Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The case for guns

I appreciate -- and have learned from -- the comments made in response to yesterday's post about Catholics and gun control.  One category of response is relatively straightforward: this sort of law can't be crafted in a way that will be effective.  I get that, and I'll defer to others with more expertise than I have to sort out that debate.  Two other categories of response intrigue me. 

The first amounts to variations of "owning and shooting weapons like these is a hobby that is highly valued by many Americans."  True enough.  My friends and family members who own guns enjoy them, and I have no doubt that they will continue to use them safely.  But what if a hobby also presents a readily foreseeable likelihood that the misuse of the item on which enjoyment of the hobby is premised will cause widespread death and bodily harm?  Chicago has long banned the sale of spray paint; many cities, including my own, ban its sale to minors.  This has made it more difficult for my 12 year-old daughter to enjoy her hobbies, none of which involve (as far as I can tell) "tagging" the property of others.  I think the spray paint ban is entirely reasonable even though it infringes on others' ability to enjoy their hobbies.  Graffiti presents nowhere near the public problem that gun violence presents.  I'm not saying that the Bushmaster enthusiast's interests carry no weight in the analysis; I'm just skeptical that those interests should carry as much weight as some seem to assert.  (Again, I'm assuming for the sake of this argument that such laws could, in fact, be efficacious in preventing at least some gun violence.)

The second category of response simultaneously looks back to our proud history of rugged American individualism and forward to either a post-apocalyptic or totalitarian future.  It boils down, in my estimation to, "Sometimes you just may need to kill a lot of people in a relatively short time frame."  (How often does a large group of people invade someone's home?)  I am a big fan of Niebuhrian realism, but this line of argument seems to veer into outright cynicism not just about the future of civilization, but also about the Christian's place in it.  Christians should work toward a tolerable justice, of course, but there's a strain of "self-survival at all costs" to this line of argument as well, and I'm not yet sure what to make of that.


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Well said on both counts. I think this is one of those areas of “American Catholic exceptionalism.” Conservative, orthodox Catholics in other parts of the world, like their sisters and brothers here in the US, emphasize concerns over abortion, euthanasia, threats to traditional marriage, creeping moral relativism, aggressive secularism, denials of religious liberty, and so on, but they are really puzzled by the tendency of many right-leaning Catholics in the US to defend our incredibly permissive gun laws, a position these non-American conservative Catholics see as rooted in a uniquely American individualist obsession, one at odds with the corporatist, even paternalistic, focus on a peaceful, orderly, and well-regulated society in traditional Catholic thought.

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Dec 20, 2012 1:52:19 PM

Agree completely. Let's debate the efficacy of gun control laws, let's consider competing interests (gun enjoyment vs. public safety), and let's drop the revolutionary fantasies.

Posted by: John | Dec 20, 2012 2:52:57 PM

"[F]ocus on a peaceful, orderly, and well-regulated society in traditional Catholic thought."

I tend to agree that we ought to have a peaceful, orderly, and well-regulated society, and that this is something towards which we ought to work. And we need not conquer all evils at once - however, in our laws, we have long passed the point where they could be considered "well made". I think there is a strong argument to be made that, as laws and their arbitrariness have increased, disorder has increased in society, which makes people desire to insulate, arm themselves, refuse to reach across comfort zones, etc. As an example, I deal with cases in which children are removed from homes by a government agency. The agency sets certain priorities in order for the family to be reunited. However, these priorities aren't guaranteed, are usually subjective, and are unenforceable. Therefore, even if an individual or parents jump through the hoops, there is no reason the agency need be required to return the child(ren), if the agency, via its case worker, sees the need. Judges rarely, if ever, overrule the will of the agency. Given the recent EPA case, the administrative state is not limited to local or state levels, but across all levels of government. As long as the government is seriously and obviously arbitrary, and exempts itself from generally applicable laws, then disorder will continue to reign. Our Founders were aware of this, as set forth (for instance) in Federalist 63:

"In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy."

I would also like to add that it seems to me that well-made laws ought to be made in moments of calm, not when emotions run high about an issue. President Biden has now been appointed to push gun restrictions through Congress. A major figure to deal with the issue, considering that (from the NVSS CDC for 2009):

Of the 2 million deaths in 2009, 11,493 occurred from firearm homicide (while 2 - 3 million guns exist in civilian hands in the United States). Contrast that with deaths related to alcohol consumption, (24,518), accidental drowning (3,517), suicide (non-firearm, 18,174, the same as firearm suicides), and so on.

Why not have Biden head up a task force on mental health assessment, since so many deaths are likely related to mental health (specifically, alcohol, suicide, many homicides, etc.)? Why focus on instrumentality, especially one that is not inherently evil?

