Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Arguing About Guns by C’zar Bernstein

This essay, by Oxford graduate student C’zar Bernstein, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Arguing About Guns


In this paper, I’ll argue, first, that people have a prima facie right to own guns. Second, that it is far more controversial than people usually suppose that gun ownership does more harm than good, given the extant criminological evidence.

Rights are trumps that are supposed to hold in the face of negative consequences.[1] Prima facie rights are rights that admit to being outweighed by countervailing considerations. However, because rights are supposed to trump negative consequences, one cannot merely point out that there are negative consequences as a reason to suppose that the right is overridden. She must establish that the negative consequences outweigh the trump-value of the right. Thus, if there is a prima facie right to own guns, anti-gun philosophers must show (i) that gun ownership does more harm than good, and (ii) that the negative consequences are sufficient to override the right to own guns. I’ll argue that there is a lot of good evidence to doubt that (i) is true. I shan’t, however, argue that (i) is probably false, which would require a much more extensive examination of the evidence.

Why should we suppose that there is a prima facie right to own guns?[2] Some philosophers argue that the right to own a gun is grounded in the right of self-defence.[3] The argument goes like this. The right of self-defence entails the right to be allowed to have access to reasonable means of individual self-defence, and because firearms are a particularly effective reasonable means of self-defence, people have a prima facie right to own guns. 

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