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Do You Have a Right to Own a Gas Stove?

photograph of gas stove burning

In January, Representative Ronny Jackson, a Republican from Texas’ 13th district, a doctor, and a former rear admiral, tweeted,

This was in response to a statement by the commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that the agency might pursue new regulatory action with regard to gas stoves, given recent research showing that gas stoves contribute to environmental and health issues like asthma. (For a more detailed, and different, take on the issue, see Andrew Conarty’s  “Gas Stoves: A Kitchen Culture Clash” also here at The Post.)

It wasn’t just Jackson who had a negative reaction to this, but his response – echoing a popular National Rifle Association bumper sticker – seems especially notable.

Was Jackson saying that we have a right to own a gas stove in the same way as we have a right to own a gun? It’s a good question.

I think the answer, however, is that from an ethical point of view, we do not have a fundamental right to own any kind of physical object – whether it’s a gas stove or a gun.

This is an especially important issue right now. In the last few years, federal court decisions have been an unmitigated triumph for people who sell guns and an unmitigated disaster for people who don’t want to get shot. In 2022, two hundred and thirty-one years after it was ratified, the Supreme Court ruled for the very first time that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to openly carry a gun for self-defense. Most recently, in United States v. Rahimi, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that laws forbidding domestic abusers from possessing firearms violate the 2nd Amendment by prohibiting specific individuals from owning weapons. In doing so, the court not only ignored the fact that a woman is five times more likely to be murdered by an abuser with a gun and that four and half million women have been threatened with, shot at, or murdered by an abuser with a gun, they specifically said that these facts are irrelevant. Why?

The theory behind the “liberal” in “liberal democracy” is that everyone has, in addition to a right to participate in the democratic process, certain inalienable (that is, you can’t give them up even if you wanted to), fundamental rights, liberties, and freedoms. A fundamental right demands more than a balancing of harms and benefits.

You have a legal right to do whatever you are not specifically legally prohibited from doing, but you have a smaller number of fundamental rights. These, as I’ve said, by their very nature trump, or overrule, ordinary rights – and even override consideration of bad consequences. In theory, the only thing that limits a fundamental right is another fundamental right. These fundamental rights include freedom of religion, the press, speech, association, and the right to own private property. But the fundamental rights are not a random list. They are meant to protect, as John Stuart Mill wrote, “The only freedom which deserves the name, that of pursuing our own good in our own way…” Or, as John Rawls would have it, the fundamental rights are those that allow us to form, revise, and pursue our own idea of the good.

Notice, how odd the right to own a gun, the right to own a particular kind of manufactured artifact, seems in this context. Guns, and gas stoves, seem to be simply the wrong kinds of things, the wrong kinds of things metaphysically, to be the objects of a fundamental right.

The right to own property doesn’t help here, since it does not mean a right to own just anything (e.g., you can’t own biological weapons, designated historical sites, or a car that you drive with no emission system).

Helpfully, the courts themselves have specified that the right to own a gun is actually “the right to own and carry a gun for self-defense.” Let’s just stipulate that self-defense is a basic right. (It may not be.) But if self-defense is a fundamental right, then, by this very definition, gun ownership is a derivative, and not a fundamental, right. For example, free speech might imply that I have a non-fundamental right to my own Facebook page. But having a Facebook page – or a gun – is not a fundamental right since they are explicitly derived from the more fundamental rights of speech or self-defense.

Why does this matter? Because if the fundamental right is a right to self-defense, and gun ownership is justified by that, then it matters what the empirical facts are.

If, for example, guns turn out to be poor tools for self-defense, then they can be regulated on that basis. If the evidence supports the claim that abusers are overwhelmingly more likely to harm an innocent person with a gun than justifiably defend themselves with it, then the right to self-defense itself undercuts gun ownership in these circumstances.

The most obvious objection is this: Guns, unlike gas stoves, are specifically stipulated in the Bill of Rights as a particular kind of thing you have a fundamental right to own. However, there are still good reasons to reject this view. For if there are certain kinds of particular physical objects, the ownership of which is protected via stipulation by the Constitution, those objects must be, in this case, muskets and flintlock pistols (especially if you are an “originalist”). It’s probably not a big public health problem if people own these, it’s handguns and AR-15s that are worth worrying about. If the argument is that people have a right to own muskets, so be it.