The overarching questions are as to what regulations will help and why, and where? If the federal government cannot tailor regulations to help the goal of reducing the specific ill (as so often seems the case), then such regulations will not contribute to a well-ordered society, but instead will increase disorder, as they will be obvioously arbitrary, and will cause loss of confidence in the government and thereby, undermine stability (and, I suspect, increase gun ownership!).

Posted by: Jonathan | Dec 20, 2012 3:14:55 PM

"How often does a large group of people invade someone's home?"

In Chicago recently this has been a problem with flash mobs. Of course, I wouldn't recommend utilizing a rifle in everyone of those instances. But I could see an instance where it would be justified.

Posted by: CK | Dec 20, 2012 3:58:15 PM

You offered--as a paraphrase I assume--the following argument: "Sometimes you just may need to kill a lot of people in a relatively short time frame." (How often does a large group of people invade someone's home?)

I don't know you, so that makes it hard to know how to respond; but on the face of it, this response makes me wonder if you're fully grappling with the argument here. Let me try to expand on it, if I may.

Of course the "need" at issue here doesn't happen very often; it may never happen. But it is quite possible and completely forseeable. But when it comes, one either has remote preparation, or not. If dialing 911 did it, we wouldn't have this conversation.

But I think you misstate the actual "need": not to kill a bunch of people; but the need is to have a reasonable defense against a variety of possible threats.

(I might point out that I'm not a gun owner, so I hope I won't misstate anything about how guns work.)

I'm told that the sound of gun being cocked, or a shotgun being set to shoot, is pretty distinctive--and pretty effective in running off villains.

So suppose we just gave people play guns that make real-sounding gun-sounds? Anyone think that's a good idea? Would you feel safe with that, instead of a real gun?

It seems to me that there is an arrogance at work here--I don't mean to accuse anyone in particular, but to challenge the mindset. The arrogance is to say, "well, I certainly can't imagine why anyone would need a gun powerful beyond a certain point."

But you don't live anywhere but where you do live. You don't walk in others' shoes. You don't know the dangers that they know.

At issue here is a natural right: the right to defend oneself. I'd love to see someone develop, from Natural Law principles, what is the basis for government saying to an individual: your judgment about self-preservation is hereby trumped by ours?

Or to put it another way, consider a case.

Suppose a city government passes a ban on weapons of a particular sort--because they are too powerful, too concealable, too dangerous to police, or whatever. They are banned.

A citizen lives on a dangerous street. People around him get robbed, beaten and killed. This citizen makes the informed judgment that what the city allows him to do will not protect him. And he knows that a call to the police will take too long.

So his choice is: obey the law and lack the resources to protect himself. (Let's suppose he has no means to move, or moving would be very sacrificial--selling his house for little profit.)

Or, he can disobey the law and protect himself--and to make the matter more urgent--others in his household.

He chooses the latter; perhaps after attending a funeral for someone who chose the latter.


a) Has he done something evil? Even if the law never punishes him, should he confess this as a sin, and change his ways?

b) If he is discovered to have done this--perhaps after using this contraband weapon to defend himself successfully--is it just for him to be prosecuted? Why?

It seems to me that when the law interferes in so fundamental a way with a natural right--putting an individual person's very life at risk--the law loses credibility. The law is unjust, and morally indefensible.

Why should we cooperate with creating such situations?

If the state insists on telling citizens they don't need the self-protection they think they need, then the other half of that bargain should be that the state guarantees--I use that word deliberately--that it will protect that citizen.

And if it can't so guarantee?

Then the citizen reaches for the tools he needs to do what he must.

Posted by: Fr Martin Fox | Dec 20, 2012 4:15:17 PM


Perhaps it is my Anabaptist heritage, but I think St Paul would be uncomfortable with a "self-survival at all costs" mindset as well.

Consider his letter to the Hebrews (10:32-38)
Brethren, recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. "For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by faith."

Posted by: Nick | Dec 20, 2012 4:46:28 PM

"He chooses the latter; perhaps after attending a funeral for someone who chose the latter."

I meant to say, of course, "who chose the former"...

Posted by: FrMartinFox | Dec 20, 2012 4:57:42 PM

I fully agree with Fr. Fox, above. We can also look to contemporary examples of what happens to a civilian population that is unable to defend itself, and when a government cannot impose order.

Refugee camps in Haiti; violence on civilians in the DRC; the takeover of Freetown, Sierra Leone; the aftermath of Katrina. This is not to mention historical examples, such as the reign of terror visited upon freemen after the civil war.

These are real, live, (mostly) contemporary situations. Hence they cannot be dismissed as "apocalyptic" or "revolutionary fantasies." *IF* a similar situation were to come about in the United States I submit that an armed populace would to a long way to restoring or maintaining order. At the very least, I submit that the government should not prevent its citizens from obtaining the tools needed to protect themselves, in the case of such an event.

