Don Heider (@donheider) is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
In light of the latest in a series of mass shootings in the U.S., some groups are calling for greater restrictions on gun ownership and purchase. Four in 10 Americans say they live in a household with a gun. Gun sales have risen recently, especially during the pandemic. Over 60% of Americans who own a gun say they do so for personal protection. Roughly half of Americans favor stricter gun laws, yet some gun owners are fighting against any further restrictions.
All this led me to wonder, is there such a thing as an ethical gun?
What we think of as guns have been around for almost 700 years. What is a gun? The Oxford dictionary says, “A weapon consisting essentially of a metal tube from which heavy missiles are thrown by force of gunpowder or by explosive force of any kind.”
If we step back for a moment and think of a gun as a kind of tool, what is the purpose of the tool, and what would be ethical uses of that tool?
Let’s think of four possible uses for a gun as a tool. One is for hunting. Hunters use guns to kill small and large game. As a culture in which meat is consumed, we have, to some extent, already consented to the killing of animals. One could argue that hunting is another form of this, as opposed to say, a slaughterhouse. Hunting does not require automatic of semi-automatic weapons. Another use is for sport, as in target shooting which is a competitive sport, even included in the Olympics. But for target shooting, automatic or semi-automatic weapons are certainly not required. In fact, for target shooting, guns that fire pellets or non-lethal ammunition could be used. A third use is for self-defense. Statistics have shown that among the millions of uses of guns recorded each year, very few are for self-defense, and those incidents happen, generally, when there is an escalating argument between individuals—a bad circumstance to have a gun. Other less lethal forms of self-defense can easily be found. For home security, an excellent home alarm system, or a dog is more effective and less deadly. For personal security, mace, a taser, learning self-defense are all among the options that could be more effective than a gun, which is often taken from a person and used against them. Self-defense use of a gun therefore, does not justify a wide distribution of guns among the population. The final reason hinges on the justification at the heart of the Second Amendment—that citizens can have guns to help defend our country. But the U.S. has no hostile state bordering the country, and between our strong military and local national guards, the U.S. is already well positioned to defend the country without giving citizens highly lethal weapons. So when we explore a gun as a tool, it is not effective, especially given the risks involved.
The Markkula Center uses ethical lenses to help analyze different ethical dilemmas. One of those lenses is the utilitarian lens, which helps us try to balance good over harm for as many people as possible. In regard to the gun question, which guns do the most harm?
If we look at murder statistics for the U.S., a gun is by far the weapon most often used, well outpacing knives or any type of blunt instrument. It makes sense. Killing someone with say, a baseball bat, or even a kitchen knife, is difficult. Guns make killing very easy, I would argue too easy.
As guns have become more advanced technologically, they have also become significantly deadlier.
There are now several entire classes of guns, one could argue, that defy the self-defense category.
Machine guns, for one, and semi-automatic weapons, such as the AR-style rifle, are explicitly designed for warfare; intended to kill multiple people and inflict devastating damage.
If you believe there are ethical reasons to go to war (another complex debate) these weapons may make sense. For use by normal citizens, I would contend, there is no ethical justification for owning these.
Someone deranged can certainly kill people say, with a knife or handgun, but not as many people and not as quickly.
The Markkula center also uses a care ethics lens, which asks us to consider if decisions we make employ care, kindness, and compassion. The parents and survivors in Uvalde would be better cared for if such a powerful and devasting weapon as the AR-15 was not made available to a young man with horrific motivation. A school and community that is cared for is one where the children and citizens do not have to live in constant fear of an active shooter with a military grade weapon.
If you can make the argument for private gun ownership at all, I would argue the ethical gun for citizens would be single shot hunting rifles, shotguns, or non-automatic hand guns, and you could even, in these cases, limit the caliber to mediate the killing power.
If we added this to more thorough background checks for gun owners, and more rigorous standards for gun ownership, perhaps we would be approaching a sane and ethical policy toward preventing mass violence.