If gun advocates say, “but you can’t reasonably defend yourself with a flintlock pistol,” then we are back where we started. Even if people have a fundamental right to defend themselves, answering the question of how, and by what means, will depend on a bunch of empirical claims about harms and benefits. The point is that the derivative right to own a gun does not trump more fundamental rights, nor does it make weighing harms irrelevant. Overwhelming evidence that allowing abusers to own firearms will cost many women their lives can’t be set aside by simply asserting a right to own certain kinds of machines.

I think we are so used to hearing people talk about a “right to own a gun” that we no longer realize what a strange idea it is that we could have a basic right to possess a certain kind of manufactured machinery, or how different that is than the idea that we have a right to say what we want without government interference. This is why it helps to think about whether there could be a fundamental right to own a gas stove. If you did have fundamental rights to own guns and gas stoves, and could keep adding objects you would like to have to the list of things you have a fundamental right to, this would quickly undermine the very idea that there is any set of fundamental rights at all. What would be left is not a coherent list of what is necessary for shared and ordered liberty, but simply a laundry list of stuff one wishes to possess. And, so, if gas stoves do cause serious harms, it is perfectly reasonable to regulate – or even ban – them. Guns do cause serious harms – in 2022, 45,222 Americans died of gun-related injuries. Perhaps they should be regulated.

Ultimately, where no fundamental right is at stake, it’s all about harms and benefits which should be weighed through the ordinary democratic process. No one has a right of control over particular kinds of physical objects that is on par with other basic rights. Contrary to Representative Jackson’s tweet, no one is entitled to a handgun or a gas stove.

Background Checks for Alcohol: A Response

photograph of gun with bullets and glass of alcohol on table

The other night, my wife and I went to our local brewery. They had posted on Facebook that their Double IPA is back. It is, and this is no exaggeration, one of the best beers I have tasted – strong, without being overpowering, and a smoothness rarely found at such an ABV. I had two pints of it. Tonight, I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine with a few friends.

None of this should sound particularly controversial. But, in a thought-provoking piece in this venue, Tim Hsiao argues we should treat this like buying a firearm, and if there should be background checks for firearms then there should be background checks for buying alcohol (and if there shouldn’t be checks for alcohol, there shouldn’t be checks for firearms). I want to probe his argument by looking at some of the background assumptions in place.

Every few months, there seems to be a piece on Americans’ relationship with alcohol (sometimes sponsored by companies with a vested interest in stoking some fear). A recent piece by Kate Julian in The Atlantic is badly titled “America Has a Drinking Problem.” It’s a bad title because it falls into the trope of always writing about drink in terms of a problem, but the piece is much more nuanced: “Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad? The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink but on how and where and with whom you do it.”

The conclusion is that the sort of drinking I spelled out in the opening paragraph is good. Summarizing Edward Slingerland’s Drunk, Julian notes how drinking helps us be more creative and enhances social bonding. And she points out that, especially after the asocial years of pandemic living, being sociable is positively good for us and supports our health.

But not all social drinking sees the benefits outweigh the cost. Drinking can make us aggressive, damage our livers, and can be addictive. But what is key, and what Julian stresses, is that there are different forms of drinking. And there is a large class of drinking – moderate social drinking – that has a substantial benefit.

To recognize this undermines Hsiao’s argument that we should treat firearms and drinking the same. His argument is that alcohol abuse causes more deaths than firearm use and is involved in many more crimes. But this blunt comparison runs all forms of drinking together and ignores the benefits. The fact that a large class of drinking plausibly is a net social good means that Hsiao must do much more work to reach his conclusion. He needs to show that firearm ownership is as beneficial as drinking and that the costs of background checks are similarly proportionate. Otherwise, the analogy falls apart.

But what are the net benefits of firearm ownership? For one, there is hunting, which provides both a source of nutrition and an important social activity for many. But a 2013 study found that around half of gun owners own a firearm for self-defense purposes. There is an argument – a contested one – that owning a gun for self-defense actually increases your risk of harm, because it increases the risk of an accident, misuse, and even suicide. Further, the U.S. has a much greater rate of gun violence than other wealthy countries, many of which have stricter controls on gun ownership.

So, we have seen a plausible argument that alcohol consumption is (in general, or at least in a major set of cases) good, and have also seen a plausible argument that owning a gun – given the risk of misuse, accidents, suicide, or violence – may well be a net negative. Plausibly, we can increase the chance that firearms are used properly if we mandate background checks that increase the likelihood that firearm use will be a net positive: appropriate self-defense or hunting, say.