What are the odds of such an occurrence? I don't know. Ask pre-earthquake Haitians; pre-Rwandan-genocide citizens of the Congo; pre-Katrina citizens of New Orleans. But to think the United States is beyond such an occurrence is the height of arrogance.

Besides, the actual odds of such an occurrence is not the real point. These examples merely highlight the *real* point, that point being (as Fr. Martin identifies) the right and corresponding responsibility of persons to defend themselves and their families. I don't see anything inconsistent with Catholic teaching in insisting that persons have the right and responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and the defenseless. Hence I see nothing inconsistent with advocating policies to encourage (or, at the very least, to not discourage) persons from obtaining the tools necessary to do so.

Certainly, I see the need to minimize, to the extent possible, the evil that may flow from those tools, and to foster a Christian peace. And I also agree that it should be a "self-survival at all costs" scenario. I simply suggest that when one looks at the world as a whole, not just the "civilized" world of the US and other developed countries, one sees the virtues of a well-armed (and well-educated and virtuous,etc.) population, as opposed to a population that places all the responsibility for its protection in the government.

Posted by: reader | Dec 20, 2012 5:08:32 PM

Oops. Not refugee camps in Haiti; more aptly described as "post-earthquake shelters", along the lines of this chilling story:


Apologies, but you get the point: outside the largely calm and violence-free life in the United States, millions of people live in the grasp of brutal, systematic, and un-escapable violence.

Posted by: reader | Dec 20, 2012 5:23:27 PM

"1776!" or "Libya!" are common retorts which don't fly with me for the same reason the single-payer healthcare advocate's retort of "Sweden!" doesn't. USA 2012 is very different.

Probability does matter. How much should we expend in resources to guard against an alien invasion? Should NY buildings be required to meet standards designed to protect against large earthquakes? It can happen, right?

I think it's remote enough to dismiss from the beginning but if you want, we can roll the risk of a law-and-order collapse into the cost-benefit analysis. But you need to do a cost-benefit analysis! You can't just say there's some possible benefit and be done with it.

Having said all that, the cost-benefit isn't the same everywhere with everyone at all times. I don't want kids with guns in NYC schools. I would understand if a rural farmer would want one. If I had my way, I'd allow shotguns and very limited capacity rifles and allow municipalities to decide. States' rights!

Posted by: John | Dec 20, 2012 6:14:27 PM


Is it *only* a cost-benefit analysis, though?

I think the "law-and-order-collapse" scenario can roll into a cost-benefit analysis. But it can also support the natural-rights argument that the governments should not deprive its citizens of the means to defend themselves. That's not saying "Libya!" or "1776!" It's asking a different question: how should a government should treat its citizens.

There's also the issue of risk-aversion: you see the probability as low; I do as somewhat higher. There's no way to predict the future, and so no way to decides who's more right. What do we do, then?

And, by the way, w/r/t the cost-benefit analysis (and while recognizing that cost-benefit is an important but not exclusive matter of policy), I agree with you that it *should* be a state-by-state issue, but it's (unfortunately) a national one by way of the 2nd Amendment and the extensive authority now granted to the Federal gov't.

Posted by: reader | Dec 20, 2012 6:24:24 PM

"But it can also support the natural-rights argument that the governments should not deprive its citizens of the means to defend themselves."

Always subject to the common good which brings us back to cost-benefit.

I wonder if a constitutional amendment not to repeal the 2nd but merely to unincorporate it could fly. Gun-friendly states would need more of an incentive to pass the amendment but I'd imagine they wouldn't rule it out completely.

Posted by: John | Dec 20, 2012 6:56:39 PM

I think perhaps the comments here confirm the point I was trying to make in the opening comment. I just can’t see even traditionalist/conservative/orthodox Catholics in Africa, Latin America, Asia, or Europe, from Pope Benedict XVI on down, making the kind of guns-in-private-hands arguments in this and other recent post-Newtown MOJ threads.

While rates of crime, mental illness, media violence, random public attacks, and other factors are similar in the US to other industrialized democracies, three things make us unique—our gun policies, our homicide rates, and our arguments explaining away both. As much as we try and square all this with Catholic social teaching, this is a uniquely American rather than Catholic discussion.

Posted by: Dave Cochran | Dec 20, 2012 7:43:52 PM

Larry Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, makes the point that the statistics for violent crime in the U.S. would be more usefully sorted based on local laws on gun ownership, before they are compared with jurisdictions known to have gun control. His point: that we have two gun-law regimes in this country: specific cities and states with tighter controls, and areas with freer regulations on gun ownership and allowing conceal-carry. And, he claims, the high rates of crime--which are supposed to indict our permissive system--are actually associated with those jurisdictions with tighter controls; whereas those areas with more permissive laws, have low crime rates.

Now, of course, the data may not stand up (i.e., because of other variables, it may not prove what gun-rights advocates claim); but if it does, it's not hard to see two things:

1. That the advocates of gun-ownership by law-abiding people are correct: that when the good guys are able to arm themselves, this creates an unfavorable environment for violence.

