Bioethics Blogs

A Challenge to Gun Rights

Written By Professor Jeff McMahan


On this day in the US, around thirty people will be killed with a gun, not including suicides.  Many more will be wounded.  I can safely predict this number because that is the average number of homicides committed with a gun in the US each day.  Such killings have become so routine that they are barely noticed even in the local news.  Only when a significant number of people are murdered, particularly when they include children or are killed randomly, is the event considered newsworthy.


Yet efforts to regulate the possession of guns in the US are consistently defeated.


The case for gun rights rests primarily on two claims, one about facts, the other about moral principle.  The claim about fact is that members of society as a whole are safer when more of them have guns, since potential aggressors are likelier to be deterred the more reasonable it is for them to believe that their potential victim is armed.  The claim about principle is that each person has a right of self-defense and that this right entails a further right not to be deprived of, or prevented from having, the most effective means of self-defense.  These claims are independent.  Most of those who assert them think the second would be true even if the first were false.


Advocates of gun rights (to whom I will refer as “advocates”) usually defend the claim about fact by appealing to statistics – for example, those that suggest that when a city bans handguns, rates of violent crime and homicide increase rather than decrease.  The claim about principle is often defended by appeal to an analogy with an individual case.  Suppose a person is about to be killed by a culpable aggressor but has a gun that she can use to defend herself.  As the aggressor approaches, another person takes the potential victim’s gun away from her, with the consequence that she is killed by the aggressor.  It is clear that the intervening person violates the victim’s right of defense.  The same is true, according to advocates, of a state that deprives its citizens of their guns, or prevents them from having guns.  Whenever a person is harmed who could have defended herself if she had had a gun, and her lacking a gun is attributable to restrictions the state imposes on their possession, the state has violated her right of self-defense.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.