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Self-defense is a questionable argument for owning a gun

Self-defense, it turns out, is not a good argument for gun ownership rights.

Self-defense is the most widely accepted basis for gun ownership rights. When the Supreme Court asserted a constitutional right to private gun ownership in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), it referred to "traditionally lawful purposes" and offered a single example: self-defense in the home. Those who assert moral (or human) rights to gun ownership also invoke self-defense as a foundation.

There is one problem, however, which everyone seems to miss: There is no absolute right to self-defense; the right is qualified or limited. When the limits to this right are in view, the ground beneath gun ownership rights appears shakier.

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Suppose I live in a country with useless law enforcement and know that an assassin is trying to kill me. Surely I, an innocent person, may defend myself. But if the only effective means is by blowing up a crowded building, killing not only the assassin but dozens of innocent people, I may not proceed. My act of self-defense would be disproportionately harmful to innocent others and would violate their rights. My right to self-defense is limited by the means I may take in exercising it.

Perhaps, then, people have a right to take effective means to defend themselves so long as these measures don't wrongly harm or violate the rights of others. Yet this isn't quite right either.

When others threaten your security or rights, certain measures may be necessary to protect you. But it doesn't follow that you may take those measures if another party has assumed responsibility for taking them on your behalf. As Thomas Hobbes argued centuries ago, when we leave a "state of nature" and enter civil society — which features the rule of law rather than anarchy and vigilantism — we transfer some rights to a government whose job description includes protecting us from various common threats. For example, the police, an arm of the government, are permitted to pursue criminals, forcibly apprehend them and bring them to justice. As private citizens, we generally lack the authority to perform these actions.

So it is questionable whether we have not only a right to forceful protective measures but also a right to take those measures ourselves. If the right to do so has been delegated to the police and, in case of foreign invasion, to the military, then our right to self-defense is further qualified. We have, in fact, partly delegated the job of protecting our security to the police and military in the interest of a well-ordered society. So the qualified right to self-defense comes to this: a right to defend oneself when doing so (1) does not wrongly harm others or violate their rights and (2) is necessary to protect one's security and/or rights because such protection isn't otherwise forthcoming.

Does the qualified right of self-defense support gun ownership? Presumably, this right concerns the freedom to use effective means to defend oneself — subject to the two qualifications just stated. So, it must be asked: Are guns effective means? Are they necessary for one's protection? And does gun ownership steer clear of harming others and violating their rights?

These questions raise complicated issues in the social sciences, political philosophy and ethics. In this short space, I can only offer a few brief notes of skepticism.

First, in our current American milieu of minimal gun control, gun ownership is associated with an increased likelihood that someone in the household will die a violent death. Assuming the spirit of "self-defense in the home" includes defending not only oneself but other household members, this evidence-based generalization suggests that gun ownership, on average, is not an effective means to personal security; rather, it tends to be self-defeating.

Second, is gun ownership necessary in the event of an attempted break-in? That is uncertain. Some evidence suggests that calling the police and hiding are more frequently sufficient for a good outcome than is brandishing or using a gun.

Third, does gun ownership avoid wrongly harming others or violating their rights? Not if, as I believe evidence suggests, gun ownership more often leads to injuring or killing innocent persons than to appropriate defensive use.

Self-defense is therefore a shaky basis for gun ownership rights. No wonder so few developed nations have acknowledged them.

David DeGrazia (ddd@gwu.edu) is professor of philosophy at George Washington University. His seven books include "Debating Gun Control," co-authored by Lester Hunt and published this month by Oxford University Press.

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