2. That there are, indeed, areas in this country where what some here describe as "improbable" and hard to imagine, is the reality in which people must try to survive. And, in fact, they face the very dilemma--today--that I posed: either they remain vulnerable to real threats, or else they become law-breakers in order to secure their own lives and property, and the lives of others around them.

I remember living in northern Virginia in the 90s, and the District of Columbia--with extremely strict gun control--was blaming its crime rate on guns purchased in Virginia. And the obvious question, which I never saw posed, was: if it's the GUN, then why does the crime not happen where it's sold? What magical quality is at work, that the gun--carried by a bad person, presumably--never manages to be used nefariously, until it crosses the Potomac River? Is there some Star-Trek-like "dampening field" that prevents the gun from being used, until it arrives in D.C.?

Posted by: FrMartinFox | Dec 21, 2012 9:17:36 AM

I don't think "self-survival" or "at all costs" is a fair representation of the reasoning, Rob, so you may not be responding to the actual reason people offer. No one is advocating self-defense at "all" costs including for example by the direct killing of innocents or other plainly immoral methods. The question is whether to allow self-defense through an activity, owning and in self-defense using semi-automatic weapons, that is not itself immoral. And "self-survival" is not entirely accurate either, when the owner in question is seeking to protect not himself primarily but his family. There are about 1.6 million residential burglaries in the country every year. "How often does a large group" commit those burglaries? I don't know if we have those numbers. But entirely anecdotally, the home burglaries I am familiar with have indeed involved groups.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Dec 21, 2012 9:36:22 AM

Matt Bowman says: "The question is whether to allow self-defense through an activity, owning and in self-defense using semi-automatic weapons, that is not itself immoral."

According to Catholic thought, it is permissible to use deadly force in self-defense if and only if no lesser force will suffice. It is never permissible to actually intend to kill. So those who arm themselves with the intention of "blowing away" anyone who dares attempt to steal their property cannot be considered moral. Of course, we can't know how many people who buy guns have the intention of using them to deliberately and intentionally kill in self-defense.

Matt Bowman says: "There are about 1.6 million residential burglaries in the country every year."

Burglaries tend to occur when nobody is home. The question seems to me how many "home invasions" (forcefully entering when occupants are home) a year there are in which semi-automtic weapons were, or could have been, used to thwart the invasion.

I haven't found any great sources of statistics, but I believe it is correct that most people who successfully defend themselves with guns are defending themselves from people who are carrying no weapon, or at least not a gun.

Of course, the question of whether it is moral to allow ownership of semi-automatic weapons for self-defense is a separate question from whether it is either effective or prudent.

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 21, 2012 2:43:16 PM

"those who arm themselves with the intention of "blowing away" anyone who dares attempt to steal their property cannot be considered moral"

A convenient straw man not relevant to anything I have proposed.

I find it questionable that when people compare the odds of facing a fatal threat to one's family in home burglary, to the odds of being threatened by a mass killing, it is called "post-apocolyptic" to care about the former but obviously not regarding the latter. It isn't clear to me that the former is much less likely, instead of simply being much less newsworthy.

I also think it is clear that if a teacher in Sandy Hook had weilded a semi-automatic weapon and used it to stop the killer and save a bunch of children, no one would be calling that act un-Christian or "self-survival at all costs," and people would probably not be describing weapons restrictions as obviously warranted.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Dec 21, 2012 6:17:09 PM

"It is never permissible to actually intend to kill."

Who knew that David Nickol subscribed to one of the stronger forms of "New Natural Law"?

Posted by: Anonymous | Dec 21, 2012 6:21:57 PM


I wasn't (necessarily) giving my own opinion. I said, "According to Catholic thought . . . " Also, I believe this goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas.

Posted by: David Nickol | Dec 21, 2012 7:01:31 PM

"Self-survival at all costs" can be refined to address the criticisms in the comments without affecting the point. "Self-defense regardless of unintended costs" might be a more accurate formulation. We see the same thing in just war debates. Proportionality has to take into account indirect consequences. The argument that gun advocates make is not only that the benefits outweigh the costs (a legitimate point of debate) but that proportionality doesn't even matter. I.e., even if the costs are greater, it's unjust to deprive people of of arms so long as there are some just uses.

Posted by: John | Dec 21, 2012 7:50:08 PM

"According to Catholic though . . . [i]t is never permissible to actually intend to kill" is a Grisez-Finnis-Boyle position.

Posted by: Anonymous | Dec 21, 2012 11:09:32 PM

I think even GFB also allow that it is permissible for the state to intend to kill. So it may be that no representative of Catholic thought takes the position DN ascribes to it. But that certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Dec 22, 2012 11:37:31 PM