James Jacobs’s Anti-Gun Control Argument

A couple days ago, James Jacobs had an interview with TIME Magazine wherein he argued against strict gun control.

Well, “argued” is a bit generous. He didn’t present a coherent argument against gun control, so much as he presented several considerations that could count against increased gun control or certain types of gun control. Similarly, my approach to this reply will be somewhat disconnected. I won’t be positing anything positive, either; this isn’t an argument in favor of gun control or against gun control. I’m just trying to figure out if James Jacobs did a good job of arguing against gun control.

The Argument from Volume

The first thing he said that lends itself to being called an argument is this: the actual number of gun-related homicides is 10,000, not 30,000. While it’s true that 30,000 people die from gun use, 20,000 of those deaths are suicides. Jacobs probably imagines himself replying to an argument like this:

  1. A high number of gun-related deaths is a good reason to enact strict gun control.
  2. 30,000 people die from gun use in America each year.
  3. Therefore, the fact that 30,000 people die from gun use in America each year provides good reason to enact strict gun control.

Jacobs probably thinks it’s not enough for the deaths to be gun-related: it has to be the kind of death that’s non-consensual and unjustified (i.e. is a victim). Here’s the question: why is it that “suicide by gun > homicide by gun” counts against the first premise named above? The best reason I can think of is this: even though someone who commits suicide violates their own agency by ending their life, they are not violating anyone else’s agency. If we were to enact stricter gun control, we would be preventing people from exercising their agency in a way that does not directly impair someone else’s agency. Thus, “suicide by gun > homicide by gun” is a good reason to not enact stricter gun control.

There are problems with this argument (assuming that’s what he had in mind). Suicide should not be considered an instance of rational agency in every instance. There are some instances where the person seeking to end their lives is fully rational and might even have good reason to commit suicide, but this will not be the case in every instance. Since not every case of suicide is rational, that means some cases of suicide violate a person’s agency needlessly — and the same is true for some homicides. Part of the reason why we would want stricter gun control is that some homicides by gun are needless or unjustified. If that’s the case, and since it’s the case some suicides are needless or unjustified, it follows that “suicide by gun > homicide by gun” is actually a reason in favor of stricter gun control.

There’s another problem with the argument, however. Even if the counter-argument I posited doesn’t convince you, it seems intuitively true that murder is morally worse than suicide. I posit that this is because it’s the penultimate violation of another person’s agency: it is irrevocable and happens without their consent. Given that murder is morally worse than suicide, it seems to me that we have a good reason to restrict access to firearms — no matter the fact that guns are more commonly involved in suicides than in homicides.

The Argument from International Comparison

As Jacob Davidson, the writer of the TIME article being discussed here, pointed out: the UK and Australia are commonly cited as countries wherein firearms are outlawed (or mostly outlawed), and their homicide-by-gun rates are significantly lower than ours. The argument then goes: it works for them, why not for us?

Jacobs doesn’t think it could work for us. In a way, I agree with him: right now, a total ban would not work for us. However, this isn’t about me — it’s about him. Let’s take a look at his reasons.

First, regarding England:

But the U.K.’s policy could not work in the U.S. because we have a Constitution, we have a Second Amendment, and we have a Supreme Court decision that guarantees the right of Americans to keep and bear arms in their home for lawful purposes. So we cannot have a prohibition of private ownership of firearms.

I get that this guy is a criminologist and a professor of constitutional law, but this a piss poor argument (authority figures making bad arguments!? shocking!). “We have a Constitution” — it can be amended. “We have a Second Amendment” — we’ve repealed an amendment before. “We have a Supreme Court decision” — yeah yeah, stare decisis, blah blah blah. You don’t get an ought from an is, buddy. Just because you have a certain state of affairs, you don’t automatically get a moral imperative or prohibition.

Enough of that. Here’s what he says about the Australia comparison:

Australia had a gun buyback program and prohibited new purchases of many types of firearms. We have tried gun buybacks in the United States and they have been unsuccessful. People do not wish to sell their guns to the government, and those who do almost invariably sell old guns so they can get the money and buy new guns.

Australia’s gun buyback program went pretty well:

in 2012 a study by Australian National University’s Andrew Leigh and Wilfrid Laurier University’s Christine Neill concluded that in the decade after the law was introduced, the firearm homicide rate dropped by 59 percent and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65, with no corresponding increase in homicides and suicides committed without guns.

When a gun buyback has been attempted in America, apparently the results have not been very good. Usually the guns that have been turned in aren’t typically used in criminal activity, which means gun-related crime rates aren’t impacted. Since it seems like American attempts at gun buybacks are failures, it seems like we shouldn’t bother with them.

Here’s the problem with this argument: it’s one thing for a policy, successfully enacted, to fail; it’s another thing entirely for a policy that wasn’t enacted to the fullest degree to fail. It seems like our attempts at gun buybacks fall into that latter category rather than the former. It would be one thing if we successfully bought back the firearms used in violent crimes and we saw no decline in crime rates. However, that hasn’t happened, so our gun buyback problems have yet to fail in the way that matters.

The “Ought Implies Can”* Argument

Jacobs also replies to the notion that gun crime can be reduced by having stricter background checks, keeping a gun registry, and taking steps to keep guns out of mentally-ill hands. Here’s a summary of his reply: these sound like good things, and on paper they’d be effective, but enacting them and making them effective is soooooooooo haaaaard.

While Jacobs never explicitly states that the difficulty involved is a reason against doing these things, let’s imagine that’s what he’s saying. This sounds like a version of the ought implies can argument: since doing X would be really difficult, we have a good reason not to do X and explore alternatives. However, something’s being really difficult isn’t a good reason not to do it. For instance, if you had good reason to believe that someone you know was about to commit a murder, and you’d have to jump through a lot of hoops to stop them, would you just say “eh…that’s too much trouble. I’ll just let him go kill someone”? Probably not. The moral badness of murder outweighs the difficulty involved in stopping it if you have the ability and the opportunity. Similarly, if it’s possible that some Policy Y can prevent Moral Atrocity X, we have good reason to enact Policy Y and take necessary measures to make sure it succeeds.


In summary: What do I think of Jacobs’s argument against gun control? I don’t think he’s made a very strong case against it. He might not have the wrong conclusion — that we shouldn’t have stricter gun control — but he doesn’t have the right reasons for thinking as such.

Have any thoughts on my critique of Jacobs’s argument? Share them below!

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*For the philosophically uninitiated: “ought implies can” is the notion that we only have a moral duty to do something only if we have the ability to do that thing. For instance, it wouldn’t make sense to say that an impoverished individual has a duty to donate $1,000 precisely because they wouldn’t be able to do so.



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