From the outset, it is important to state as clearly as possible, exactly what I intend to establish in this paper. First of all, there are two distinct domains that involve normative reasoning about gun rights: legality (legal rights) and morality (moral rights). Here I will be exploring primarily the “moral right” to “own” and/or “use” a lethal weapon. That entails explaining exactly what constitutes a moral right in the classical liberal tradition, and whether there is an unlimited (or limited) right to “own” and or “use” use a lethal weapon. I’ll argue that “moral rights” apply to both individual persons and groups of persons. Moreover, there are many different kinds of “lethal weapons:” sharpened sticks, stones, poisons (and a host of chemical and biological agents), and variety of “guns.” Thus, the right to own and/or use a lethal weapon also raises the question: “What kind of lethal weapon?” Secondly, moral rights are often classified in terms of their sanction. Many libertarian philosophers argue in terms of “natural rights” which are sanctioned by various aspects of human nature. The right of self-defense, for example, is most often defended in terms of the natural right to defend, not only one’s own life, but also the lives of one’s family, the weak, friends, pets…even one’s non-living property. Are all of these “defenses” equally defensible? Thirdly, I’ll limit my discussion to rights-based arguments within the classical liberal social and political philosophy, or libertarianism. Within the classical liberal approach there are several competing formulations; the most significant opposition is between proponents of anarchy and minarchy. Although I’m sensitive to the claims of anarchy, I’ll focus exclusively on minarchy, or the question of whether there are compelling moral arguments that might support gun control within a minarchist regime. In the end, I’ll suggest that a libertarian’s moral right to own and/or use a lethal weapon is contextual, and complicated by our dutiful adherence to the non-aggression axiom. Therefore, at least some alleged instances of self-defense involving the use of lethal weapons are morally problematic.
There are many well-established arguments in support of the individual and collective right of self-defense. For libertarians the most compelling initial arguments were presented by John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Locke based his theory of self-defense on the “principle of self-ownership,” that is to say that there is continuity between personal and property rights. Kant argued based on the infinite value of human life; and, argued that we have a duty to defend human lives because they possess infinite value. While we could delve more deeply into Locke and Kant, for the sake of argument I shall simply assume that the right of self-defense is at least sometimes morally justifiable, and see where the argument might go from there. So what would the right of self-defense look like within a libertarian framework?
All libertarians embrace the “non-aggression axiom,” or the idea that individuals and groups of persons may not employ “lethal force” for any reason other than self-defense. Unfortunately, the concept of “self-defense” is conveniently vague. Does that “right,” necessarily, include the individual right to defend one’s family, friends, the weak, pets etc. Does that right include the right to defend one’s property or the property of family, friends, or the weak? Does that right include the right to protect one’s honor? Do groups of likeminded individuals that congregate in voluntary association have a similar right to defend themselves against lethal aggression? If there is an individual or collective duty or right to defend other individuals and/or groups with lethal weapons, how might that right interface with the non-aggression axiom; the only undisputed pillar of classical liberalism?
First, let’s sketch in the architecture of libertarian rights-based arguments. Rights-based arguments are ONE way of sorting out the relationships between individuals, individuals and groups, and between groups. Rights-based arguments are basically claims against others. That is to say, a “right” implies a “duty” on the part of others to either do something or not do something in support of that right. Positive rights assert a duty to “do something” on our behalf, while negative rights imply a duty to “not interfere” in someone else’s pursuit of something. Most rights-based libertarians agree that all rights are negative rights and therefore, our primary moral duties consist in noninterference. This is NOT to say that individuals may not perform beneficent acts on behalf of others; only that those acts must be non-coerced and purely voluntary. It’s up to us. Therefore, if I have a right to own or use a gun, it’s a negative right. Thus, no one has a duty to provide me with a gun BUT no one, including government, can morally (or legally) prevent me from owning or using one. Hence, rights-based arguments carry with them an aura of absolutism that allegedly trumps contextual variation.
But context matters. Some lethal weapons are more lethal than others. Hence, under most circumstances a 357 Magnum is a more lethal than a sharp stick. Weapons of mass destruction are the most lethal, and designed to kill more than one human at a time. Thus an atomic bomb or a MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) can potentially kill more aggressors at a time than a 357 Magnum; but bombs can also kill more innocent non-aggressors.
Lethal weapons (guns), by definition, are tools deliberately designed to achieve specific ends. In the case of guns, many persons own guns for non-lethal purposes such as selling, collecting, hunting, or target shooting. Let’s set those purposes aside for the time being. Non-lethal weapons (pepper spray) are tools designed to inflict lower levels of harm in order to repel, thwart, or discourage lethal aggression by others. Thus, the first obvious issue libertarians must address is whether the non-aggression axiom, necessarily, implies that we (at least in some circumstances) have a positive duty to employ non-lethal weapons, rather than lethal weapons; and whether we, sometimes, have a duty to retreat rather than use a lethal weapon against a potential or active aggressor?
