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Verbose Stoic (VS), who comments here and with whom I almost always have disagreements (or who has disagreements with me), and always in a thankfully civil fashion, has taken me to task in a recent post of his own at his blog here. This time, it concerned the recent argument on gun rights and the right to bear arms.

I originally stated this:

The first point is this: if I have a right to guns, then I have a right to a nuclear missile. This reductio shows how absurd or how arbitrary the claim is. “Oh, that’s ridiculous!” – Is it? Well, where do you draw the line? Because my line doesn’t accept people walking around with guns, but your line is where? RPGs? Machine gun outposts? Nuclear warheads?

What I am saying here is that his “right” has to somehow include a very prescriptive cut-off point within it to show that the right doesn’t include a Death Star but does include an AR-15.

To which he opined:

The problem is that the original commenter and pretty much all of those who advocate for the right to bear arms on the basis of self defense have a clear way to settle that:  what is necessary for self defense.  It is pretty easy to argue that a nuclear warhead cannot be used for self-defense for an individual because activating in any situation where it would matter would kill the person using it for self-defense.  It’s also reasonable to argue that RPGs and machine gun outposts would cause way too much collateral damage to be justified by self-defense of the individual.  Moreover, the original commenter said this:

The problem is “what is necessary for self-defence” is itself subjective. Moreover, the Constitution is framing this not in terms of general self-defence but in terms of a tyrannical government. The context is hugely important here because whilst muskets were enough to take on a hypothetically tyrannical 18th-century government, these days you would need a damned sight more to take on a tyrannical US government. You would need rockets, fighter planes and all sorts. And, arguably, the very tangible threat of nuclear warheads.

For example, his claim “It’s also reasonable to argue that RPGs and machine gun outposts would cause way too much collateral damage to be justified by self-defense of the individual” does not hold up for the actual context and reasons for which the document was drafted.

So whilst VS has not recognised the subjective nature of demarcating for “self-defence”, he is also ignoring the very nature or raison d’être of the actual document we are debating.

These problems then arguably invalidates his next claims:

All of the options that Pearce talks about would almost certainly involve harming innocent people if they were actually used for their purported purpose.  We might not have to worry about the attacker, but we probably have to worry about bystanders and would need to show that the use of those weapons would not run an unacceptable risk to bystanders.  So the questions Pearce is asking sound good rhetorically, but aren’t all that strong of a refutation to the position.

This is, again, talking about individual self-defence as opposed to the context of the Consitution. But this also presupposes the “right to self-defence”. Now, in practical terms, I can agree that some kind of right to defend oneself is important. But I would not need to right to defend myself with a gun if no one else had guns.

Living in the UK, this right to bear arms isn’t anything any of us refer think about. It’s not on our radar. Because criminals, by and large, do not have access to guns. And when they do get them, we have quick-response armed police units who can deal with it. But we just don’t get mass shooters or suchlike affecting us, and certainly not on the daily basis that it happens somewhere in the US. I can count on one hand the number of large-scale shootings that have happened in the UK. And by that, I can remember four. Dunblane and Hungerford, Plymouth and Cumbria. The most recent – Plymouth – was the case of regulation working. And then failing. As in, he had his gun licence stripped, and then eventually given back, when evidence suggests it shouldn’t have been given back.

At what happens in the UK, like it did in Australia and NZ, is that regulation is tightened in response to these because no one wants it to happen again.

Oh yeah, and because our politicians are not lobbied by the gun industry so they can make moral decisions without being bribed. Because that is surprisingly important, you know.

But VS still needs to establish – and bar in mind he is doing a bait and switch of sorts here in moving from talking about ontology to talking about practical implications (as though, you know, the right to bear arms is, indeed, a practical consideration – something that I have no truck with). I don’t have a problem with a country saying “We think you should have the legal right to bear arms in self-defence and we are going to provide you with robust evidence to support why we think this and why such laws will have net benefits to our society”. Now, that is fine. We can argue that in public discourse and vote in politicians on account of their views, according to our own positions. That is how democracy (should) works.

[Caveat: it works more accurately and fairly without unconstrained lobbying. It is no coincidence that all GOP politicians support gun rights when all GOP politicians are paid by the NRA and other gun sources. Good public discourse depends upon accurate information and free and fair elections.]

But don’t go telling me that some old piece of paper has an ontological foundation that it doesn’t. Don’t go telling me you have some inalienable, immutable natural right when such things don’t exist. And don’t go treating an old piece of paper as equally sacrosanct to the pages of a holy book. It won’t wash with me.

I will continue to assess VS’s article in the next piece.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...