Perhaps this sets up an argument that some firearms and some drinking should not face background checks, but others should. But the other side of the coin is that background checks on any form of alcohol consumption will be much more onerous than checks on firearms. For one, alcohol is more immediately consumed than firearms are used. After all, few people buy a firearm for immediate self-defense or a last-second hunting trip, but we buy beers for immediate consumption or a bottle of wine to take to a dinner party.

Further, there are many more individual transitions involving alcohol. Americans buy around 40 million firearms a year and there are around 400 million firearms in the U.S.. According to one estimate, the average drinking-age adult drinks around 200 pints of beer a year (to say nothing of cider, wine, or liquor). And there are, conservatively, 200 million drinking-age adults in the states. I’ve struggled to get any precise statistic on the number of transactions involving alcohol per year, but if 200 million adults drink around 200 pints of beer each (even if they’re buying packs of 16 cans), it isn’t hard to see that there will be vastly more transactions involving alcohol than the 40 million firearms sales a year.

Even if drinking alone or binge drinking is a net loss, it would be onerous to get everybody to either undergo a background check or somehow prove that they are drinking socially. For Hsiao’s argument to go through, he would have to show that the costs of drinking so outweigh the benefits of social drinking that they justify treating alcohol purchases like firearm purchases, and this needs to take account of the extra cost involved: people buy alcohol much more regularly than they buy firearms.

Background Checks for Alcohol

photograph of alcohol bottles on shelf

Many people think that firearms purchasers should be subject to background checks. Polls have consistently found that more than 80% of American voters support so-called “universal background checks” on firearms purchases. Currently, federal law in the United States requires that anyone buying a firearm from an individual or business with a Federal Firearms License undergo a background check. (This requirement does not apply to those buying firearms from private sellers.)

At the same time, individuals wishing to buy alcoholic beverages are not subject to the same requirement, nor is there much (if any) public support in implementing a background check system for alcohol. To buy alcoholic beverages, one simply needs to provide identification showing that one is at least 21 years old. There is no further requirement to prove that one can safely consume alcohol.

These policies are inconsistent. The same reasoning in favor of background checks for guns applies equally (and arguably with much greater force) to background checks for alcoholic beverages. With that point in mind, I want to defend the following conditional: if there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.

Someone who accepts the conditional has two options. One might embrace the antecedent (modus ponens), which leaves us with an argument for more restrictive alcohol control:

  1. If there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  2. There should be background checks on the purchase of guns.
  3. Therefore, there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.

Alternatively, one could deny the consequent (modus tollens) and frame it as an argument against background checks as a form of gun control:

  1. If there should be background checks on the purchase of guns, then there should be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  2. There should not be background checks on the purchase of alcohol.
  3. Therefore, there should not be background checks on the purchase of guns.

The option that one ends up taking will depend heavily on prior background beliefs about the nature of regulation and freedom. My goal here is not to argue for one of these options over the other. It is rather to show that these policies are connected.

Why Background Checks?

Suppose we think that there should be background checks on the purchase of firearms. What would be the rationale for this policy? The obvious answer is that firearms are capable of causing great harm when put in the wrong hands. The point of a background check is to determine whether there are factors about a buyer’s criminal history that disqualify him from owning a firearm. While background checks aren’t always effective (e.g. they won’t stop someone who has no prior history), they do act as a barrier to prohibited purchasers.

How much harm do guns actually cause? Each year, around 40,000 deaths are caused by firearms incidents — a figure that includes accidents, suicides, or crimes. Around 470,000 people are victims of crimes committed using firearms. That’s quite a large number, and so it is understandable why we might want firearms purchasers to pass a background check. While background checks won’t eliminate all of these harms, they might bring down the numbers. Moreover, in comparison to a policy such as a blanket prohibition on gun ownership, background checks attempt to strike a balance between the interests of those who want to own guns for self-protection and those who want to avoid being harmed by them.

Comparing Harms: Guns vs. Alcohol

But now consider alcohol. Each year, there are around 95,000 deaths from alcohol related causes. This number includes health-related deaths, accidental deaths, and crime-related deaths. That’s more than twice the amount of deaths from guns. Alcohol also plays a significant role in violent crime: each year, there are more than three million violent crimes in which victims perceived the offender to have been drinking at the time of the offense.

