While most firearm related homicides do not involve semi-automatic weapons, most mass shootings do (Follman et al, 2012). The gun reforms proposed by President Obama are directed at reducing the cases of mass shootings. It is common sense that any measure that increases the amount of reloads (by reducing magazine size) and slows the rate of fire will offer more time for intended victims to escape and perpetrators to be subdued (particularly if by-standers are in possession of a firearm – albeit a non-automatic weapon).
While some might argue that someone intent on carrying out a mass killing can find other means to inflict casualties (e.g., with a home-made bomb), the removal of semi-automatic weapons might decrease the ease with which mass killing tools could be produced or obtained and could limit the number of shooting sprees from those acting on impulse rather than carefully planning their attacks. On the other hand, it is pointed out by gun advocates that two handguns and a shotgun would achieve the same result, so the benefits of banning semi-automatic weapons is debatable. Also, a ban on semi-automatic weapons will not significantly reduce gun-related homicides. Finally, the effectiveness of any ban would rely on a decrease in access to these weapons for those likely to misuse them. In other words, it is not sufficient to ban the legal sale of these sorts of weapons if they may still be readily obtained through illegal means – this would defeat the whole purpose.
Whether a ban on semi-automatic weapons would limit the ability of citizens to defend themselves (such as in cases where there are multiple attackers or long shoot-outs) is a tricky one in the absence of research to draw conclusions about their deterrence value. A semi-automatic weapons is conceivably useful in cases where there are multiple attackers or sustained shoot-outs.
We are not left with any viable alternatives. Tighter regulation of those with mental illnesses (with many mass shooters being subsequently associated with a mental illness) are not likely to work given the difficulties in diagnosing patients, yet alone enforcing mental health professionals to report to authorities (many of whom are committed to the principle of client confidentiality).
The question of whether to introduce a full ban on firearms is also a tricky issue. Putting aside the difficulties of changing the Second Amendment (which needs a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states to be enacted), a full firearms ban raises the issue of an increase in vulnerability. If the illegal possession of guns remains widespread after a full ban is implemented, then this will leave many who now own a gun for protection feeling vulnerable. Whether or not owning a gun actually makes one less vulnerable to attack is not so much the question here – it is a matter of psychological well-being at the very least.
The utilitarian principle, however, holds that it is the greater good not the satisfaction of the minority that is important. Having said this, the utilitarian principle could work both ways in the gun debate, with each side claiming that their position serves the greater good. Given the lack of information of what would be in the greater good when it comes to gun reform (partly due to the lack of research undertaken on gun control, as mentioned in part 2), the utilitarian argument is difficult to apply at present.
The other point to make about utilitarianism is that it is not necessarily consistent with rights that protect individual freedoms. That’s one of the reasons that gun control is compared (rather crudely it must be said) by some gun proponents with Nazism or Communism.
There are other issues relevant here, such as the pro-gun view that gun ownership is necessary as a means of potential resistance against tyranny, whether from their own governments or foreign governments that may one day invade the United States. It is difficult to think of either scenarios unfolding, but that does not stop some Americans from fearing such things (and Hollywood has certainly made such scenarios the basis of films and television shows, such as Red Dawn, Terminator and Jericho). Much of these views are tied up with government scepticism that often involves conspiracy theories and unwarranted fears. But that is not to say that they cannot happen. There are also cases like the LA Riots where anarchical situations do arise that would warrant defense considerations consistent with a militia response.
So where does this leave us? Well, for me in a state of some uncertainty. Although I believe the best society is one where there is no need to possess weapons for self-defence (because in an ideal world there would be no violence where self-defence is required), of course, we do not live in such a world. I agree with the gun advocates’ view that ‘guns don’t kill, only people do’, which is to say that the reduction of violence is not contingent on the introduction of tighter gun restrictions, because ultimately it is up to individuals to restrain themselves from violence. On the other hand, the reduction of firearm-related homicides (including suicides, where the availability of guns arguably increases the ease with which someone can take their life) certainly does seem related, and it is also true that mental illness and ‘passion’ related crime means that self-restraint is not viable (despite the best efforts at screening). So while people, not guns, do kill, they have a much harder time killing if they don’t have access to a gun.
So it comes down to this – is it better to (potentially) reduce deaths by firearms but increase people’s sense of vulnerability? That is the choice that American society faces. As a non-citizen of the United States (I am Australian), it is not a choice that I have to make. Australia made its choice back in 1996 to ban guns in the wake of a terrible mass shooting tragedy, and very few Australians look back and think it was the wrong one. But despite many similarities (in fact, arguably no other two countries are more alike), Australia is not America. Americans need to carefully think through the matter in the coming years, and try to put aside their irrational arguments and unproven views (like ‘guns save lives’) and think more objectively and rational about the issue. In the fourth and final article, I will discuss where I think the gun debate should head.