Handguns, Moral Rights, and Physical Security

in Journal of Moral Philosophy
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Guns occupy a major—sometimes terrible—place in contemporary American life. Do Americans have not only a legal right, but also a moral right, to own handguns? After introducing the topic, this paper examines what a moral right to private handgun ownership would amount to. It then elucidates the logical structure of the strongest argument in favor of such a right, an argument that appeals to physical security, before assessing its cogency and identifying two questionable assumptions. In light of persisting reasonable disagreement about the argument’s soundness, the paper identifies two gun control measures—demonstrated need for a gun as a condition of eligibility and the requirement to pass a rigorous gun safety course—that reasonable disputants on both sides of the issue have principled reasons to accept. The paper also advances the thesis that, if anyone has an undefeated moral right to own handguns, it is precisely those individuals who have a special need and demonstrate the relevant safety-related competence.

Handguns, Moral Rights, and Physical Security

in Journal of Moral Philosophy




 See Max Fisher“What Makes America’s Gun Culture Totally Unique in the World, in Four Charts,” The Washington Post (updated December 15 2012; www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/15what-makes-americas-gun-culture-totally-unique-in-the-world-as-demonstrated-in-four-charts/) and Lydia Saad “Self-Reported Gun Ownership in u.s. is Highest Since 1993” (www.gallup.com/poll/150353/self-reported-gun-ownership-highest-1993.aspx).


 See e.g. Gary KleckPoint Blank (New York: De Gruyter1991) and John Lott More Guns Less Crime 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2010).


This point is made in LaFollette“Gun Control” pp. 266–67.


 See A. L. Kellermann et al.“Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home,” New England Journal of Medicine 329 (1993): 1084–91 and D. J. Wiebe “Homicide and Suicide Risks Associated with Firearms in the Home: A National Case-Control Study” Annals of Emergency Medicine 41 (2003): 771–82.


Garen Wintemute“Guns, Fear, the Constitution, and the Public’s Health,” New England Journal of Medicine 358 (2008): 1421–24at 1422.


Gary Kleck and M. Gertz“Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86 (Fall 1995): 150–187.


 See David Hemenway“Survey Research and Self-Defensive Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 87 (1997): 1430–45.


Charles Branas et al.“Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault,” American Journal of Public Health 99 (November 2009): 2034–40.


 See David Lester“Crime as Opportunity: A Test of the Hypothesis with European Homicide Rates,” British Journal of Criminology 31 (1991): 186–88; Martin Killias “International Correlations Between Gun Ownership and Rates of Homicide and Suicide” Canadian Medical Association Journal 148 (1993): 1721–25; cdc “Rates of Homicide Suicide and Firearm-Related Death Among Children—26 Industrialized Countries”; David Hemenway and Matthew Miller “Firearm Availability and Homicide Rates Across 26 High-Income Countries” Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care 49 (2000): 985–88; Matthew Miller Deborah Azrael and David Hemenway “Household Firearm Ownership Levels and Homicide Rates Across u.s. Regions and States 1988–1997” American Journal of Public Health 92 (2002): 1988–93; Martin Killias “Gun Ownership Suicide and Homicide: An International Perspective” Journal of Criminology (2003): 289–307; Lisa Hepburn and David Hemenway “Firearm Availability and Homicide: A Review of the Literature” Aggression and Violent Behavior 9 (2004): 417–40; Matthew Miller Deborah Azrael and David Hemenway “State-Level Homicide Victimization Rates in the u.s. in Relation to Survey Measures of Household Firearm Ownership 2001–2003” Social Science and Medicine 64 (2007): 656–64; and Violence Policy Center “States with Higher Gun Ownership and Weak Gun Laws Lead Nation in Gun Deaths” (www.vpc.org/press/1302gundeath.htm; February 7 2013).


Hemenway and Miller“Firearm Availability and Homicide Rates Across 26 High-Income Countries.” This point is powerfully developed in LaFollette “Controlling Guns” p. 37.


 See Hughes and Hunt“The Liberal Basis of the Right to Bear Arms” p. 10.


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