In yesterday’s Ask Me Anything, Abhay Rajan asked what I thought of the Second Amendment, no doubt prompted by the horrific mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday night/Sunday morning at 2 AM Eastern. So far there are 50 people dead, and some from the critically injured may push that number up. The dead terrorist has been identified as Omar Mateen, a supporter of the Islamic State.
The 2nd amendment to the US constitution says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” [See the Cornell University Law School page on the 2nd Amendment for a brief discussion of it.]
My view on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” is based on the principle that people should have the right to protect themselves against aggression. My ethical and moral position is that initiating aggression or coercion is almost never justified, and one is perfectly justified to resist, violently if necessary, anyone who initiates force against one. The right to bear arms is therefore instrumental in keeping the peace by deterring those who would initiate violence.
More specifically, I read the 2nd amendment’s phrase “the security of a free State” to mean the security of the individuals that constitute the free State. The government of the State is also an agency that needs to be deterred from initiating force against the individuals of the State. Therefore the individuals must have the right to bear arms to protect themselves from the government if ever the government itself becomes tyrannical.
Second Amendment issues aside, my position is that a peaceful society is preferable to one in which violence is unchecked. Violence cannot be eliminated, only minimized to some optimal level. This notion of an “optimum level” appeals to economists intuitively. While non-economists would want that violence (or pollution, or corruption, or accidents, or theft, or any “bad”) be brought down to zero, economists would stop when the costs of reducing violence exceeds the benefits. In short, “what’s worth doing, is worth doing well” means doing it only so well and not more than that.
Any positive analysis (that is, an investigation into what is) will reveal that some humans are prone to aggression and violence. The normative prescription (that is, what should be done) follows from that positive analysis: deterrence of violence by credibly guaranteeing swift and proportionate reprisals. That necessary deterrence is provided by the instrument of guns.
[In a followup post, I will explore the idea of how guns reduce violence through “credible commitments.”]
Now it may not be that every society needs to have everyone carrying guns to protect themselves. Societies in which people don’t traditionally use guns to initiate aggression or settle disputes will have little need for guns. But for whatever reasons, if guns are widely available in some society, prohibiting citizens from owning guns for their self-protection is unwise.
Guns cannot be banned in the US
For historical reasons, in the US there is a tradition of guns and they are widely owned. Is it practical to ban gun ownership? No. However there is a middle ground between absolutely no restriction on gun ownership and total prohibition: that of “gun control”. By control I mean who is prohibited from buying guns and what types of guns.
Guns for self-defense is fine. But automatic assault rifles that are required only if you are defending yourself against several attackers similarly armed are pointless because that’s unlikely even in the US. So handguns and small caliber weapons should be allowed but not the possession of assault weapons. Who should be allowed to have them? All competent people, and perhaps with a waiting period of a month.
But, one may object, wouldn’t that mean that there will be a lot of gun violence if almost everyone could possess guns? Not really. Guns are instruments that can be used for offense as well as defense. What they are actually used for depends on factors that are independent of mere possession. For example, even if I owned a gun, I would not go around shooting people because initiating force against people is not part of me. Even if I was armed to the teeth on a flight, no one need worry. But if someone is hell-bent on destruction, they can lay their hands on a range of things other than guns to do so, from cars and pressure cookers packed with explosives to box cutters.
The fact is that guns are merely one of the instruments of murder. Instruments provide the necessary means to an end but they are not sufficient in themselves for the outcome. Guns don’t go off by themselves. Guns are instrumental but the motivation is personal to the criminal. These days the most familiar cases of senseless violence are motivated by ideological reasons — most commonly Islamic fundamentalism. Islam, in the Orlando shooting, is clearly implicated. Islam’s injunction for the murder of homosexuals provided the motivation for Omar Mateen to kill dozens of innocents who had meant him no harm.
Drain the swamps, don’t fight the alligators
Framing the Orlando mass murder as a “gun control” matter is at best stupid and at worst a deflection of public attention from the real underlying cause of the mayhem which is Islamic ideology that abhors homosexuality. Certainly, killing homosexuals for their sexuality is illegal in civilized countries but in Islamic states, it is perfectly legitimate. Thousands of homosexuals are killed every year legitimately, and with the full force of the Islamic states involved in the killings.
The American adage to “drain the swamps instead of fighting alligators” makes a lot of sense. You could distribute personal bazookas to a population that is ideologically pacific without losing any sleep. But with the most stringent gun control laws, the Islamic terrorist will find a way to kill by the dozens, as we saw in the Brussels attacks of a few months ago. The Islamic swamp must be drained.
 I wrote, “initiating aggression or coercion is almost never justified”. There are exceptions. Example: Suppose someone was going to launch a deadly attack and I was convinced of that, I would aggressively attempt to stop that person from causing violence.