The numbers show that alcohol is involved in substantially more deaths and crimes each year than firearms, yet it is very loosely regulated compared to guns. Since reducing the numbers is what we’re concerned about, shouldn’t some of the same controls for guns also apply to alcohol? If the potential for harm is what justifies background checks for guns, then it applies with even greater force to alcohol, which is orders of magnitude more harmful than firearms.

Like with guns, background checks attempt to strike a balance between the interests of those who want to imbibe responsibility and those who want to avoid being harmed by alcohol. They are a common-sense way of reducing harm that is nowhere near as burdensome as (say) total prohibition.

One might immediately object by appealing to the distinction between self-regarding actions and other-regarding actions: many of these harms involve things people do to themselves, not other people. Guns harm mainly other people, whereas alcohol harms mainly the user.

This reply won’t work. First, as far as deaths are concerned, two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, so it is just not true that firearms kill mainly other people. If we shift our view to crime, alcohol clearly fails the test, as alcohol-related crimes affect many times more people than firearm-related crimes. But more importantly: deaths remain bad whether they’re self-inflicted or inflicted by others. The needless death of a person does not become “acceptable” or “morally neutral” simply because it was the result of his own choices.

If our goal is simply to bring down the numbers, then it doesn’t really matter how the numbers were generated or where they came from. What matters is that each “number” represents a harm. And on that point, the death of an innocent person is always a harm regardless of how it is caused. So the distinction between “self-regarding” and “other-regarding” actions becomes irrelevant.

Indeed, if we accept the harm-based rationale for background checks, then given the sheer amount of harm attributable to alcohol, there is a good case to be made for extremely restrictive forms of alcohol control that go beyond just background checks. But we needn’t go that far — the point is that the argument for background checks on guns is weaker than the argument for background checks on alcohol. If we’re going to have background checks on anything, it should be alcohol.


While my focus has been on background checks, there is a clear parallel between gun control and alcohol control. An argument for the former would also seem to be an argument for the latter, and an argument against the latter would also seem to be an argument against the former. Proponents of gun control are left with a dilemma: either we embrace background checks for gun ownership (and thus also alcohol) or we reject background checks for alcohol (and thus also background checks for gun ownership).

There is no doubt that a proposal to implement background checks on alcohol would prove to be unpopular. Many would object to it on the grounds that it is burdensome and paternalistic. But that is the price of consistency. Perhaps the better option is to reject background checks for both alcohol and guns.

Gun Control and Constitutional Interpretation

photograph of gavel resting on Bill of Rights

Since the beginning of 2021, there have been 133 mass shootings in the United States. While some of these shootings find their roots in racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, they are also the result of the relatively easy access to firearms in the United States. Many Americans might attribute this prevalence of guns to the right guaranteed in the United States Constitution, enunciated in the Second Amendment’s phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” However, the application of the Second Amendment as affording the individual liberty of gun ownership is a modern, highly disputed, doctrine in constitutional law. Two contemporary landmark cases, District of Columbia v Heller (2008) and McDonald v City of Chicago (2010) fundamentally altered the power of state and federal governments to regulate gun ownership by recognizing an individual right to own and keep firearms. These cases were highly divisive, included multiple dissenting opinions, and were decided by bare, 5-4 majorities. However, the majority and minority in both cases relied a type of constitutional interpretation called originalism to bolster their conclusions. The difference, however, lies in the majority’s use of original meaning and the minority’s use of original intent.

How were the different forms of originalism employed in both cases? What are the moral pitfalls of either type of originalist interpretation? And is relying on the ideas or desires of the Founders an ethical basis on which to decide cases?

In District of Columbia v Heller (2008), several individuals, including members of lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association and the Cato Institute, challenged the constitutionality of a D.C. law which imposed several restrictions on gun ownership, including the regulation that rifles and shotguns be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by trigger lock.” In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment granted individual citizens the right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense. Though the Court had previously defined the scope of the Second Amendment in United States v Miller (1939), the widely-accepted application of the Second Amendment in constitutional law was that the right to bear arms only applied to ownership of weapons in the context of use in an organized militia. For this reason, many decisions involving individual gun ownership in the 20th century refused to acknowledge that the Second Amendment bestowed an individual right which restricted states or the federal government from regulation.

