With Gun Control, Cost Benefit Analysis Is Amoral
Before the Newtown horror, I, like many people, was in conflict regarding gun control. On the one hand, guns are dangerous. Their wide availability means people can kill on impulse, and surely that means more domestic quarrels turn into killings. And only anarchists would deny Ayn Rand’s point that “the government is the means of placing the use of retaliatory force under objective control.”
On the other hand, what about those who want to use guns to defend themselves? What about people who aren’t ever going to fly into a rage and shoot anyone in anger? And at Newtown, wouldn’t a few armed adults have meant that the lives of many of those children could have been spared? We don’t need statistical studies to know that banning guns from cities doesn’t stop criminals from getting them.
Note that this “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” does not arise from looking at different aspects of the same case but from focusing on two different kinds of cases. The pro-gun side focuses on cases of legitimate self-defense (and hunting and target-shooting). The anti-gun side focuses on wrongful uses of guns: the Newton killer or an enraged husband who shoots his wife (and on deaths from accidents with guns).
Both sides are looking at cases that are real. The question is: how can we take all of them into account? What is the proper way to think about this issue?
The answer I’ve come to is radical: reject entirely the collectivist mindset. Don’t look at populations; don’t ask: among 300 million Americans, would law X result in more lives being saved than lost? That sort of cost-benefit analysis is amoral; lives are not balanceable one against the other. And, in practice, it leads to endlessly battling statistical studies. I realized I should not take a God’s eye perspective, looking down on the flock, seeking to preserve the herd. Mankind is not a herd.
Junking the collectivist approach, ridding myself of the idea that the lives of the few can be sacrificed to the lives of the many, I found the issue almost settled itself. Taking the individualist approach, I asked myself: what laws should the individual be subject to? What is the principle governing the individual’s relation to the state?
The principle is “individual rights”–your rights and mine.
Rights define the proper limits of state action. They recognize the areas within which the individual is sovereign, entitled to act on his own judgment, free from interference by his fellow man and by the state. The fundamental right is the right to life. Its expressions are the right to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. As the Declaration states, government is established “to secure these rights.”
To secure them against what? There is only one thing that can deprive a man of his life, liberty, or property: physical force. Only guns, clubs, chains, jails, or some form of nonconsensual physical contact can kill you, injure you, or negate your ability to act on your own judgment. The proper job of government is to protect the individual’s rights by wielding retaliatory force against the force initiated by criminals or foreign aggressors.
The issue with guns is the threat of force. But the threat of force is force. Orders issued at gunpoint are as coercive–as rights-violating–as laying on hands and overpowering you. (All this is explained in more detail in Ayn Rand’s articles “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government.”) The government may use force only against an objective threat of force. Only that constitutes retaliation.
In particular, the government may not descend to the evil of preventive law. The government cannot treat men as guilty until they have proven themselves to be, for the moment, innocent. No law can require the individual to prove that he won’t violate another’s rights, in the absence of evidence that he is going to.
But this is precisely what gun control laws do. Gun control laws use force against the individual in the absence of any specific evidence that he is about to commit a crime. They say to the rational, responsible gun owner: you may not have or carry a gun because others have used them irrationally or irresponsibly. Thus, preventive law sacrifices the rational and responsible to the irrational and irresponsible. This is unjust and intolerable.
The government may coercively intervene only when there is an objective threat that someone is going to use force. The remaining issue is: what constitutes an objective threat?
An objective threat is constituted by specific evidence of a clear and present danger to someone’s person or property. For instance, waving a gun around (“brandishing”) is an objective threat to the individuals in the vicinity. Having a rifle at home in the attic is not. Carrying a concealed pistol is not (until and unless it is drawn). Yes, there are always borderline cases, but rational standards, such as “clear and present danger,” can be set.
Statistics about how often gun-related crimes occur in the population is no evidence against you. That’s collectivist thinking. The choices made by others are irrelevant to the choices that you will make.
People understand the wrongness of collectivist thinking in other cases. They would indignantly reject the idea that a member of a given racial group is under suspicion because 10 percent of those with his skin color commit crimes. But the individualist approach also applies to gun ownership and concealed carrying of guns: group ratios offer no evidence about what a given individual will do.
The fact that a certain percentage of domestic quarrels end in a shooting is no grounds for saying your ownership of a gun is a threat to the members of your household. Likewise, the fact that there are a certain number of accidental injuries from guns is no justification for regulating or banning the ownership of guns for everyone. And The tragic fact that the psychotic killer at Newtown used a gun to kill school children is zero grounds for disarming teachers and school personnel.
The government may respond only to specific threats, objectively evident. It has no right to initiate force against the innocent. And a gun owner is innocent until specific evidence arises that he is threatening to initiate force.
Laws prohibiting or regulating guns across the board represent the evil of preventive law and should be abolished.