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The Ethics of ‘Gun-Free Zones’


I argue that location-specific gun bans (commonly known as “gun-free zones”) are typically unjust. If there is a right to carry firearms outside of one’s home, then the state cannot prohibit gun owners from carrying their firearms into certain areas without assuming a special duty of protecting those whom it coercively disarms. This task is practically impossible in most of the areas where guns are commonly banned. Gun owners should therefore be allowed to carry their guns in most public places, including college campuses.

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  1. For recent examples, see Dixon (2011), Baker (2014), DeGrazia (2014a, 2014b), McMahan (2015), Buchanan and Stell (2015), and Bernstein et al. (2015). A 2015 special issue of Essays in Philosophy featured six papers by philosophers on the topic of gun control. See Hunt (2013) for a useful (but now dated) summary of the philosophical debate on gun ownership. Unless otherwise noted, I use “guns” and “firearms” to refer to handguns.

  2. Kleck and Gertz (1998) estimate that “within a given year, about 16.8 million U.S. adults carry a gun, 7.1 million who carry do so on the person and 12.4 million do so in a vehicle. On an average day, 2.7 million U.S. adults carry a gun for protection on their person and 5.0 million carry one in a vehicle.” This number has almost certainly risen with the passage of right-to-carry laws in numerous states since 1998. As of 2014, more than 11.1 million Americans are licensed to carry a concealed weapon (Lott et al. 2014a). The actual number of gun carriers is likely higher, since this figure does not include data from states that do not make this information available. Moreover, this figure also does not include information about gun carriers from states that have abolished licensing requirements.

  3. This interpretation of the Second Amendment was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in Heller v. District of Columbia and McDonald v. Chicago. See Halbrook (2013) for a survey of the moral and political history of the right to keep and bear arms, both in antiquity and in the United States.

  4. See Covey (1997), Wheeler (1997, 1999), Hughes and Hunt (2000), Huemer (2003), Hall (2006), Stell (2006), Hunt (2011), Baker (2014), [removed], and Bernstein et al. (2015). Even philosophers generally critical of gun ownership, such as LaFollete (2000) and DeGrazia (2014a, 2014b), support some form of limited gun ownership.

  5. The existence of such a right is typically granted even by anti-gun philosophers (see note 4). Moreover, the existence of such a right is compatible with the thesis that gun ownership in general leads to more harms than benefits. Vernick et al. (2007) and DeGrazia (2014a, 2014b), who support restrictive gun control policies, rightly point out that the claim that gun ownership is on average counterproductive is compatible with the claim that certain persons should still be allowed to own guns. As DeGrazia puts it, “for some individuals, gun ownership is not self-defeating. Arguably, their prerogative to own guns for the purpose of self-defense should not be curtailed just because gun ownership is self-defeating for the majority.”

  6. Bureau of Justice Statistics ( 2011: Table 65).

  7. It is therefore very strange why DeGrazia explicitly confines his discussion of gun ownership to ownership within the home. Although he considers his approach an “even-handed” assessment of the benefits and risks of guns, a truly even-handed assessment of gun ownership would not restrict itself to one location. Indeed, since every state (including the District of Columbia) has legal provisions granting certain citizens the right to carry weapons in public, DeGrazia completely ignores a very significant aspect of defensive gun ownership.

  8. Given how closely related gun ownership and gun carrying are, it is highly questionable whether we can treat them independently of each other. One may reasonably insist that the right to own a gun and the right to carry a gun are really just distinct parts of a single right.

  9. LaFollete (2000) and Dixon (2011) defend this claim in the context of gun ownership. Trivigno (2013) argues that gun carrying harms one’s own character.

  10. Leshner et al. (2013: 15).

  11. See Kleck (1997) and Kleck and Kates (2001) for a further discussion of survey results, other corroborating surveys, and responses to critics.

