I have no natural sympathy for or interest in guns; that should probably be admitted right away. I do not care to own one, and have never shot one. The idea that guns would be recreationally appealing is rather baffling to me. On the other hand, I have friends who own guns; they typically use them for hunting, or for farm-related slaughter, both of which are, I believe, legitimate purposes. I have participated in the killing of pigs and cows in which guns were used to initially stun the animals, and I have eaten venison and boar that was hunted by friends.
So I am sympathetic to the concern of hunters and others that their possession of guns not be put in jeopardy.
But like many Americans, I am troubled by the private possession of assault weapons, and I am sickened and saddened when they are used by disturbed individuals, often young males, to inflict mass casualties. Calls to ban the purchase of such weapons, or to make their purchase requirements much more restrictive, resonate strongly with me, particularly in the aftermath of the latest atrocity, the school shootings in Parkland, Florida.
Yet such feelings are inadequate. Righteous anger, horror, shock, and despair at humanity cannot convince supporters of gun rights that the AR-15, for example, should not be in the hands of even law-abiding citizens. That task requires arguments, and that is the purpose of this essay.
Specifically, my purpose is to respond to recent arguments made by David French, of National Review. French is one of my favorite writers on NRO, and on many issues, I find him a refreshing voice of reason. Indeed, he is a refreshing voice of reason on the issue of gun rights as well, precisely because he provides arguments, which are the instrument of reason. He has no truck with the disgraceful approach of poisoning the well against gun-control proponents by suggesting, for example, that the survivors of the Parkland shootings are really “actors.”
Nevertheless, I am unconvinced by his two main arguments, and I will attempt to show why others should be as well.
Are Assault Weapons Necessary to Prevent Tyranny?
French’s two arguments are, we could say, the traditional arguments for gun rights, resting on a natural right to self-defense, and a natural right to resist tyrannical government. If both these are granted as natural and inalienable rights, then the right to bear arms follows.
But French thinks that the right that follows is not simply the right to bear any arms; that right would still be protected by laws forbidding or restricting semi-automatic weaponry. Rather, for both self-defense and resistance to tyranny, semi-automatic firearms must be permitted if those rights are to be secure. Regarding the former, French writes,
Limit the size of the magazine to, say, ten rounds, and you’ve placed the law-abiding homeowner at a disadvantage. Prohibit them from obtaining a compact, easy-to-use, highly accurate carbine, and you’ve ensured that homeowners will be defending themselves with less accurate weapons. The best weapons “in common use” would be reserved for criminals.
And regarding the latter,
Moreover, an assault-weapon ban (along with a ban on high-capacity magazines) would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny.
I will follow French in restricting the argument to assault weapons understood in the following way: “a semi-automatic rifle with cosmetic features similar to military weapons. They’re typically paired with high-capacity magazines.” So understood, French concludes that “to properly defend life and liberty, access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.”
This seems highly implausible to me. Let’s first address the claim that assault weapons are necessary for the defense of liberty against tyranny. French recognizes that many citizens do not believe that armed citizens should “try to deter tyranny,” and, in the context of the United States, I am one of those citizens. Consider an argument made (by me and others over the last twenty years) against the use of armed force against abortionists: although the intentional killing of hundreds of thousands of unborn babies every year constitutes, if anything does, a just cause for the use of force, nevertheless, to take up arms in the face of laws permitting abortion and protecting abortionists is to set oneself on the path of civil rebellion.
But such rebellion could only be justified were there some plausible hope of success, and there is no hope for success in the struggle against abortion by the use of force against the government. Any group of people large and strong enough to prevail in such a conflict would be powerful enough to change the laws by peaceful means. Any weaker group would be wiped out. The loss of life (on both sides) would be catastrophic and futile, and thus any effort to resist abortion with lethal force is immoral.
