Between 2005 and 2015 in the United States there were 301,797 gun deaths —so, roughly the same number as if every man, woman, and child in Cincinnati, Ohio were gunned down. It is not unusual for more than 20,000 people to commit suicide each year using guns.
The United States, home to 5% of the world’s population, has 31% of the world’s mass shootings. And, at the beginning of October, Chris Harper-Mercer came to the campus of Umpqua Community College in Oregon with one rifle and five hand guns. In ten minutes he ended the lives of nine people and maimed nine more.
Some of these deaths are preventable by revised gun policies. Pinpointing exactly which deaths would have been prevented in retrospect is difficult. Counterfactual analysis is always messy. But this should not lead us to deny the fact that revised gun policies could have a significant impact.
What we are missing is not abstract knowledge, but an adequate way to morally conceive of those who are dying unnecessarily. So, I would like to suggest a metaphor for making sense of their deaths – human sacrifice.
When we think about human sacrifice, we usually imagine pre-historic societies that offered up the lives of participants to placate the gods and secure social benefits. But, of course, the concept of human sacrifice need not be so distant and unfamiliar.
Today we often speak of the sacrifice of soldiers in service to various causes. To the mother of five fallen service members during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln could write of “the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
In order to make sense of sacrifice in this context one needs a significant end that is served in death. In the ancient world sacrifice served cosmic ends. But modern sacrifices are more likely to sustain causes, values, or ways of life. This shift makes modern sacrifice more realistic and less stable. It is always possible today to ask whether the sacrifice is “worth it”.
One of the things gun control advocates have problems understanding are the ends that many Americans value when they resist gun regulation.
No doubt, some of these ends are outlandish and unrealistic, such as the ability to resist the federal government and execute rebellion. But many gun enthusiasts have much more plausible aims, including the ability to shoot a variety of weapons for sport and the ability to defend themselves in cases of home invasion, etc.
They argue that as individuals their ability to have weapons of every caliber and magazine size does not harm anyone. Indeed, they might expand, there is no real reason for the government to even track them in relation to their gun ownership and use activities. After all, as individuals they would not use guns for malign purposes.
On that score they are correct. The average gun owner will never commit a crime, injure or kill another person with her or his weapon. Further, individuals occasionally will successfully be able to protect themselves and their property through their use of these weapons.
The problem, then, is not the majority of those populations that “cling to guns.” For those who oppose gun regulation, the case seems clear. They see their lives as more fulfilling and more secure because of their ability to have access to a full range of guns and use them as they see fit. Why should one restrict this way of life, or allow an infringement of one’s liberties?
However, what is best for the majority is not necessarily what is best for a society. Take, for instance, stop signs. Imagine that the majority of individuals are wise enough to know when to advance onto a cross street, and when not to.
Yet, there are a small number of people who lack this virtue. Though in the majority of individual cases there would be no need for a law requiring stopping at a stop sign in order to be safe, yet the society would be significantly more dangerous without such a law.
The small number who lacked wisdom would constitute a danger to themselves and others when allowed to move unimpeded into oncoming traffic. In such a case the benefits of greater liberty are slight, but they fall upon the majority. The costs of greater liberty are severe, but they are born by a minority (either those who are malign or negligent or those who find themselves and their families in this wrongheaded person’s path).
Unfortunately, for multiple reasons policies and laws cannot be tailored particular to the desires of particuolar individuals. For one thing, it is not always clear ahead of time which individuals constitute greater relative dangers. The best way to produce a society with lower levels of collisions at stop signs is to require all people to stop before entering well trafficked intersections. We decide that it is better to make everyone wait a few extra seconds than to demand that a few sacrifice their lives to make our commute a bit faster as individuals.
The argument also applies to gun control laws. As Richard Florida has shown as a part of a survey of gun violence statistics, gun control legislation is strongly correlated with a decline in gun related violence.
“Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).”
These shifts are presumably not because the majority of individuals in such states were malign or negligent. While gun regulation does indeed restrict a large number of individuals who would otherwise be able to have unrestricted use of weapons without major problems, it also succeeds in producing a generally safer society.
It should also be noted that having more guns does not lead to a safer society. Again, the principle just does not scale up. In fact correlational studies show just the opposite. Within the United States, Southern states have the highest percentage of ownership, Midwest and Western states are roughly equal, and states in the Northeast have a lower percentage of gun ownership.
The same correlation works out on the international level where increased gun ownership by nation is strongly correlated with increased gun violence. Such conclusions are not really surprising. Because weapons have a multiplier effect upon one’s ability to do harm, access to weapons will disproportionately empower those who will, and especially those who carefully plan, to do harm.
Finally, increased access to guns is also related to increased rates of death by suicide in at least two ways. Having a gun in a home is positively related to the number of suicide attempts. Moreover, suicides by gun are far more successful than other modes of committing suicide. Again, guns are designed with lethality in mind, so it is no mystery that they would lead to this outcome.
So the question we are left with is this: How much is the liberty of unrestricted use of weapons worth? What, or whom, are we willing to sacrifice to maintain such individual liberties?
There is no way to know exactly how many of the shootings in recent years would have been prevented by stricter gun laws. And, different gun laws would have different relative effects on individual liberty and gun related violence. Gun regulations can be targeted at populations (such as those with mental illness) and/or at weapons that have a greater amplification factor on the violence one can wield.
Laws can be designed to minimize the infringement of liberty while maximizing effectiveness in curtailing violence. The details in balancing goods against one another matter. But still, it seems like a good time to start asking how much are we willing to pay for the individual freedom to go to the gun range and shoot any weapon we want? How many college students, how many theater goers, how many children are we willing to sacrifice to individual liberty? Even in the context of the goods aimed at within the Civil War, Lincoln honored how costly was the sacrifice laid upon the altar of freedom.
To draw the issue down from the abstract to the concrete, we might well ask if we would be willing to write a similar letter to the parents of those who were killed at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, or at Sandy Hook Elementary thanking them for their sacrifice which allows so many to maintain their individual rights not to have a trigger lock, to avoid background checks at gun shows, or to avoid having to be licensed in order to own a gun.
Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri. He earned his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University, where he was the recipient of a Dempster Graduate Fellowship from the United Methodist Church and The Schubert Ogden Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Theology. He has written articles for The Journal of Religious Ethics, The Journal of Law and Religion, Political Theology, and PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He is also author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey: Idealist and Pragmatic Christians on Politics, Philosophy, Religion, and War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010). He lives in Columbia, Missouri with his wife and two daughters.