The little room that was left open for gun regulation after District of Columbia v Heller was quickly closed two years later in McDonald v City of Chicago (2010). The majority opinion, this time penned by Justice Alito, held that Chicago’s regulation which essentially prevented firearm registration and ownership was a violation of rights bestowed to individuals by the Constitution. This case was significant because it granted individuals broad legal protection from gun regulation. Many constitutional scholars and theorists view both Heller and McDonald as landmark Supreme Court decisions which fundamentally altered the legal conception of the Second Amendment.

Originalism is a form of constitutional interpretation which understands the Constitution in terms of what it originally meant when it was written, the original intent of the Framers, or both. One consideration, which applies to both original meaning and original intent interpretation is the reliance on the ideas and intentions of people long-dead and gone when deciding what rules should govern society. Nobody alive today had a hand in writing the original Constitution. Sometimes known as the “dead hand problem,” a moral and philosophical paradox arises when considering whether one can consent to a government, they had no hand in designing.

Fundamental to the reasoning employed in both Heller and McDonald was originalist meaning. Proponents of original meaning generally argue that it ultimately benefits society by limiting the discretion given to judges. By limiting the power of judges to use their own authority to decide what the Constitution says (or should say), originalism might be said to prevent an unequal application of the law and to leave political battles to the legislature where it can be more democratically controlled.

Those critical of originalism, however, might see it as giving far too much weight to the language, culture, and politics of a long-gone society and see it as detrimentally rigid and inapplicable to a rapidly changing society. Upholding the original meaning of the Constitution might also force one to condone immoral provisions, such as those enabling slavery or only bestowing rights upon certain groups of people. While originalism might safeguard certain moral values present in the Constitution it also prevents moral correction. For example, in the case of gun reform, even if the original meaning of the Constitution was meant to bestow individual gun rights, perhaps this liberty should be reexamined in the face of advanced technology and the prevalence of gun violence.

Turning not to the original meaning but instead to the original intentions of the Framers is another strategy used in originalist constitutional interpretation. In their dissents in Heller, both Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer point to historical evidence which implies that the Second Amendment was intended only to apply to militias and was not conceived to apply to individual self-defense. Originalism which focuses on the intentions of the Framers in terms of gun rights has also been a popular method among gun reform advocates, and late night comedy hosts, who point out that firearm capabilities at the time of ratification were vastly different than firearm capabilities today. While many gun regulation advocates might agree with the application of the Framers’ intention in this instance, the pitfall of applying such an interpretive strategy includes reckoning with some of the potentially immoral intentions present in certain provisions of the Constitution. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution condoned slavery, and experts have contended that the Framers did not intend for certain Constitutional rights, like the right to vote, to extend to poor men, women, or BIPOC folks.

Another potential problem with considering the intention is that the Founders were arguably themselves immoral. More than a few of the Founders owned slaves, and though some expressed moral grief over this fact, their decision to subjugate human beings is entirely reprehensible. Even relativist arguments which defend the Founders and advocate for original intent, might fail on the basis that the point is exactly that we have changed as a society and should not be turning to the dead for guidance in solving society’s most pressing legal problems.

Since Heller, the rate of gun deaths in the United States have increased 17%. The United States is the one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to firearms death, and there is a clear political, cultural, and moral interest in reexamining the individual right to gun ownership. If one’s goal is to regulate firearms, the most effective form of constitutional interpretation to do so might very well lie outside of originalism altogether. However, it is important to recognize how originalist application has greatly influenced gun control in the United States. By understanding the moral quandaries that belie the forms of modern constitutional interpretation applied to firearms cases, we can better understand which types of arguments best support the gun regulation we seek.

Gun Control and the Ethics of Constitutional Rights

photograph of NRA protesters

Consider these starkly different positions on gun control: a month ago, just hours after a gunman killed 50 people worshiping at Friday prayers in two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, promised to tighten the country’s gun laws. And, several days ago Donald Trump told the National Rifle Association in a speech that he intends to pull out of the United Nations arms treaty citing as a reason the protection of second amendment rights. Trump said, “Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone. We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your second amendment freedom.”

In the United States it is difficult to tighten gun ownership rules, or limit the types of guns (like military assault rifles, automatic and semi-automatic weapons) because ownership of guns for self-protection has been found to be protected by the second amendment of the Constitution, which states that citizens have a right to ‘keep and bear arms.’ But no such constitutional right exists in New Zealand, where Ardern swiftly followed through on her promise; nor in Australia whose gun laws, also passed in response to a massacre, New Zealand’s were modelled on.