The first problem that any libertarian theory of gun rights must encounter is what I call the “problem of imaginary risks.” In the final analysis, the right of self-defense implies “risk assessment;” that is, we must interpret whether a given “threat of harm” rises to a risk level high enough to justify a lethal response. For example, suppose three women in dresses ring your doorbell on a Saturday afternoon. Would that justify killing them by shooting through the door? Suppose you read in the morning paper that three women dressed up like Jehovah’s Witnesses had been reported to be killing and robbing homeowners in your neighborhood? Or, suppose that three black-male teenagers were knocking on your door at 3 AM? Or perhaps a person you recognize as an escaped convict (a serial killer) is knocking on that door?
Now, my point here is that if libertarians take the non-aggression axiom seriously, we must be prepared to take at least some risks. That might mean waiting for an over act of aggression to take place, or at least an act that might be reasonably interpreted as an act of aggression. In short, you cannot be both a coward and a libertarian at the same time. Your right of self-defense with lethal weapons does not include defense against low probability or imaginary risks.
Let’s also agree that in the case of defending oneself from those “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” our choice of “lethal weapons” may also be limited by the non-aggression axiom. It’s one thing to shoot a perceived aggressor with a 45. But it’s another thing to use an AK 47 in a crowded neighborhood; and yet another to drop an atomic bomb. Obviously, if we take the non-aggression axiom seriously, potential collateral damage must be taken into account; that is, we are not justified in killing unknown (and/or) innocent non-aggressors in self-defense based on imperfect information. (There is also a problem with defending oneself against innocent aggressors.) There is also a cluster of epistemological issues involved in preemptive strikes against non-active aggressors; that is, when a potential aggressor may appear to be threatening but has not yet exhibited or issued a credible threat or actively inflicted a potentially lethal act of aggression. Hence, shooting through your front door at apparently unarmed Jehovah’s Witnesses, is clearly unjustified. But how much certainty is required before one may employ lethal weapons in self-defense against any possible aggressor?
If individuals have a limited, contextual right to defend themselves against lethal aggression or threats of lethal aggression, do groups of individuals bound by voluntary association have a similar right of self-defense? Well, anarchist libertarians argue that all governments rely on coercive force for their survival, and therefore they are all a-priori illegitimate. Therefore, one might argue that the collective right of non-governmental sub-groups to defend themselves against lethal aggression initiated by government is an essential component of libertarian political philosophy. What is especially interesting here is the question of whether all voluntary associations have an unlimited right to defend themselves from all threatening macro-groups (voluntary associations and/or governments), and if so what kinds of lethal weapons do micro-groups have a right to own and/or use in self-defense?
Obviously, there is a longstanding political debate over the right of various groups to revolt against dominant governments and/or voluntary associations; therefore will be similar debate over what kinds of defensive weapons these sub groups might be justified in owning or using. While I intimated earlier that individuals probably do not have an unfettered right to own and/or use atomic bombs in self-defense against aggressive individuals because of the problem of collateral damage. But what about the self-defense of private groups such as groups of anarchists or revolutionaries? The problem here is that any legal or moral limit placed on the right to own or use lethal weapons, advances the interests of political regimes that are already in power and own offensive weapons. Hence, laws against the private ownership of surface to air missiles, empowers regimes that possess aircraft that might be used against revolutionaries. Of course, the war in Syria this raised the question of whether the U.S. (and other regimes) has a duty to provide revolutionaries with surface to air missiles, tanks, and other military weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, does the non-aggression axiom imply that Syrians (the U.S. and others) exhaust non-lethal alternatives, before deploying lethal weapons? Under circumstances, might the non-aggression axiom imply a duty on the part of Syrians to submit to the Assad regime or migrate to another country? Would that imply a duty on the part of the U.S. to take-in those emigrates?
In summary, the legal and moral debate among libertarians over the “right to bear arms,” obviously lacks both depth and rigor. The complicating factor is the non-aggression axiom, (which in my view) is the only undisputed necessary condition for libertarian thought. On the other hand, in the real world we are often confronted by the possibility that that we libertarians may be called upon to deploy lethal weapons in defense of the non-aggression axiom. Therefore, I submit that we need to clarify exactly what separates libertarianism (if anything) from ideal pacifism. Does adherence to the non-aggression axiom undermine self-defense? Does it condemn us to be easily overcome by the very forces we eschew? I’ll start working on that right now.