"Meta-Message" on Gun Control

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

My name is Jonathan Wallace and I am about to engage in a debate on Matthew Gaylor's Freematt's Alerts mailing list with John Trentes of NRA. Here are a few words about me, my opinions and some of the arguments I will be making.

I am a 43 year old software company executive and attorney. As an avocation, I publish The Ethical Spectacle, http://www.spectacle.org/, a monthly Webzine covering the collision of ethics, law and politics in our society. I have written regularly in the Spectacle about the ethics and legalities of guns and gun control, which is why Matt invited me to debate John.

I have never owned a gun (are you surprised?) I have enjoyed firing rifles and handguns at shooting ranges in Texas, where I visit regularly. I enjoy movies where large amounts of large caliber ordinance are fired. I have also had guns pointed at my head on two occasions: once a hunting rifle in the hands of a strange guy in military fatigues running through some northeastern woods early in the morning, and once a weird, snaky-looking semiautomatic during the robbery of a Paris post office by five men in ski masks. I don't think those experiences have led me in particular to want to ban guns, any more than they led me to want to have a concealed weapon of my own. But in the interests of telling you who I am, I think its appropriate to mention them.

I regard guns as an environmental problem. Before anyone starts to bristle, let me point out that environmental problems are frequently caused by too much of a good thing in the wrong place or imposed on the wrong people. As an example, let me mention scuba diving. I have been an avid scuba diver for twenty years, and many of the reefs in Pennekamp Park in Florida which I visited when I began are nothing like what they were. You may think of scuba as a gentle and noninvasive sport, but enough generations of divers fanning sand over sensitive coral animals or standing on coral heads and you have no reefs left.

I will be devoting a lot of my time in this debate to saying that I am not looking to take guns away from communities where they are a part of the lifestyle and where no one is ever harmed. I am simply looking not to have such places impose their lifestyle on me. There are also communities which do not want guns.

In a classic libertarian analysis, I think these communities would be treated equally. Since property rights are paramount, I should be able to buy a hundred square miles of land, develop a village, and sell all the houses in it subject to a no-guns rule. If someone wants to own an gun, he has a right to go live somewhere else. Since I will refer to this hypothetical village again in the debate, let me name it Walden Township.

This leads to another important point I will be making: Second Amendment advocates are not always true libertarians, any more than First Amendment proponents are. They overlap libertarians by wanting the government uninvolved in their pet issue in a particular way, but not necessarily in other issues or other ways. Many civil libertarians favor a government role in welfare, health, etc. Many Second Amendment fans would be happy to see laws passed that would forbid me to ban guns in Walden Township, even though I am the developer and owner.

John Trentes and I will be exchanging messages concentrating on the law, practicalities and morality pertaining to guns and gun control. These three areas of consideration typically get mushed together, especially in mailing list flamewars, but are quite independent of each other. For example, a particular government action may be legal, and practical, but highly immoral. None of these three qualities compels the existence of any other.

I hope I am not shocking anyone by adding that both morality and law are human constructs. Another thing that happens in much public debate is that we don't distinguish between debating "is" and "ought". If you say "I have an inviolable Second Amendment right to possess a handgun," and I point you to caselaw which emphatically says you don't (which I will do), what has happened? I've just established you were just arguing an "ought", that is, what the Second *ought* to say, how it *ought* to be interpreted. Nothing wrong with that. But debates are a lot murkier if we act like we are debating a Platonic archetype, a grand Second Amendment in the sky, that has some existence independent of what currrent courts have said.

Similarly with morality, where its even clearer that what we're debating is an "ought". If I say that certain uses of or attitudes about guns are unethical (and I will), I am merely describing the ethical rulebook under which I would like to live (in Walden Township). I know that you have your own. I will not be arguing that yours is automatically invalid because inconsistent with the Old or New Testaments, Kierkegaard or Heinlein. I may be arguing that my rulebook makes more sense than yours, though I don't expect to convince you.

Practicality is the least of these three fields of discussion, but a necessary one because so much debating time is spent saying that the other guy's solution could never work (that Walden Township is Cloud Cuckooland).

Here is a summary of what I will say at greater length on each of these topics.

  1. The law. Supreme Court and federal appeals court precedent is completely unambiguous that the Second Amendment is understood today only as a right held by the states against the federal government. There is no individual constitutional right of gun ownership under the Constitution as interpreted today, *no matter what* the Founders intended.

  2. Practicalities. A scheme of regulation in which guns are considered an environmental problem, and the people who want them collaborate with the people who don't to avoid forcing the latter to share their lifestyle, seems completely practical to me.

  3. Ethics. Though I have met many people who grew up with and own guns and have good values, I will argue that humans are influenced by their tools. "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, wanted to use it to create harbors in Alaska. People who own guns *may* have a tendency to think of the world as consisting of people who can and can't be shot. Gun ownership thus may subtly affect the value we assign even to innocent human life. Not a reason to ban guns but certainly a reason for people who own them to constantly rethink what the gun represents to them.

I am looking forward to an exchange of views with John Trentes and the members of this list.