Mass shootings have a way of shaking the political convictions of those directly affected. A guitarist who was playing during the Las Vegas shooting says he changed his views. Sandy Hook Promise is a group formed by people affected by the 2012 school shooting. Americans for Responsible Solutions is the group formed by Gabby Giffords, a U.S. representative shot at an event in 2011.
These groups take themselves to be carrying out the loved ones’ wishes, at least in part. It is what the victims “would have wanted.” The problem is that the living must extrapolate the wishes of the dead. Victims of mass shootings didn’t want to be killed in a mass shooting. That is safe to say. But would they want their family members to become gun control activists?
Liberals and progressives frequently point out the lack of principle when a conservative comes to support gay rights only when he learns that his son is gay. It is akin to someone denouncing sexual assault with the rationale, “I have a daughter.” You shouldn’t need a personal connection to understand what is right.
If we want to be consistent, what about the people who plunge into gun control activism only when their loved one is shot? Did the underlying change of opinion come about in the right way? A progressive might say that even if the journey wasn’t ideal, it is at least good that the conservative reached the right destination. Perhaps the same is true of the gun control activist. But not everyone can have that journey. Progress depends on people changing their minds without a personal connection.
If I’m killed in a mass shooting, I do not want my loved ones to extrapolate new political views from my death. It is a matter of chance that I was the one who died. Yet my loved ones will claim that their new or reaffirmed views are based on good general principles. If so, what stops them from accepting the principles now?
This is what I hope people will take from my death. No need to extrapolate.
1. There is No Gun Debate
The standard NRA tactics show that the gun debate does not function through reasons or argument. This is equivalent to saying that there is no gun debate.
For example, after a shooting some people will present policy discussion and compassion as mutually exclusive. It is the “don’t politicize” move. At this point, it is more than obvious that the maneuver is itself political, which makes it self-refuting. The NRA and those under its sway know full well that the news cycle will churn on and the public outrage will die down or redirect. They are stalling for self-interested reasons. Gun violence increases gun sales.
The move is also inconsistent with the approach NRA-supporting people often take towards non-white crime. If the perpetrator of violence is perceived as black or middle eastern, seemingly the compassion period can be skipped. The racial tinge of NRA rhetoric is also good for business.
The facts about gun violence have been thoroughly discussed. The think pieces can be recycled month after month, year after year. Why? The answer is simple: because (at least) one side is not interested in reasons. Granted, there are intellectual figures in conservatism who can give arguments, but they largely exist as symbols of vicarious justification for the Republican base. Their presence is not necessary for the continued existence of gun culture. Arguments that intellectual conservatives give are disconnected from why the general Republican base votes for NRA-backed candidates.
This is why the standard pro-gun arguments can be lacking in philosophical plausibility. Self-defense does not justify the private ownership of guns. Appeals to tradition are bad arguments (at least, that’s what we’ve always thought). The prospect of fighting against tyrannical rule is baffling. Arguments for why tanks or missiles should be illegal can usually be applied to guns. The ‘guns don’t kill people’ line is either vacuous or blatantly false. And so on through the ‘criminals don’t follow laws’ and ‘it is about mental health’ red herrings.
You might object that you can defend the gun status quo in America. Although I do not think you can, my point is that it doesn’t matter. Your arguments are not operative in political discourse. Why? Because if I were to refute your arguments, nothing would change. Why? Because the standard pro-gun arguments have been refuted and nothing changes. The mistake is in thinking that the reasons and arguments given by the NRA are made in good faith.
You might object that the gun issue is not special. Maybe the gun debate isn’t a debate, but neither is the “debate” over healthcare, taxes, or foreign policy. The wonks argue with each other, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Most people simply don’t have strong policy views.
To an extent, I think this is right. But the issue of guns has shown itself to be singularly immune to rational engagement. It occupies a more central place in conservative identity. Guns have their own amendment in the Constitution. Guns force themselves into the public mind through a regular stream of disturbing images. Healthcare, taxes, and foreign policy are also more complicated. They are issues on which educated people can disagree. I am not claiming that the tax debate is John Stuart Mill’s dream of healthy democratic deliberation. But in the end, tax policy is less contested ground than gun policy. When details matter more, there is less debate over the accessible, principled arguments.
Plus, tax policy doesn’t kill people, the difficult to understand effects of tax policy kill people. Healthcare policy doesn’t kill people, but who ever knew it was so complicated? Foreign policy doesn’t kill people, the…. Ok, that one doesn’t work.
