Many on both sides of the gun debate are under the impression that the best way to settle it is by weighing outcomes in the context of a cost-benefit analysis. As a result, both sides constantly squabble over the findings of this-or-that empirical study in this-or-that country. Those who support gun ownership cite studies supporting their side, while gun control supporters cite studies purporting to show the opposite.
While I happen to think that the best evidence suggests that gun ownership does not increase crime, the reality is this way of thinking about the gun debate is fundamentally mistaken. What matters is not the risk (or lack thereof) that guns pose to society, but simply whether guns are a reasonable means of self-defense. This isn’t to say that empirical findings aren’t important, but rather that studies detailing the positive or negative effects of gun ownership or right-to-carry laws aren’t relevant to what’s at stake in the gun debate.
Consider this: your right to life isn’t dependent on whether respecting your life would yield the best set of consequences. It is absolute and unrelenting, even if it would be more beneficial to others if your right were violated. It would be wrong for me to override your right to life in order harvest your organs to save five people, even if in doing so I produce a more beneficial outcome.
Your life has basic dignity that cannot be defeated in the name of social utility. It isn’t dependent on the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. The same goes for other rights that are derived from the right to life. For example, it would be wrong to rape someone even if doing so would save ten lives. Rights function as moral “trump cards” that override appeals to utility.
We can think of the right of self-defense in similar terms. Since our right to life cannot be overridden in the name of social utility, and since the goal of self-defense is to protect one’s life, it stands to reason that our right to self-defense also cannot be overridden in the name of social utility. Like our right to life, our right to defend ourselves is a basic dignity that can’t be defeated just because it might produce a net benefit. We don’t run a cost-benefit analysis before we allow individuals to defend themselves.
Now, possession of a right entails the possession of a corresponding right to pursue, exercise, or obtain that which you have a right to. A right would not be a right if it did not also provide its bearer with some means to obtain that to which he is entitled. So, if we have the right to self-defense, we also have the right to the means of our defense. In other words, we have a right to bear arms. And like the right to life and right of self-defense from which it is derived, the right to bear arms isn’t subject to a cost-benefit analysis.
Since the goal of the right to bear arms is to facilitate effective self-defense, the pertinent question we must ask in determining what falls under this right is whether it qualifies as a reasonable means of self-defense. Whether some weapon increases or decreases average safety is irrelevant to its effectiveness as a self-defense tool. Many on both sides of the gun debate miss this crucial point. Since guns are valued precisely for their self-defense benefits, the debate over gun ownership centers on self-defense. And on that point, the key question here isn’t whether guns increase or decrease average safety, but about whether guns are in fact a reasonable means of self-defense.
Now a reasonable means of self-defense is one that is able to reliably, effectively, and practically deliver a proportionate amount of force in response to a threat of harm. Guns clearly satisfy this description. They do not require great skill to handle and can be effectively used by all sorts of individuals to equalize disparities that are commonly exploited in violent crimes. This isn’t just armchair theorizing either: there is overwhelming agreement within the empirical literature that guns are extremely effective in self-defense. Consider the following:
Out of eight different forms of robbery resistance, “victim gun use was the resistance strategy most strongly and consistently associated with successful outcomes for robbery victims.”
Men and women who resisted with a gun were less likely to be injured or lose property than those who resisted using some other means or who did not resist at all. In the case of women, “having a gun really does result in equalizing a woman with a man.”
Out of sixteen different forms of victim self-protection, “a variety of mostly forceful tactics, including resistance with a gun, appeared to have the strongest effects in reducing the risk of injury.”
Defensive gun use “is most often effective at helping the victim rather than hurting them.”
Resistance with a gun decreased the odds of robbery and rape completion by 93 percent and 91 percent, respectively.
Taking stock of these points, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded in a 2013 review of the literature that “studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”
When it comes to the use of studies and statistics, both sides tend to focus on the impact of gun ownership and right-to-carry laws on violence. These are certainly interesting issues, but they’re not actually relevant to the merits of gun ownership for self-defense. As I said earlier, the rights to life and self-defense are not dependent on whether respecting them would yield the best set of overall consequences. They are basic dignities that are not subject to cost-benefit analyses.
So even if we were to grant the claim that gun ownership decreases average safety, it wouldn’t follow that restrictive gun control measures would be justified, precisely because the gun control debate isn’t about average safety. Rather, the kinds of studies we should pay attention to are those dealing with the defensive efficacy of guns when used in self-defense. And on that question, there is no debate. One hardly even needs a study to confirm the seemingly common sense claim that guns do a good job of stopping an attack. For that reason, restrictive gun control laws violate the right of self-defense.