Is Selling Assault Weapons Parts Ethical?
Gun companies make a profit from death. They sell products that are used for killing and they make money every time a deadly weapon is put into the hands of a person, whatever the purchasers intentions are. Although there is debate over whether guns of any kind should be legal in the United States, they currently are protected under the second amendment and for the purposes of this paper we will assume that it is ethical to sell guns as long as they abide by all legal regulations.
There are guns however, that are not legal to manufacture or import in the United States of America. Although it is unconstitutional, assault weapons primarily, are banned for manufacture and import into the United States, and all guns are banned for convicted felons. However, it is legal to sell the parts needed to assemble these assault weapons. Moreover there is no system to register or track gun parts (except the receiver), and so all gun parts can be sold to felons who can then assemble the guns themselves. The question then arises, is it the ethical responsibility of gun companies, dealers, and manufacturers to close up gaps left open by congress and tightly regulate who they sell gun parts to and what parts they sell even though it would be infringing upon a constitutional right and a basic freedom guaranteed to all citizens in the Declaration of Independence? Yes, according to Kantian Deontology, Edward Freeman, Alan Goldberg, and Milton Freidman. Although it may be unconstitutional to ban the manufacture and importation of assault weapons, it is unethical for gun companies and manufacturers to circumvent the law and undermine the government by making assault weapons accessible, and making any gun accessible to a convicted felon.
The background of this article will contain the formal and spiritual definitions of an assault weapon, as well as a brief argument as to why banning Assault Weapons is unconstitutional. Following the background, the analysis section will contain an ethical analysis of the sale of weapon parts as well as the behaviors of gun companies based on the works of Emanuel Kant, Edward Freeman, Alan Goldberg, and Milton Freidman. The last part of this article will conclude that although banning assault weapons is unconstitutional, it is still unethical to sell weapons parts indiscriminately.
Assault weapons, formally defined in The Assault Weapons Limitaion Act of 1989 , include nineteen specific makes and models any shotgun with a revolving cylinder or a fixed magazine or drum capacity of more than six rounds, or any semiautomatic firearm with a fixed magazine capacity exceeding 10 rounds. The act also allows the Secretary and Attorney General to modify the list of firearms considered assault weapons at any time they deem necessary. (U.S Congress Assault Weapons 5)A 1994 bill passed also considers any weapon which contains two features characteristic of a military weapon to be an assault weapon such as a bayonet mount, exchangeable magazines,…etc.(Million Mom March) Essentially however, assault weapons can be thought of as firearms that are heavy, expensive, and loud which make them impractical for hunting and ideal for military use. They also contain features which allow them to discharge a large amount of rounds in a short amount of time such as pistol grips, exchangeable or large capacity magazines. This means in short: they can be used to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time. Why then do assault weapons have any place in society? The second amendment as everyone knows explicitly grants the public the right to bear arms and act as a militia when necessary. This means that citizens do not posses the right to bear arms simply for sport or hunting, but because it guarantees their freedoms. Throughout history, tyrannical leaders have known this and disarmed the public before their rule. “ But in the best constitution that ever was, as to all other parts of the government, if the militia be not upon right foot, the liberty of the people must perish” (Fletcher 139) Thomas Jefferson noted in the Declaration of independence that when a government becomes oppressive or tyrannical the citizens have the right and the responsibility to overthrow the government. Since assault weapons are not banned for military or law enforcement (U.S Congress Assault Weapons 4) how can citizens and militia carry out their duty if they are not allowed to maintain the similar weaponry as the government? Although common sense does dictate that the citizenry will never posses weapons on the same level as the armed forces such as tanks, bombers, or missiles, small arms serve as a philosophical safeguard to civil liberties. It is very hard to oppress armed citizens, even if they can’t realistically overthrow the government. Since the right to bear arms is such a crucial right granted to the citizenry in founding documents is it ethical for gun companies to do everything in their power to circumvent assault weapons bans and supply small arms to the public?
Emanuel Kant focused on a “categorical imperative” when making ethical decisions. This “categorical imperative” states that any ethical decision needs to be evaluated in terms of a universal maxim, could this policy set a precedent as a universal law for society? (Bowie 63) In this case the immediate answer is that it would be ethical for gun companies to try to circumvent the unjust law and sell assault weapon kits as they have the duty to uphold human rights. One could easily adopt a universal maxim that states “One should always act as to the best interests of human rights”.
Upon further evaluation however, the decision becomes less clear. A corporation undermining the government and making a profit from doing so is endangering the general public by weakening the government’s authority and encouraging others to undermine the government in different ways because it is profitable to do so. Reducing the governments ability to enforce laws endangers the safety and well being of all citizens of the country and could lead to chaos. Thus one could not adopt a maxim that states “It is ethical to make a profit by undermining the authority of the government”.
Furthermore this would allow the corporation itself to make the decision about which laws were just and which ones were not. Since the corporation is obviously biased in these decisions, it would also not be appropriate to construct a universal law stating “A company can choose which laws it finds just only and follow those particular laws.” If this law were enacted corporations would almost never follow laws if they were unprofitable for them and business would be completely unregulated.
Although initially it would seem that Kantian Deontology defends the gun companies’ actions, in reality Emanuel Kant’s theory would deem the gun companies’ decisions unethical.
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business- to use its resources to engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as…[it] engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” (Friedman 38) The previous is Milton Friedman’s thesis for his article “The social responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits”.
Again at first glance Friedman would seem to support the gun companies’ activities which include selling gun part kits indiscriminately. Gun kits would be extremely profitable to sell because the labor cost is greatly reduced, and shipping could be made easier because the parts could be spread out in a box making it cheaper to ship.
