One takeaway from a tumultuous 2020 is that the Second Amendment and gun rights is a front and center issue once again. Academic philosophers — mostly — have long been suspicious of any asserted right to own firearms. I think the protests of 2020 help reveal what they’ve missed.
Start with the anti-gun argument. Philosophers have held that the mere fact of private possession of firearms makes all of us less free. Their argument has two steps. The first is that we are made less free not only when others interfere with us, but when they could (even if they don’t). Imagine, for example, that my students — weary of attending my intro lectures — developed a sophisticated technology through which they could lock my office door from the outside. Even if they never saw fit to trap me in my office, the fact that they could would be scary enough on its own. When one person has the capacity to interfere with another at their whim, philosophers in the classical Republican tradition say the first dominates the second. And domination is a way of undermining freedom. A slave owner need not actively interfere; it’s enough that they could interfere anytime. Fredrick Douglas said, “It was slavery — not its mere incidents — that I hated.”
The second step in the argument says that in a society of widespread firearm ownership, we all dominate each other. Picture the uneasiness of living in a Clint Eastwood movie. With everybody in town armed, we never know who might make the first move.
In an influential editorial, the philosopher Jeff McMahan wrote, “When most citizens have the ability to kill anyone in their vicinity in an instant, everyone is less secure than they would be if no one had guns other than members of a democratically accountable police force.” The result, he suggested, would be a “Wild West” like society in which “any lunatic” could do violence to their fellow citizens.
Andreas T. Schmidt writes that in a society of mutual gun ownership, citizens are effectively “thrown into intense power relationships with strangers.” It’s enough to terrify any drifter just passing through, even without an apprehensive Ennio Morricone score playing in the background.
I think the argument goes wrong in its second step. If the second step were right, we should expect citizens who know they mutually own firearms to approach each other with fear, anxiety and suspicion. But that is not what happens. There is no evidence that the gun-toting citizens of Wyoming feel dominated by each other more than the residents of gun-scarce Connecticut. In fact, something like the opposite is true. The sociology of gun ownership reveals that gun people really like each other, and encourage others to adopt their practices.
Academic philosophers may feel threatened by gun ownership, but that may say more about how they differ from other folks than it says about the conditions of a free society. The philosophers’ argument has great optimism about the state’s military and police forces’ ability to counter private domination. But however often that premise holds, it’s less than all the time.
Historians have noted that many NAACP leaders in Mississippi in the 1960s were armed, or relied on armed guards for protection. Faced with white vigilantism, the Deacons for Defense actively provided armed security for civil rights leaders and actions. Members of the Black Panthers quoted Patrick Henry and carried — in addition to weapons — copies of the Bill of Rights. There are times when private arms can help neutralize domination. As one civil rights leader observed, “The showing of a weapon stops many things.”
The insight has a contemporary echo. In the wake of summer protests, the National African American Gun Owners’ Association has seen a sudden acceleration in membership growth. African American gun owners have marched in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A New York Times headline describes gun shows as “where ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirts meet MAGA hats.” One Black Lives Matter chapter recently received national attention for its efforts to sponsor gun safety training for its members. The chapter’s founder explained, “We need to be armed … the Second Amendment is our right, too.”
They have a point. Political scientists have repeatedly found that residents of inner city urban areas are frequently denied their constitutionally assured protections.
I suspect skepticism about guns is as much a product of polarized thinking as reasoned argument. Associate gun rights with rural voters in the deep red parts of swing states, and it’s easy to dismiss the pro-gun view as unhinged. Seeing how the reality cuts across political fault lines should give us pause. Maybe the civic argument for private firearms is not so crazy, after all.