The man charged over the Christchurch massacre was in possession of two semi-automatic rifles as well as three other firearms, all held legally on his entry-level ‘category A’ firearms licence; the semi-automatic rifles had allegedly been modified by adding a high-capacity magazine. Less than a month later a sweeping gun law reform bill was brought before the New Zealand parliament. The bill outlaws most automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and components that modify existing weapons. During the bill’s final reading, Ardern said: “I could not fathom how weapons that could cause such destruction and large-scale death could be obtained legally in this country.”

New Zealand government Members of Parliament, in a rare show of bipartisanship, overwhelmingly backed the changes, (there was just one dissenting vote in the parliament), which were passed by a vote of 119 to 1 in the House of Representatives after an accelerated process of debate and public submission. It is now illegal to own a military style rifle in New Zealand (with the exception of heirloom weapons or those for professional pest control). Possession of such a weapon will from now on carry a penalty of up to five years in prison. The bill includes a buyback scheme for anyone who already owns such a weapon, for them to surrender it and receive compensation based on the weapon’s age and condition.

New Zealand’s gun law reform was based on similar measures taken by the Australian government in 1996, following the Port Arthur Massacre in which an individual used a semi-automatic rifle to murder locals and tourists in the small historic town, ultimately killing 35 people, including many children. Twelve days after the Port Arthur massacre, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, announced a sweeping package of gun reforms. In the wake of Port Arthur, the Australian government banned automatic and semiautomatic firearms, adopted new licensing requirements, established a national firearms registry, and instituted a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases. It also bought and destroyed more than 600,000 civilian-owned firearms, in a scheme that cost half a billion dollars and was funded by raising taxes.

In both countries gun law reform had been frustrated by conservative elements prior to the massacres. In New Zealand, as in Australia, there was some pushback from conservative politics, and from a gun-lobby, but in general there was widespread community support for the banning of military style weapons, and automatic and semi-automatic rifles, as both countries grappled with extreme tragedy.

In the United States, a similar response to major firearms massacres such as Sandy Hook in 2012 and, more recently the Parkland Florida school shooting in 2018 is almost inconceivable. Any attempt to instigate reform on the back of unspeakable tragedies such as these appears doomed; indeed Barak Obama’s pledge to push through some modest reforms following Sandy Hook encountered fierce resistance from the NRA and other organisations who, in vehemently defending the constitutional right of the Second Amendment, constitute the gun-lobby.

In Australia in 1996, and in New Zealand in 2019, the governments acted on the tragedy to amend laws so as to keep people safe and to ensure such massacres do not continue to occur. There have been no mass shootings in Australia in the over 20 years since Port Arthur; in the 20 years before it there were 13. In both cases, the gun lobby was barely given time to react, and reform was swift so that it took place in the wake of the tragedy. Even though the US has a constitutional right protecting gun ownership, the gun lobby fears the capacity of governments to move to curtail gun ownership in the wake of severe massacres and large-scale tragedies, such as Sandy Hook or Parkland, and members of the NRA have expressed concerns that such mobilisation by gun control advocates in Australia, and now New Zealand, may give hope and impetus to those campaigning for gun law reform in the United States.

A main gun-lobby tactic is to criticise gun-control advocates for capitalizing on tragedy to target gun laws. Following a mass shooting it is usual for the gun lobby, and a large number of politicians as well, to offer “thoughts and prayers” and then to vehemently oppose any suggestion that gun laws need reform. One typical response from conservative second amendment defenders is that it is bad (it seems they are suggesting it is ethically bad) to use a tragedy to further a political agenda or ideology.  

This tactic was spelled out clearly recently by Catherine Mortensen, an NRA media liaison officer, though she was unaware at the time of speaking, that she was being recorded. Recently several Australian politicians and political staffers were caught and secretly filmed visiting the United States and meeting with NRA and gun lobby officials and supporters, with a view to soliciting political donations. Said donations were slated to help these Australian right-wing conservative players electorally manoeuvre into a position from which to water down Australia’s gun laws. In meetings at the NRA’s Virginia headquarters, NRA officials provided Australian One Nation’s James Ashby and Steve Dickson with tips from the NRA playbook on how to galvanise public support to change Australia’s gun laws and coached the pair on how to respond to a mass shooting.

