Guns are Instruments, Not Sentient Volitional Beings

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[1] 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.


[1] 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.

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Guns are Instruments, Not Sentient Volitional Beings”

  1. Atanu,

    Thank You for your detailed response. Over the years you have argued passionately, persuasively and accurately about the First amendment, specifically that the freedom of expression not be curtailed under any circumstances. I am wondering if the same absolutism applies to the Second Amendment. I guess the problem is not the “right” to bear Arms but what constitutes “Arms”. As you mention in your response, assault weapons will fall into the category of arms that private citizens should not bear. However, if you look at the list of mass shootings that the New York Times put out today, there were several that were carried out with semiautomatic handguns including the Fort Hood and Tuscon shootings and these are just mass shootings. I am pretty sure that handguns will outnumber assault weapons when you consider all gun homicides and suicides. Why shouldn’t handguns make the list of prohibited weapons?

    You also mention that the fact that the US is awash in guns and therefore banning them makes little sense. Well so was Australia and they found the will to do it. If not an outright ban, then at least subject the buyer to stringent background checks. Given that many mass shootings involve weapons that have been recently purchased, tighter checks and a cooling off period would certainly make some dent in the rate of shootings.

    Lastly, it may not be fair to frame the Orlando shootings as only a gun control issue. But it would be equally unfair to ignore the fact that the lack of gun control played a huge role in the incident. At the slightest mention of terrorism, the gun lobby is let off the hook. As it is they have successfully blocked every single regulation that would make a difference. It is baffling and tragic that such an advanced society that does so many things right has become so desensitized to the violence.



    1. Any community can do what it feels like in a democracy or a republican setup. The constitution also reflects that popular sentiment, which if and when it changes, the constitution also changes.

      The framers of the constitution thought that the people should have the right to bear arms. But if the popular will changes so as to prohibit that, the constitution will also change. Perhaps the circumstances have changed and therefore the rules should change.

      I think that there are two distinct issues here. The right to bear arms as codified in the constitution is one.

      The other issue is what constitutes arms. That’s up to debate. I think hand guns are fine but not automatic assault rifles. But that’s just my view. I am not willing to make the choice for others.

      The point about how many people get killed by hang guns through homicides and suicides is not really relevant. Homicides and suicides may involve hand guns but banning hand guns is not going to stop them because there are alternatives. Mass murders, however, require the kind of firepower that’s not possible without automatic assault weapons.

      Like I said in my post, we have to understand that nothing can be efficiently brought to zero level. That’s an important point. For example, we have traffic deaths. Attempting to reduce them is a good idea but reducing them to zero is not recommended. It is impossible and attempting to do that will cause more harm than good.

      Here’s the point that many non-economists don’t get. Economics is about trade. But it is also more importantly about trade-offs. That is expressed very nicely in the folk saying, “Cheap, good, fast: Choose two.”


  2. I was reading about an interesting suggestion from a gun owner. That guns with a capacity of firing over ten rounds should not be allowed. Doesn’t matter which gun it is. That seems to make a lot of sense. No gunman will be able to shoot tens of people at a stretch. Though I should add I know little about guns or the complexity of this issue.


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