The wrongest right of all

Again and again and again. There are many things that make me wonder and despair about America. But hardly any of them run deeper, or are more utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside the country, than gun violence. The American approach to guns is bewildering. Now twenty-six more people are dead.

Bewilderment, though, isn't a very good response. Because even now in the shadow of an appalling tragedy, the madmen are winning. Not the ones who fire the shots, but the ones who let them - the ones who fight for the continued protection of a right which creates harm on a horrific scale. All of the first reaction articles I saw to this shooting were  about whether or not liberals should use it to push for gun control, whether they should "politicise the tragedy". They were arguments, that is, not about the issue, but about whether we should be talking about the issue at all. That means sanity is losing. Ezra Klein:
Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.
Fatalism is not good enough either. It may in fact be true that it's too late. But it doesn't help to think that way, let alone to talk that way, because if there is even a vanishingly small chance that something can be done to stop the horror, then people must find the energy and the hope to pursue it. This is too important to give up on. This is not a tragedy, really - a tragedy's horrific end is ordained, unavoidable, and there is nothing unavoidable about this, nothing ordained except by the unforgivably mad laws that America still consents to be governed by. It shouldn't any longer.


Just like last time, I also have some political philosophy ruminations about rights. The idea that there is a right to gun ownership is perhaps the biggest impediment to moving forward any sensible legislation controlling the spread of guns. So what exactly is this right?

There are two ways we can think about rights. The first is deontologically: people have rights inherent to their person, because they're an integral part of humanity or because the state has no justification to intervene. The second is consequentially or constructively: it's helpful to grant a right, because things in the world are better if we do so. Those are not hard distinctions, and a lot of rights we might like to justify using both categories. But it's a helpful place to start.

We can observe immediately that almost nobody argues for gun rights using the first framework. There's nothing obviously central about owning and toting guns to being human. So a case for gun rights as an inherent right would likely have to be made as a general case about private property and private action. Those kinds of arguments usually rely on some version of the harm principle. That principle is pretty hard to pin down, and most of the people who'd support gun rights will like a version of it where only the direct and apparent consequences are considered. Your buying, owning and keeping a gun doesn't directly harm anyone; therefore it's illegitimate to restrict it. Of course, the actual shootings do harm, and they are justifiable areas of state intervention, but this liberty principle says it's unacceptable for law enforcement to try to act further up the stream.

There are full-blown libertarians who'd buy into that reasoning, but for the partial-libertarian that characterises American (and other) political culture, it's just not very plausible with relation to guns. Hunting, and target shooting, just don't seem particularly important, and the freedom to buy and own guns is difficult to reasonably separate from the criminal acts of madmen.

So instead we get constructive arguments - cases to the rights, on consequential grounds, rather than from them as inherent. These come in two forms: self-defence or crime reduction, and the resistance of tyrannical government. The latter I've written about before, and it's just not sensible. The former?

The trouble with constructive arguments is that they rely on facts which aren't of the hard-to-refute "I have an inherent right" variety, but the easier-to-refute empirical variety. If your argument for the existing set of laws - in which the gun right is protected - is that it allows people to stop criminals in their tracks, then you better have some instances of that happening. (You might get away without it if you claimed that gun-carrying deterred crimes from being started in the first place. But obviously that is not the case.) And if there are any... there aren't many.

Saying that at least in the status quo people "could" carry guns and head off dangerous situations doesn't cut it. If your argument is consequential, you have to look at things that actually happen. Sure, people could carry their guns into a cinema or a shopping centre or a school, and then use them to stop a killing spree. If they don't do that, though, then the situation is consequentially identical to one where they couldn't.

For the constructive argument about fighting crime to work, you need not a system where people "can" carry guns and fight crime, but one where they actually do. That might mean the current laws with a different society; obviously for America it has to mean the same society with different laws. Perhaps one mandating that teachers, and cinema staff, and shop assistants, carry automatic weapons to take on criminals.

Sound like parody?
“I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, when she takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.”
 A Republican Congressman.

The solution to gun violence is not escalation and mutually assured destruction. It's not elevating civilians to the status of frontline soldiers in a running street war. It's not liberalising ever further in the grotesque hope that mentally ill people will be frightened - they won't, but everyone should be - by a society with more guns, more concealed and less restricted than they ever have been.

It's sanity. Please.