Catherine Mortensen’s advice, following a mass shooting, is: “Say nothing.” If media queries persist, go on the “offence, offence, offence.” She counsels gun lobby groups to smear gun-control groups. “Shame them” with statements such as: “How dare you stand on the graves of those children to put forward your political agenda?”

Of course, Mortensen’s point about not using tragedy to further a political agenda is, in this scenario, a totally disingenuous piece of sophistry. One of the principle points about such tragedies (Christchurch, Sandy Hook, Port Arthur) which determines how we should respond is the procurement and possession of weapons – in these cases the availability and use of military style weapons by a single person to massacre strangers. Whichever way it is talked about, how a government and community responds will always suggest some political end. Events like these rightly impede our political lives, and it is surely the role of politicians to act in the best interests of the community. Mortensen’s statement is also obviously hypocritical, considering the political clout of the NRA and the gun lobby.

It is surely time for the USA to look again at the ethics of its constitutional right to bear arms. A constitutional right is not a human right, and many now agree that the second amendment is a relic from the Eighteenth Century, when newly independent Americans may have needed “well organised militias” to protect themselves.

But as an ethical concept, the notion of a right needs to have some meaning. Although a right is an abstract, deontological concept, and is in an important sense a ‘good in itself’ it has also to be grounded in our experience of the world, and to emerge from what we know to be the case from our experience. We know that human rights pertaining to access to food and shelter and freedom from tyranny are fundamental because those things are necessary for us to flourish. But we can see from the number of massacres in America, not to mention other gun-death and injury statistics that high levels of gun ownership and availability do not contribute to a flourishing society.  

The right to bear arms cannot be considered to be a right that is ‘good in itself,’ or is worthy to be protected against every tragedy and every statistic that measures the harms it causes American society. In fact, in this case, the existence of a right is a primary factor standing in the way of ethical progress.

Gun Ownership and Suicide: An Overlooked Health Crisis  

A photograph of a gun on a table

Warning: this article contains content, information, and discussion about suicide which may be upsetting to some readers.

If you are in a crisis, help is available.

Mass shootings have become numbingly routine in the United States. When Americans think of gun violence they tend to picture high-profile shootings and the polarizing debates over gun control that follow. Yet, most tragic gun deaths occur in lonely isolation. Of the thousands of people who die by gunshot each year in the United States, suicides make up the majority.

A growing number of people are dying by suicide committed with a firearm and the issue has gone mostly unreported. In a USA Today article, Robert Spitzer, author of The Right to Bear Arms and other books on gun control says, “Gun suicides continue to be kind of an underreported story in the sense that when people think of gun violence, they think of homicides, they think of gangs or mass shooters or personal violence.”

As with gun deaths caused by homicide, accident, and mass shootings, the topic of gun control arises with suicide. Are policies regulating the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification, and use of firearms an effective means of addressing the problem of gun suicide? Studies would say yes. Mandatory purchase delays on handguns have been linked to a reduction in firearm suicides and no corresponding increase in suicide by other means. Further, a cross-sectional study found that states with stronger firearm laws had a lower overall suicide rate (not simply a shift from firearm to non firearm suicide) than states with weaker firearm laws.

Firearm suicide is not limited to adults; in fact, there has been an increase in firearm suicide by youth in recent years. A January 17, 2019 study found a strong association between the prevalence of household gun ownership and the overall youth suicide rate at the state level. “For each 10 percentage-point increase in household gun ownership, the youth suicide rate increased by 26.9%.” More guns lying around means a greater risk of young people falling victim to suicide. States with Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws, which require guns to be stored in a manner that prevents unauthorized access by young people, reported overall youth suicide rates eight percent lower than states without CAP laws.

While suicide is complicated and many risk factors can play a role in the decision to carry out an attempt, evidence suggests that preventing access to firearms is one effective method of reducing overall suicide rates because, of all suicide methods, firearms are the most lethal. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that most suicides tend to be impulsive (occurring with little planning or forethought) and are a reaction to immediate stressors: “As the acute phase of the crisis passes, so does the urge to attempt suicide.” Reducing exposure to lethal means, even temporarily, can prevent suicide by reducing one’s ability to carry out an attempt. Even if someone decides to substitute a different means, they are more likely to survive a less lethal attempt. This is significant because 90% of attempt survivors will not go on to die by suicide.  