2. The Standard Liberal Position is Wrong
If I’m killed in a mass shooting, I hope those close to me reevaluate the standard liberal gun policy position, which seemingly has to do with “common sense.” But it is difficult to defend, philosophically and politically. The standard conservative line has an elegant simplicity: oppose any restriction. Simplicity wins in our era of tweetable politics. The liberal position is vague or complicated. It has to navigate a murky space between practical policy measures and respect for the right of private ownership of guns.
The liberal policy proposals are animated by the esoteric philosophical principle that people getting shot by guns is bad. Seems plausible. The problem is that a critical mass of people believe that other principles trump the ‘badness of being shot to death’ principle.
There are reasons for this. As philosophically (but by no means financially) bankrupt as the conservative position on guns is, they are right to be suspicious of the liberal’s moderate incrementalism. It is laudable to want to decrease gun violence, but it must be pursued on some principled basis. Otherwise policies will spring from fleeting whims—and that is bad for democracies. If the principle is ‘people getting shot by guns is bad’, will the liberal ever be satisfied? How many gun deaths are acceptable? If the answer is above zero, how is that consistent with the principle? And most importantly, what prevents the liberal from putting forward a policy of gun confiscation? In short, the liberal is engaged in a difficult balancing act.
The balancing act is taken to be a political necessity. The only hope for progress is through gradual steps. But conservatives sense the contradiction at the core of this approach: liberals both accept and reject the view that there is a right to private ownership of guns. There is an inconsistency in the compromise. Liberals are accepting because they claim to believe in the legitimacy of the private ownership. But liberal activism is motivated by a rejection of the very same idea.
The issue is that what pushes against accepting the conservative position is a set of understandable yet problematic emotions. If our policy proposals stem from exasperation, heartbreak, and anger at images of violence, what stops us from compromising principles we have claimed to value? Nothing—and that is bad for democracies. Liberals might reverse engineer a justification for the emotional reaction and, for public relations purposes, invent a principle that can make the rounds on CNN panels. But the principle is not what ultimately grounds the policy proposals. And this is precisely what I have accused Republicans of doing.
If the liberal approach to guns is either incoherent or disingenuous, anything a conservative says will sound more plausible. The pro-gun movement is successful in part because the standard liberal position is so weak. (Here is liberal critique of gun control.) And how can there be public debate if the two positions are either incoherent or disingenuous?
You might object that you can make some distinctions, split some hairs, and put forward a coherent middle ground. Although I do not think you can, remember that this isn’t a debate. The middle ground is a response to political realities. So it sacrifices simplicity for concrete progress. As a result, the position either
- lacks principles (“just do something, anything to stop the killing!”),
- relies on complicated principles full of caveats that no one actually believes (“people getting shot is bad, but…),
- or is incoherent (“people getting shot is bad but I’m only interested in policies that address the problem at the fringes”).
The liberal position is a swirl of all three. So if I’m killed in a mass shooting, I hope people seriously entertain another position.
For example, we should consider the view that private ownership of guns is untenable. I will not defend the idea here. It has been proposed by philosopher Jeff McMahan here and here. The position faces numerous political problems, the largest of which is the required repeal of the 2nd Amendment (we could start by simply reading it correctly). But it is not incoherent and need not be insincere. The political prospects of gun control also couldn’t get much worse than they are now. The position is also consistent with a large number of tangible policy proposals.
Arguing that there should not be private ownership of guns acknowledges that the gun issue extends beyond mass shootings. I am more likely to die from a handgun than an assault rifle (though because I don’t own a gun, my chances of being killed by a gun are lower). Conservatives suspect that liberal concern about guns is rooted in the spectacle of mass shootings, despite the fact that such events comprise a small percentage of gun deaths. And conservatives are largely right about that. This is not at all to say that conservatives have good arguments for opposing restrictions on the weapons routinely used in mass shootings. It is obvious that civilians shouldn’t own AR-15s. Why? Not because we don’t like them, or because those guns are scary, or because of some overly-qualified moral principle. But because there should not be private ownership of guns.
3. Philosophers Should Say Something
For some reason, philosophers don’t talk about guns. Capital punishment, euthanasia, and torture are issues that have accumulated a great deal of philosophical attention. Yet the gun issue, which impacts many more people, is largely ignored by philosophers. Why?
Because capital punishment intersects with governmental authority in interesting ways? This is also true of guns.
Because there is no “internal controversy,” as fellow Vimmer, Justin says? If that is true, it is just as true in the capital punishment and torture issue.
Because the issue is politically intractable? But since when has that stopped philosophers? Animal ethics, environmental ethics, prison abolition, Marxism—the discussion continues in America despite the political futility.
If I die in a mass shooting, I hope philosophers say something more about gun policy. I have argued that philosophers have largely ceded their role as philosophers to others. Where do we turn when public discourse is not a debate but rather political posturing disguised as reasoning? What does this tell us about the importance of philosophy?