Gun Control: Context and Purpose

By Gordon Anderson

Discussions of gun control, like climate change, welfare, immigration, and other complex social issues get reduced to single variables for political purposes. This reduction leads to political strife and gridlock. It also leads to poor laws that do not solve the problem they are supposed to address, and often creates other unwanted or unforeseen problems.

Whenever an incident like the Parkland, Florida, school shooting occurs, the political right promotes the sanctity of the Second Amendment and the political left promotes gun control as a solution. The focus on these two simplistic approaches, pushed by special interests, and magnified by political parties and the press, obscures genuine understanding of the reasons for mass murders and ways to reduce them.

The Larger context

Human society is complex like an ecosystem. There are many interrelated variables in which some correlate with each other more directly than others. But a butterfly effect can occur in which a small, nearly unpredictable factor, influences dramatic events. To understand how components of a system affect each other requires a knowledge of all the variables and their relationship.

It is useful to look at the history of predicting the weather. Some have believed the weather was an arbitrary decision of gods. Others noticed it had something to do with geographical location. But even in areas where it rains many times a year, it is difficult to predict when it will rain or when the wind will blow without a lot more data and complex weather models.

Today’s weather models are far more accurate than just a few decades ago because they use computers to integrate variables like day of the year, angle of the sun, atmospheric pressure, albedo, proximity of large weather systems, jet stream location, and many other factors.

People commit murder for many reasons and in many ways. They kill for anger and revenge; because they are forced to; to rob or commit other crimes; to impress others; because they feel threatened; to find out what it feels like; and many other reasons. They kill with guns, bombs, knives, bats, fists, cars, fire, gas, water (drowning), pushing off of a building, and in virtually any way that will get the job done.

Guns are easier and more effective in killing than many other ways. Murder can be an uncontrolled instinctual reaction or premeditated and well-planned.

To determine a motive, many factors about the killer need to be considered: whether they have a criminal record, what are their normal behavior patterns, the type of family and social environment that shaped them, who their friends are, whether they are employed or financially broke, whether they were recently divorced or betrayed, whether they are addicted to some substance, whether they are under enormous stress, whether they normally respond to frustration with violence or problem solving, and whether a gun is readily available.

Guns are not the reason people murder, but they may be preferable instruments of murder if available. Removing the availability of guns from someone who wants to commit murder seems common sense and might save some potential murder victims. However, people who want to murder and do not have guns usually figure out a way to kill without them.

We also need to understand who is the most likely victim of a murder, and whether they are likely to be shot by a gun. Again, many factors need to be considered: whether they recently committed a crime or harmed someone, whether they are having an affair, whether they are carrying large amounts of money, whether they belong to a gang, whether they are a helpless target and unable to defend themselves — perhaps with their own gun, whether they are in a safe place (a real protected place and not a place proclaimed a safe space), and whether they are collateral damage.

By thinking about answers to these questions about murderers and victims, we can conclude that both people who want to kill and those who want to be able to defend themselves will want to own a gun. There is another category of people who neither want to kill nor defend themselves, and wish there was a way to guarantee others — like the police — will defend them. This group gets frustrated when the police kill an innocent person, especially if they belong to a different racial, ethnic, or economic group, because it is a sign there is no guarantee others will protect them all the time.

This leads to a new set of variables related to law enforcement officers: their training, their psychological makeup, whether the neighborhoods they patrol are prone to violence, whether they need to carry a gun, or whether other methods of stopping criminals are available, etc. Data related to these variables, along with motives of murderers, vulnerability of targets, and competencies of police needs to be added into forecast models to determine the likelihood of different kinds of murders and shootings and the best way to prevent them.

Centering on the purpose

The irony is that both the simple solutions, promoting Second Amendment rights and “banning guns from these premises,” have led to unwanted consequences. The purpose of the Second Amendment was to prevent the federal government from having power over the states. The federal government got that power over the states in other ways, without firing a bullet. The purpose of “banning guns from these premises” was to prevent shootings at those locations, but such notices were signals to deranged shooters that these would be easy targets, where little resistance would be encountered. These signs have contributed to the increase in the number of school shootings.