Also, the very fact that these weapons have been banned makes them desirable for many purchasers of weapons. This of course increases the demand of the gun kits allowing the companies to sell more of the weapon parts at a greater profit, and of course completely stopping the sale of a profitable item completely would result in a huge loss for the company. Freidman’s thesis seems to support the gun companies’ actions.
Once again however, Friedman’s article in actuality does not support selling the gun kits. This is because to assemble the kit itself would be illegal, and selling a product which can only be used in an illegal manner is fraud. Since there is no legal use for these kits the company is aiding criminal activity which is fraudulent to the United States government because by operating in the United States a business agrees to uphold the laws of the country the same way a citizen agrees to abide by the laws of the country by residing in it. Selling the parts to assemble an assault weapon or an assembly kit is clearly fraud, and by extension unethical according to Friedman.
Edward Freeman argues in “Stakeholder theory of the Modern Corporation” that a firm must operate in the best interests of all its stakeholders, a stakeholder being anyone that is directly affected by the actions of the firm. In the case of gun companies selling assault weapon parts, the officers are acting against the interests of everyone involved in the firm with the exception of the offers themselves.
The first group of stakeholders that are affected by the firm are the stockholders of the gun companies themselves. By selling a product clearly intended to circumvent the law the officers open the firm to huge liability. This is good for the officers of the company because in the short run the firm is making a huge profit. While the firm is turning such a huge profit the officers can demand high salaries and large compensation packages. However, once a lawsuit is successful and the stock plummets, the officers can resign but the stockholders will be stuck with the huge loss.
The next stakeholder in the firm is the government. The government is affected by the gun companies because the sale of assault weapons parts undermines the ability of the government to enforce its own laws. When this happens the government becomes less powerful, and its ability to regulate deadly weapons is diminished allowing less control over such deadly instruments.
The government’s weakened ability to enforce its laws has an adverse effect on the final group of stakeholders of the gun companies; the general public. The general public’s safety is greatly jeopardized by the government’s lack of ability to enforce its laws, as well as the obvious dangers posed by allowing convicted felons to have possible access to guns. Because of all the physical dangers posed to the general public, the government’s loss of control, and the financial risk to the stockholders, the majority of stakeholders interests lie in the firm refusing to sell assault weapons parts or any gun parts to convicted felons.
Alan Goldman’s article “Business Ethics: Profits, Utilities, and Moral Rights” Goldman argue that business leaders cannot have different sets of values for their professional and personal lives with a few limited exceptions. (Goldman 268) With Goldman as well as many previous ethics authors, his position is ambiguous as to the right course of action for the gun companies. As individuals, the officers certainly must value their freedoms and human rights. Since they are not allowed to have different values for their business as they do for themselves how can they not do their best to allow citizens to acquire the weapons they have a right to posses. However, as individuals they also must value safety and respect the government.
Goldman mentions in his article that a major reason officers of a company must abide by their ethical guidelines is because if they don’t the company will have a bad reputation and consumers won’t trust it with their money. (Goldman 65) If reputation is such an important factor for business to maintain then they must not sell weapons parts because each death that results from an assembled assault weapon will ruin the reputation of the gun companies and make consumers less likely to trust them.
More importantly the individual respect for law and order outweighs the respect for the right to bear arms because without law and order society would be chaotic. Therefore the individual should act as to preserve law and order and in turn the corporation should act to preserve law and order.
Although on the surface one might think Goldman would support gun companies selling assault weapons parts, in actuality his theory does not. The personal values of both freedom and safety balance each other out, but the risk of poor image makes it clear that Goldman would not support the firm selling assault weapons parts.
Banning assault weapons violates the second amendment and jeopardizes all of our freedoms in society. However, it does not justify gun companies circumventing the law by selling gun parts indiscriminately allowing any criminal to assemble any type of gun they so desire. One can arrive at this conclusion by examining the works of Emanuel Kant, Milton Freidman, Edward Freeman, and Alan Goldberg, which all clearly show that it is unethical to behave in such a way. Kant’s categorical imperative shows that it would not be okay to create laws undermining the government and allowing companies to choose, while Friedman shows that a business cannot engage in deception or Fraud. Freeman shows that it is in the best interests of most stakeholders to not sell the assault weapons parts and Goldberg shows how you cannot do so without using a different set of roles professionally and individually. This ethical dilemma shows that when evaluating a decision to follow a just law or void it as much as possible that it is important to consider all of the ramifications of your actions and all the stakeholders affected. Although sometimes it may seem like one is not defending civil liberties hard enough if he chooses to follow the laws strictly, in actuality he is preserving far more than he realizes.
Bowie, Norman. "A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics" Ethical Issues in Business. Donaldson, Thomas, Werhane, Patricia, Cording Margaret. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Fletcher, Andrew. "A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias" Gun Control and Rights. JMcClurg, Andrew New York City: New York University Press, 2002.
Freeman, Edward. "Stakeholder Theory of Modern Corporation" Ethical Issues in Business. Donaldson, Thomas, Werhane, Patricia, Cording Margaret. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Friedman, Milton. "The social responsibility is to increase its profits" Ethical Issues in Business. Donaldson, Thomas, Werhane, Patricia, Cording Margaret. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Goldman, Allan. " Business Ethics: Profits, Utilities, and Moral Rights " JStore.com. Spring 1980 <http://f3.grp.yahoofs.com/v1/8N_gP4lCW7Ts2KziHRG9RQQA3czhXcZZVVFzTubuFcCZVANa5MNFiNYzuEsMCqeVA4aBFFWFEFslS61YXr0vd09W-l3MPsifUQk/Business%20Ethics%20Profit%20Motive.pdf>
Million Mom March. <http://www.millionmommarch.org/facts/gunlaws/awb.asp>. Date Accessed 12/18/03
United States Congress. Assault Weapons Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee of the Judiciary of the Senate. Washington 1990