  12. See Lott (2010).

  13. See Lott (2012: Table 2).

  14. Also see Moody et al. (2013).

  15. It is interesting to note, however, that when looking at gun ownership in general, most methodologically strong studies disconfirm the “more guns, more crime” thesis. Kleck (2015: 40) assessed 41 studies that found a causal relationship between guns and crime according to whether they accounted for three crucial methodological problems (valid measure of gun ownership, attempt to control for several statistically significant confounders, ruling out reverse causation). It was found that “most studies did not solve any of these problems, and that research that did a better job of addressing these problems was less likely to support the more-guns-cause-more crime hypothesis. Indeed, none of the studies that solved all three problems supported the hypothesis.” Similarly, Kates and Mauser (2007: 654), summarizing the findings of two government studies, reported that “[i]n 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research. It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents. The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s review of then-extant studies.” It should be noted that the NRC conclusion was that there was insufficient evidence to make a definitive conclusion on the effectiveness any gun control measure, which perhaps highlights the complexity of the debate.

  16. At least, it doesn’t use the state’s coercive power to advance every possible interest in safety.

  17. According to the CDC’s “Alcohol and Your Health” fact sheet, over 88,000 deaths per year are alcohol-related. This number is more than 2.5 times the number of firearms-related deaths (33,000).

  18. Another reason might be the liberal state’s commitment to a form of moral neutrality. Since restricting certain activities in the name of safety would involve endorsing some substantive conception of the good life over others, the liberal state is averse to paternalistic legislation.

  19. Lott et al. (2014b: 4)

  20. This is often pointed out by critics of Thomson’s (1971) famous violinist argument in defense of abortion

  21. Stell (2006: 279) nicely summarizes this point: “when the state disables a person from acting in her own interests, especially if it disables her from armed self-protection from bodily attack, the theory of parens patriae suggests that the state thereby incurs a fiduciary responsibility to provide what it has disabled the citizen from providing for herself.”

  22. See for example Wood v. Ostrander, 879 F.2d 583. 9th Cir. (1989).

  23. Bureau of Justice Statistics ( 2011: tables 91, 107).

  24. Lott (2010) reports that merely brandishing a gun is enough to break off a significant number of attacks. According to Kleck (1999: 297), “there were between 6300 and 15,300 reported nonfatal, legally permissible woundings of criminals by gun-armed civilians in 1990. Combining the defensive killings and nonfatal woundings, there are about 7700 to 18,500 reported legal shootings of criminals a year, which would be less than 1% of all defensive gun uses. The rest of defensive gun uses, then, involve neither killings nor woundings but rather misses, warning shots fired, or guns used to threaten, by pointing them or verbally referring to them.”

  25. Leshner et al. (Leshner 2013: 16), writing on behalf of the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, surveyed the literature and found that “[s]tudies 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.”

  26. See Wheeler (1997), Baker (2015), and Bernstein et al. (2015) for further discussion on this point.

  27. Not to mention the technical expertise that is required in deploying such weapons, which would make them poor means of self-defense for the weak, elderly, and those similarly disadvantaged.

  28. Moreover, while the objection can be iterated forwards to encompass military-grade weapons, it can also be iterated backwards to rule out the carry of any kind of defensive weapon, including pepper spray, knives, handheld stun guns, and batons. This leaves recourse to one’s hands and feet as the only way in which individuals can forcefully exercise their right to self-defense. This is both counterintuitive and morally problematic, since it leaves individuals without any way of equalizing physical and situational disparities commonly exploited in violent crimes.

  29. Dixon (2011) makes a similar argument. Dixon argues that bans on handgun ownership do not violate the rights of the few, since they result in everyone being better off with respect to safety.

  30. The following thought experiments are motivated by Huemer (2003) and Hunt (2011).

  31. On this, see Hunt (2011).

  32. Pace a violation of property rights.

  33. Note the distinction between infringement and violation. Given the role of a police officer, the officer’s act of disarming Jones was not, in itself, a violation of Jones’ right to self-defense. If, however, the officer disarms Jones and refuses to protect him, then Jones” right to self-defense has been violated.