That argument can be extended. Given the size and power of our military, no armed resistance that did not already have the military’s backing could succeed. Resistance under such circumstances would be futile, and the ensuing loss of life would be unjustified. But civilian assistance in a justified military resistance to a tyrannical government here in the United States—a barely imaginable contingency—could scarcely be expected to be essential to success.
So the idea that gun rights are, here and now, essential to the defense of citizens against tyranny seems to me fantastic. It is a pleasing myth, but only that, and should play no role in the argument for assault weapons.
Are Assault Weapons Necessary for Self-Defense?
What about French’s argument concerning the use of assault weapons for defense? I think this is a stronger argument, but I wish to draw attention to three points at which I think it falters.
First, French surely overstates when he suggests that access to assault weapons is a “necessity.” The percentage of legally possessed guns that are assault weapons is relatively small, and thus the percentage of citizens who own such weapons even smaller. No citizen who does own such a weapon knows that he or she will need to use it someday. Nor do any know that, in the event that they do use it, no other firearm would be as effective. There are stories, easily accessed on the internet, in which homeowners use assault weapons to defend their homes. In one recent event three teenagers, one of whom had a knife, were killed by a twenty-three-year-old man in Oklahoma. Was the assault weapon a necessity in this case? Or was it, literally, overkill?
Second, French points out that police “typically” do not carry revolvers but assault weapons. He then asks, “if a person doesn’t ‘need’ a high-capacity magazine to defend himself, then why do the police use them?” But the police are not in the business of personal defense. Their purpose is defense of the citizenry at large, apprehension of criminals, and prevention, when possible, of criminal activity. All these purposes go beyond personal defense. Differences in the weapons used for the personal-defense purposes of private citizens and the law-enforcement purposes of police should be expected.
Not to mention that there are reasonable questions about whether even police should be “ramping up” their weapons of choice. The United States’ model of law enforcement is not the only one; most British police do not carry guns. It is beyond the scope of this essay to address this issue, but it should not be assumed that a police arms race is the only, or most rational, approach.
Third, we should inquire more closely into the right of self-defense. French undoubtedly believes, as do many, that this right encompasses a right to intend the death of an attacker. But as Thomas Aquinas famously argued, intentional killing in self-defense is wrong.
One does have a right to self-defense, and indeed to the use of force in self-defense. Such force may be lethal, but for one with an upright will, the lethality is outside the intention, a side effect. Even when I shoot my attacker, my intention should be merely to repel him so as to stop his aggression. That is why, having incapacitated an attacker, it would be wrong to finish him off with another shot.
Now, the mere choice of weaponry does not determine intention: one might intend death while wielding a knife, and intend only defense while launching an anti-aircraft missile at a terrorist-piloted airplane.
But one’s intentions shape and can be shaped by the instrumentalities one adopts. If one intends to kill anyone who invades one’s home, one will probably opt for something one expects to do that more effectively. And if one has at hand a weapon that can easily and lethally wipe out a perceived threat—such as the threat posed by teenagers with a knife and brass knuckles—then one may be tempted to respond not with appropriate force, but with intentionally lethal force.
Conservatives say often that the law teaches. That is true. A law that makes weapons such as the AR-15 available seems to teach that private citizens are entitled to use the same kind and amount of force, and with the same intention, that police are. That, I think, is an error.
We exist in a time of deep polarization and lack of compromise. On some issues, that seems inevitable: if abortion is the unjust and intentional taking of innocent human life, then there can be no compromise with those who judge the right to abortion “fundamental.” But the gun-control debate, while carried on in the same highly toxic register of outrage and fury as other neuralgic issues, seems different. Canada does not seem to me a fundamentally unjust society where guns are concerned, but guns are certainly more heavily regulated there than here. Assault weapons seem an appropriate point of compromise on the part of the proponents of a right to bear arms. It is, at the very least, an appropriate point for continuing the conversation that French’s essay initiated.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. This essay was updated on March 7, 2018 to clarify that it refers to semi-automatic weapons.