Questions concerning the right to bear arms

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, many took to print, online, and social media to give expression to our collective outrage, our sadness and our specific frustrations. Those in favor of gun control wondered how many shootings it would take until the political establishment has had enough of their inaction. Those saddened by the limitations of mental healthcare drew attention to this difficult condition. After the appropriate length of honorable silence, some people came out in support of the Second Amendment. All of these views are understandable when taken in the context of the deepest concerns of the people making them. Then, in what seems to be a bizarre hypothesis, the National Rifle Association (NRA) proposed that schools would have been safer, had more of the school personnel been trained in the use of — and equipped with — firearms.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution (1791) is about the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The intent of the Amendment is to empower citizens to organize against a tyrannical government, or an invading power, or to  combat crime or enforce law. The Amendment is held in high regard by many, especially those who espouse political libertarianism, especially by those who do it loudly [1]. While there are arguments to be made on both sides, the adversarial nature of debate in today’s media coverage makes it difficult for people to oppose the Second Amendment in a nuanced way because they are immediately put in the embarrassing situation of being against the Constitution, against the Founding Fathers, against personal liberty and right to property, and therefore against the country. In this environment, many reasonable objections to the Second Amendment do not get expressed. In particular, the question is rarely framed in the following way: Given that increased gun ownership demonstrably increases the likelihood of the tragic death of innocents, and given that increased gun control demonstrably reduces personal liberty, might it be reasonable to at least consider giving up some personal liberty to reduce some tragic deaths? And as a corollary, at how many such tragic deaths do we draw the line?

I often wonder how much of the support for the Second Amendment comes, not from conscious thought but from our penchant for blindly adhering to powerful documents about which we have become thoroughly indoctrinated. Perhaps, it is not entirely oversimplified in this case to draw a parallel between biblical literalism and  Constitutional literalism. In some parts of the US, notably some of the Southern states, these two go hand in hand. In other parts, notably among groups enthralled by libertarian ideology, there appears to be no shortage of those who will abandon the first, only to substitute it with the second. If we are not to accept the Second Amendment just because it happens to be a part of a document that outlines one of the great ideas in human history – the idea of a government of, for and by the people, or for those swayed by nationalist rhetoric, the idea of the greatest nation on earth  – then how do we rationalize its inclusion in the Constitution?

It is natural to assume that the framers of the Second Amendment were influenced by the social, cultural, military and political climate of the late 18th century. The framers of the Constitution looked upon a country that had forged its independence at the cost of many lives, against what they perceived as unjust constraints imposed by England. These same men participated in, and even perpetuated, a social setup in which slavery was normal and acceptable, and in which it was normal to think that women were inferior to men. It was not unheard of in those days, to settle individual disputes over money, property and love interests by means of a duel in which two men attempted to kill one another, often with guns. Therefore, while acknowledging that these people and those who followed in their steps had a great vision for this new country — a vision of personal liberty, limited government, freedom of expression, and the right to own property — is it so difficult to accept that they were limited by the zeitgeist? Is it so difficult to accept that we live in a world that they could scarcely have imagined? Why then, do supporters of gun ownership parrot the Second Amendment without pausing to think about the consequences of the ease of obtaining firearms in the twenty-first century, or even the merest possibility of updating Constitutional dictates that are over two centuries old?

It is an inescapable conclusion that any argument that legitimately questions the continued existence of the Second Amendment, questions by association the existence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the power exercised by its euphemistically named lobbying arm, the Institute for Legal Action. I did not write this post trying to fish for those arguments, but to express and clarify (even to myself) two broad questions that arose in my mind about the right to bear arms. The first dealt with the relevance of the Second Amendment in our historical epoch, and was expressed above. The second deals with the practical argument that the presence of guns in the hands of the right people “levels the playing field” and by doing so, reduces the likelihood of violent crime.

This argument certainly has some logical merit: An emotionally disturbed or deranged  individual wielding a firearm would be killed or incapacitated before he or she has had the chance to inflict a large number of casualties. An old shopkeeper in an unsafe part of town would be spared misbehavior, assault and theft by young hoodlums if they knew that she kept a gun handy. It seems to make sense. However, it is possible to carry that argument too far. Imagine the scenario that the NRA or its supporters propose, in which more people in the school administration, e.g., janitors, some teachers, some newly stationed armed guards,  have access to guns. This is, without exaggeration, a society where guns are more normal everyday things, and many people that you see or interact with on a day-to-day basis possess a firearm on their person. By construction, this levels the playing field, and will most likely mitigate catastrophic loss of life in tragedies like Columbine and Sandy Hook.