  34. Also see Buchanan and Stell (2015).

  35. McMahan might respond by constructing a case where it would be unjust to deprive a prisoner of a gun (e.g. a prisoner is on the verge of being savagely beaten to death and can only defend himself by grabbing a gun). These cases, if they exist, they do not undercut my argument. A presumption of maleficence may be defeated, meaning that in extreme cases a prisoner may temporarily gain the right to use a gun when it becomes apparent that it is absolutely necessary for self-defense. Suppose an unwilling prisoner is caught in a murderous riot and can only save his life by utilizing a fallen guard’s gun. In that scenario, the presumption of maleficence may reasonably be considered defeated, thereby granting the prisoner the right to take possession of a gun. This does not, however, mean that the prisoner will have always had this right, since without these extreme circumstances there would no reason to defeat the presumption of maleficence. Another implication of this response is that it provides a resolution to cases where (a) and (b) seemingly conflict. The state may justifiably prohibit felons and other dangerous possessors from owning firearms on the grounds that they have forfeited their right to own a gun. Since they no longer have this right, the state does not owe them a special duty of protection should it choose to prohibit them from owning firearms.

  36. Dixon (2011: 164) anticipates a response along these lines, but his reply is not applicable to my response here. My response is not phrased in terms of the act-omission distinction per se, but simply in terms of whether or not the state has a special duty that is being neglected.

  37. Baker (2014: 246) notes that “[w]hile securing the safety of those under its care is, as Dixon correctly points out, a general responsibility for the state, this responsibility is constrained by the greater responsibility of not violating the fundamental rights of its citizens. There are all sorts of ways that the state could make us safer that are simply inappropriate – for example, the state could enforce a daily exercise routine, or dictate a strict and healthy diet, or ban the private ownership and operation of motor vehicles, or monitor all of our conversations. It is no omission that the state does not do so.”

  38. McMahan and DeGrazia also argue that the right of self-defense is derived from the more basic right to physical security, and that therefore reducing the amount of gun-related harms takes precedence to self-defense. This is mistaken. As Baker (2014: 239–40) points out, our possession of the right to self-defense is not explained by the fact that resistance increases our average safety. Rather, our right to forcefully resist unjust attacks is a basic dignity that is directly rooted in our right to life. Our right to defend ourselves is unremitting and not subject to a “likelihood of success” condition. This explains why it is permissible to a victim to resist an attack even if doing so would be futile. Moreover, the rights to security against attack and self-defense are independent rights that are both derived from the basic right to life, and so neither right is ranked more important than the other. While their source is the same, their content is different. Instead, they complement each other by providing distinct protections due to their being different types of rights (the former being a claim-right and the latter being a liberty-right), The right to security against attack obligates others to respect our right to life, while the right to self-defense empowers us with the ability to forcefully resist when someone infringes on our right to life.

  39. See Dieterle and Koolage (2014).

  40. It is not clear that allowing concealed weapons on campus would increase crime. Examining recent data on both violent and nonviolent crimes rates from college campuses in Colorado and Utah (two states in which campus carry is legal), Heyter et al. (2014) found “no evidence that allowing concealed carry of firearms makes campuses less safe.” Indeed, they found “weak evidence of an inverse relationship between campus right-to-carry and the aggravated assault rates on the campuses allowing right-to-carry.”

  41. Dieterle and Koolage (2014: 134). “First and foremost, a college campus is a marketplace of ideas. This market is threatened when some are inclined to pay respect to the armed, rather than test ideas, engage in reasoned exchanges of conflicting thoughts, and explore the world in ways that some might be inclined to find displeasing.”

  42. Lott et al. (2014ab).

  43. Kopel (2009: 560)


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Hsiao, T. The Ethics of ‘Gun-Free Zones’. Philosophia 45, 659–676 (2017).

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