Despite the fact that gun control legislation is a fiercely debated topic within the U.S., an unlikely partnership between the medical community and gun industry is emerging in an attempt to address the issue of firearm suicide. A growing number of gun dealers, firearm instructors, and range owners are working with mental health professionals to produce educational campaigns geared toward making people more aware and comfortable talking about guns and suicide.

Programs like the New Hampshire based Gun Shop Project have created training modules that educate gun shops workers on how to spot and help potentially suicidal customers. The suicide prevention coordinator for Washington County, Utah has helped create public service announcements encouraging the family and friends of those in an emotional crisis to talk to their loved one about temporarily storing firearms away from home. Even the Firearms Industry Trade Association has released statements working to help prevent suicide by firearm. While the effectiveness of such educational programs has not been studied, Brian Mann of NPR says, “the debate over guns and violence in America is really polarized, and this is a rare collaboration. Supporters hope voluntary education and outreach will save lives.”

Media attention surrounding high-profile mass shootings and firearm homicide have focused the ongoing debate about gun control policies in the U.S. around the prevention of such tragedies. While these are issues that must be addressed, suicides make up nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the U.S. and the nation ranks second internationally for the highest worldwide gun suicide rate. For America to most effectively move forward with efforts to reduce gun violence, adequate attention must be given to suicide prevention.  

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention  Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 OR Text SIGNS to 741741 for 24/7, anonymous, free crisis counseling.

Does the Right to Self-Defense Give Us a Right to Guns?

Image of a person putting a handgun into a gun safe.

The survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting have made themselves heard since February 14, most recently at the March For Our Lives rally in Washington DC. Almost all of these teenagers fervently support gun control, but a few of them see things differently. In an interview on The Daily Show a few days before the rally, Stoneman student Josh Belenke spoke up for gun owners. His view is that there’s a “God-given right to self-defense” that shouldn’t be taken away.

Nobody’s really talking about taking guns away entirely, but what about it? Must we make guns available because people have a right to self-defense? How strong is the self-defense defense of gun rights?

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To Understand America’s Resistance to Gun Control, Look to Religion

A vintage snapshot of four boys playing with toy guns next to a lake.

As America grapples with another mass shooting, this time at a concert in Las Vegas, the arguments put forth by both sides have not exactly tread new ground. There have been some encouraging signs of progress, namely the growing consensus around a ban of the bump-fire stocks the shooter used to simulate automatic fire and kill 58 people. Yet much of the debate remains couched in appeals to public safety and evocations of constitutional rights, doing little to address the deep intractability that marks the gun control debate.

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Politics and Respect in the Wake of Mass Shootings

An aerial photo of the Las Vegas strip, where the 2017 shooting occured.

On October 1, a gunman opened fire on a country music festival in downtown Las Vegas. Almost immediately following news of the shooting, prominent politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tweeted pleas for stronger gun control. These tweets drew harsh criticism regarding the politicization of mass shootings. Such criticism appears in the wake of mass shootings, as people assess when it is too soon to start discussing gun control, and what can be done in the future to prevent such tragedies. Continue reading “Politics and Respect in the Wake of Mass Shootings”

Social Media Vigils and Mass Shootings

In the wake of the largest mass shooting in the United States to date, Facebook and other social media sites have been flooded with posts honoring the victims in Orlando. Many such posts include the faces of the victims, rainbow banners and “share if you’re praying for Orlando” posts. Although there is nothing particularly harmful about sharing encouraging thoughts through social media, opinions are surfacing that it might do more harm than good.

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This and That: The NRA’s Firearm Fairy Tales

Last week, the New York Times reported that, thanks to a set of fairy tales creatively recreated by the National Rifle Association, children can now read their favorite fairy tales from the perspective of if the characters had guns.  

In the retelling, Little Red Riding hood confidently tromps through the forest with a rifle across her back, and Hansel and Gretel hold the wicked witch off at gunpoint.  Even the Grandma, the unfortunate first casualty of the traditional Little Red Riding Hood story, now has a shotgun she makes use of to hold the wolf at bay.

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Gun Violence and Public Health

The issue of gun violence is pervasive in American society. Mass shootings are reported regularly; our phones buzz with news notifications of mass shootings so regularly that it’s not surprising to most people anymore. Gun violence claims 30,000 lives per year – enough that if it were a disease, it would be considered a huge threat to public health. Yet the Central for Disease Control no longer researches gun violence as they do other public health issues, and hasn’t for nearly two decades.

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