A Cerebral Defense of Gun Rights
By Bryan Caplan
Arthur Brooks’ finding that gun owners are markedly happier (“[C]ontrary to the implication of Mr. Obama’s comments, for many Americans, happiness often does indeed involve a warm gun”) reminds me of another gem by philosopher Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?” (2003. Social Theory and Practice 29(2): 297-324):
It is difficult to deny the existence of at least a prima facie right to own a gun. But this says nothing about the strength of this right, nor about the grounds there may be for overriding it. Most gun control advocates would claim, not that there is not even a prima facie right to own a gun, but that the right is a minor one, and that the harms of private gun ownership, in comparison, are very large.
I shall confine my consideration of gun control to the proposal to ban all private firearms ownership.Footnote This would violate the prima facie right to own a gun. I contend that the rights-violation would be very serious, owing both to the importance of gun ownership in the lives of firearms enthusiasts, and to the relationship between the right to own a gun and the right of self-defense.
Brooks’ results are quite relevant to Huemer’s section 4.1:
4.1. The Recreational Value of Guns
The recreational uses of guns include target shooting, various sorts of shooting competitions, and hunting. In debates over gun control, participants almost never attach any weight to this recreational value — perhaps because that value initially appears minor compared with the deaths caused or prevented by guns. The insistence that individuals have a right to engage in their chosen forms of recreation may seem frivolous in this context. But it is not. Consider two forms that the charge of frivolousness might take.
First: One might think life is lexically superior to (roughly, of infinitely greater value than) recreation, such that no amount of recreational value could counterbalance even one premature death. This cannot be taken to imply that risks to life should never be accepted, since it is impossible to eliminate all such risks. Instead, I will assume that those who affirm the infinite value of life would favor maximizing life expectancy.
This position is implausible, since recreation is a major source of enjoyment, and enjoyment is (at least) a major part of what gives life value. Consider the range of activities whose primary value is recreational or, more broadly, pleasure-enhancing: non-reproductive sexual activity, reading fiction, watching television or movies, talking with friends, listening to music, eating dessert, going out to eat, playing games, and so on. Would it be rational to give up all those activities if by doing so one could increase one’s life expectancy by, say, five minutes?…
Second, and more plausibly: one might claim that the value of the lives that could be saved by anti-gun laws is simply much greater than the recreational value of firearms. It is not obvious that this is correct, even if gun control would significantly reduce annual gun-related deaths. Many gun owners appear to derive enormous satisfaction from the recreational use of firearms, and it is no exaggeration to say that for many, recreational shooting is a way of life. Furthermore, there are a great many gun owners. At a rough estimate, the number of gun owners is two thousand times greater than the number of annual firearms-related deaths. Even if we assume optimistically that a substantial proportion of recreational gun users could and would substitute other forms of recreation, we should conclude that the net utility of gun control legislation is greatly overestimated by those who discount the recreational value of guns. For obvious reasons, the utility resulting from recreational use of firearms is not easy to quantify, nor to compare with the value of the lives lost to firearms violence. Yet this is no reason for ignoring the former, as partisans in the gun control debate often do.
Brooks results amusingly suggest that Huemer was too quick to declare the recreational value of guns “not easy to quantify.” But Huemer was dead on to tell the philosophy profession that this recreational value is significant.