The Ethics of Guns

by Jonathan Wallace

My intentions in this debate are to advance some ideas in the way best calculated to get an audience for them among people who are deeply opposed to my views. Of the three segments, law, practicality, morality, it is the third one that is most controversial: statements about ethics are more likely to be construed as personally insulting than statements about law or practicalities. My goal therefore is to be as careful as I can, and avoid sweeping statements which can be easily misconstrued. A useful approach in reading some of my statements may be to ask yourself if it is true of anyone you know. If it isn't, tell me I am wide of the mark. If it does, then we are having a completely different discussion: whether the phenomena I describe affect a significant portion of the population, and whether (whatever group they affect) they must be taken seriously or not.

One saying with which almost everyone is familiar is "Guns don't kill people--people kill people." This is true to a point: a gun can't be a murderer, but a human can regardless of whether he has a gun. However, when we talk about a shooting incident, we are talking about an act committed by a human using a particular kind of tool. I believe that in analyzing the ethics of any incident involving a human and a tool, the nature of the tool and the human's relations to it are relevant.

Let me give a few examples.

Some years ago I was an internal consultant to an affiliated company, assisting in the development of a project management system. In working with the company's general manager, I discovered we clashed frequently on implementation details. He was a spreadsheet user, and my tool of choice was the database. Therefore, in approaching any problem, I immediately started breaking it down into schema (primary key=project number; project has a manager, employees assigned to it, estimate, etc.) Meanwhile, he was creating immense collections of linked spreadsheets to capture the same data. I concluded he had a "spreadsheet brain" while I had a "database brain."

I enjoy hiking and the outdoors and regard myself as being sensitive to the environment. Before I had a driver's license, nothing was more horrifying to me than seeing any kind of motorized vehicle turn up on a trail I was hiking. Today, I drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee and frequently take it offroad to a particular pond and beach where I enjoy fishing and walking. It is ironic that my love for the outdoors led me to purchase a vehicle that burns fuel inefficiently. Environmentalists more devout than I am would either not own a vehicle, or would own one with excellent mileage--and never drive it offroad.

I am also a scuba diver. Divers are typically worried about human wear and tear on the reefs they love. They want to stop the over-fishing of beautiful reef dwellers, eliminate pollutants that kill coral, keep ships well away from coral reefs, etc. Most divers willfully ignore the fact that even their peaceful uses are destructive. Enough divers accidentally kicking a coral head will eventually damage it beyond repair, for example. Yet few if any divers would favor a ban on the tools that allow them to go underwater.

One more example: Edward Teller, the physicist who contributed largely to the invention of the H-bomb, once proposed that it be used to create a new artificial harbor in Alaska.

As the old saying goes, "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." The general manager of the affiliated company saw a spreadsheet as the solution to every problem. I inevitably think about whether I can drive my jeep to particular destinations. Divers ponder whether a given underwater area is accessible by scuba. Teller looked for remote applications for the weapon he invented.

All of these are examples of the ways in which we are affected by the tools we create. Something already in us predisposes us to certain tools; people are drawn for complicated reasons to computers, carpentry, or medical technology. But once we select a tool, we adapt our thinking to it in significant ways; it affects our world-view, and the particulars of our moral analysis, ever after.

A tool is an instrumentality for the accomplishment of a particular goal. My jeep permits me to get to my favorite fishing pond in a few minutes, instead of a forty minute walk (uncomfortable carrying fishing gear). Scuba gear permits me to break the bounds of gravity while visiting places otherwise inaccessible to me. A corollary of this: tools are associated with action. A tool which is kept "just in case" is an unrealized potentiality; through-out human history, we have almost always created tools in order to use them, not to have them ready. If cars were considered emergency vehicles, to be kept parked in the driveway against the possibility of a disaster requiring evacuation, we would naturally long to drive them.

Guns are tools. Certain of them are tools customized for the hunting of animals; people who select these weapons have a predisposition to hunt, and the fulfillment realized with the aid of such a tool involves getting a deer and enjoying the venison. I have never hunted, but I enjoy eating venision, and I raise no issue, legal, practical or ethical, with this particular instance of tool use.

Other guns are designed for one major purpose only: the destruction of human beings. At least some of the people who keep these weapons around have thoughts about using them to kill humans. These thoughts may take a number of forms; the most common one certainly would be the use of the weapon in self defense.

But "self defense" is a notoriously elastic term, and it is a human nature always to stretch anything elastic. Some number of gun owners certainly secretly hope that life will put them in a situation where they can use their weapon for its intended purpose; and a much smaller number has actually sought these circumstances, as did the man in Los Angeles who picked a fight with some graffiti artists, then shot one.

To put it as bluntly as I can, I think that the ownership of handguns is connected in some people with a worldview which divides our fellows into categories of people who can and cannot be shot with them. An unused handgun, kept for contingencies, is an unrealized potentiality similar to scuba gear kept in the closet or an undriven jeep. Yes, I can plink at cans or take the gun to the range; I can also breathe on the scuba tank in my living room or in the swimming pool, or drive the jeep in the driveway. Humans want to use the tools they love, and the complete fulfillment of the handgun involves the killing of another human being.

Each of us starts life as a collection of potentialities: thoughts, impulses, leanings. Along the road we make choices, practical and ethical ones, to pursue certain pathways and renounce others. Not every big, powerful person becomes a boxer. Not everything we are good at makes us happy. Nor is everything which makes us happy good for us.

In general, the gun advocates I have debated seem unwilling to admit that there are any ethical implications of the ownership or use of handguns. A more thorough analysis of the motives for our choices, and their consequences, will not necessarily lead us to renounce these choices. I drive my jeep in the backwoods, even though I understand the negatives and ironies of this decision.

Self-analysis should, however, lead to more responsible use of the tool than denial and willful ignorance will. A handgun owner who knows that on some level he desires to shoot someone may be less likely to.

Believing that guns are a good in themselves dispenses us from ever having to conduct this analysis. (So does belief that guns are an evil in themselves.) Before picking up any tool, a human should ask, "Why do I want this? What will I use it for? What will I become through the use of it?" I don't see these extremely important issues playing any significant role in the dialog of gun advocates, who of course are largely on the defensive in their public statements. Perhaps this discussion exists, in private, among friends or within the gun-owning family. If it does, it would be a good thing to let the world know about it. Today, gun advocates are identified more with statements like "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" than "Self-knowledge in the pursuit of tool use is a virtue".