The next question to ask is whether this makes for a stable and healthy society. It is possible to ask this question as a social scientist, which I am not. It is also possible to consider this as an instance of a zero-sum game between a person likely to attack others without provocation (call this person an adversary), and a person able to defend himself or others from the adversary (call this person a protector). Then, we have 4 possibilities: If both the protector and the adversary are unarmed, then we have a safe outcome. If the adversary is armed, but the protector is not, then we have a catastrophic situation. If the protector is armed but the adversary is not, then we again have a safe outcome. If the protector and the adversary are both armed, then we have controlled damage and fewer casualties. Then, it is strictly advantageous for the protector to be armed, and I suspect that this is the reasoning (if any) behind the NRA’s proposal, and behind the pronouncement of gun advocates. This creates a situation that we often encounter in the case of a different game-theoretic formulation, the popular Pascal’s Wager [2]: A solution is justified without examining whether the underlying model is correct.

The problem here is indeed in the assumptions of the above game theory problem. In the abstractions for mathematical tractability, it is assumed that both parties – the adversary and the protector – are aware of all possible outcomes, and they are perfectly rational when the experiment is conducted. Now, it is obvious that, an emotionally disturbed person is far from rational and this would appear to buttress the argument for gun ownership. But, it is also obvious that the protector, in the real world, may also occasionally become irrational and erratic, or be surrounded by people who are so. This being the case, it is only reasonable to have a process in place that can distinguish prospective adversaries from prospective protectors, as reliably as possible. It would also be reasonable to provide firearms only to those people who can demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that they are prospective protectors and not prospective adversaries. It would further be reasonable to place and enforce rules on the storage of the firearm, so that it does not fall into unintended hands, such as those of a little child who may accidentally set it off, or a disturbed adolescent who may steal it with terrible consequences. It would further be reasonable to place limits on the type and number of firearms that an individual can possess. It would perhaps – though I have to admit that this is problematic territory – be reasonable to ask people to regularly confirm their emotional well-being as they age, so that today’s protector does not become tomorrow’s adversary.

Thus, at first glance, the game-theoretic interpretation suggests that more guns in the hands of more people makes for a safer world. But, on even a slightly closer look, practical reality as distinct from mathematical abstraction suggests that access to guns should be carefully controlled. There are other assumptions that are routinely shoved under the rug: In addition to perfect rationality, many models assume that the two players are equally skilled, fully informed, have a weapon of the same potency, and act at the same time (thereby modeling the surprise element out of existence). [3]

I haven’t even considered the question of whether people would prefer to live in such a culture of guns. This is a matter for social surveys, and is a heavily culture-dependent issue. In such surveys, many — including myself — would say “No. I would not want to live in a world where so many people are armed. I’d rather live in a humane society where guns are unnecessary.” To which, many others would legitimately retort that this view is utopian. But couldn’t we agree that, at the very least, gun ownership laws in this country need to be tightened significantly and enforced properly [4], and that victims of gun tragedies should have at least as much leverage in determining the course of gun ownership as the vested interests of a powerful gun lobby?

[Note: If you want to comment or point out flaws in the reasoning of the author or other commenters, please do so below in a civil manner. Inflammatory comments and ad hominem attacks will be summarily deleted.]


[1] Penn and Teller produce a thoroughly entertaining, humorous and informative program called “Bullshit!” in which they tackle issues ranging from religion to pseudoscience to alternative medicine. Unfortunately, in the case of their segment on gun control, it becomes apparent that they are not immune to synthesizing (or at least propagating somebody else’s) bullshit.

[2] Pascal’s Wager is in essence this: If you believe in God and He exists, you are saved. If you believe in God and He does not exist, you wasted your time but no harm done. If you don’t believe in God and He does not exist, no harm done. If you don’t believe in God, and He exists, then you will face eternity in Hell. Thus, your dominant strategy is to believe in God whether He exists or not. Some form of this argument is often used to justify belief in God, without considering that it is applicable only to the model of a petty, vengeful God, and without considering the relative scientific, ethical, and social merits of belief and disbelief.

[3] Robert Taylor’s paper on a game-theoretic formulation of gun control and its policy implications, includes a more detailed game between an attacker and a victim than the one mentioned in this post. The extra detail is introduced by incorporating the possibility that attacker and victim may have different costs in procuring, learning, and using the firearm. It reaches the conclusion that gun control could reduce social welfare, which is a disturbing thought until it becomes clear that Taylor does not consider the consequences of the assumption that attacker and victim act simultaneously. This has been pointed out in an article by Rich Lafferty.

[4] The question of how this should be done is beyond my expertise. However, it is being hotly debated in the news media these days. My intent was to ascertain (as much for myself as for any reader) broadly whether gun control is logically reasonable. It seems that even the basic reasons covered above are not being talked about, and they did not seem obvious to me.