Real solutions require asking about purposes and motives behind political rhetoric. Why do people appeal to the Second Amendment? Why do they advocate banning guns? Are these solutions being advocated as knee-jerk reactions? Are they being proposed by people with ulterior political motives? Are they being promoted by the press for ratings and dollars? Can their purpose be better accomplished in other ways? Are these simple solutions like praying to the weather gods? Can we develop more complex and accurate models?

The Divine Principle teaches that everything centers on a purpose, so it is valuable to first consider the purposes that are behind the concerns of different interests and whether either an absolutist commitment to the Second Amendment or to banning guns will address those purposes effectively.

The purpose of the Second Amendment: The right to self-defense

The U.S. Founders were primarily concerned with defense of the states from a tyrannical federal government. They specifically sought to prevent a professional federal army from seizing power. Section 8, Article 16 of the Constitution reserves the power of appointment of officers and the authority for training militias to the states. States would provide militias to serve the United States in times of emergency. The creation of a large professional U.S. Army, and federal military bases and training facilities were what the Founders sought to prevent. From that standpoint, the intents of the Constitution and the Second Amendment have already been violated.

However, the concern that the federal government would oppress the states carries over to the state level where individuals are concerned to protect themselves from the arbitrary power of the state. Nearly all of the other amendments seek to guarantee citizens protections from the government. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The Bill of Rights are what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”

Every individual, community, and country wants to protect itself from murder, death, or slavery, whether it be at the hands of another individual or a government. Self-defense is one of the most basic survival instincts and related to the “right to life.” People do not want their life to be determined by an oppressor that would use them in pursuit of its own ends. This is the ultimate motivation behind the Bill of Rights — including the Second Amendment.

The purpose of banning guns

People want to ban guns in order to be safe. Horrified by mass shootings and the number of people murdered with guns, many people believe that banning guns would greatly reduce these murders. There are some studies in social psychology that partly support this position.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis (put forward by Dollard, Doob, et. al., in 1939) argues that when people are frustrated, e.g., thwarted from attaining desired goals, they are likely to react with aggression. This thesis is consistent with the instinctual reaction of “fight or flight,” when confronting an obstacle. Further research shows that:

  • Aggression is more likely if a person is thwarted when almost reaching the goal.
  • Aggression is more likely if it will go unpunished.
  • Aggression is more likely if a person has an instrument of aggression, like a knife or a gun, nearby.
  • Aggression is more likely if a person has not learned to respond to frustration non-violently.

The third point above suggests that banning guns would make a difference in some cases, as would strong consistent punishment for murder. However, the most important factor is educating people to respond to frustration nonviolently.

Developmental theories in psychology support the idea that nonviolent approaches to frustration can and should be learned by about age 12, and that violent behavior is largely caused by improper upbringing of a child. This includes the role of parents, schools, the community, social environment, and the media, all of which share responsibility for raising productive and nonviolent citizens, and promoting behavioral norms.

Too often parents blame teachers, teachers blame parents, they both blame violent video games and movies, and the press just reports violent incidents and asks people how they feel. All of these behaviors are irresponsible. Blaming other adults and asking other people to fix the problem is an escape from personal responsibility and unlikely to produce any solution to the problem of violence in society.

Blaming guns can be the easiest action because it is easy to create posters “banning guns on these premises” and to protest for passing laws that will “fix” the problem. However, gun control and banning guns has tended to produce the opposite of the desired effect in cities like Chicago, with the strictest gun control laws and higher murder rates. Schools, movie theaters, and other places that officially ban guns from their premises have become the primary targets of mass murders because they offer little resistance.

The possibility of achieving lower murder rates comes about because of two factors: (1) a secure environment, where people are well-defended against aggression, and (2) a higher level of psychosocial development that comes from education and culture. This parallels the U.S. Founder’s idea of good government requiring (1) checks and balances against corruption and conflicts of interest, and (2) a high moral character of citizens who desire to look after one another. Right-wing politics tends to support the first factor and left-wing politics emphasize the second, but neither side’s view is comprehensive enough to address the problem satisfactorily.

In order to achieve greater safety and fewer mass shootings, the apparent purpose behind banning guns, you would have to eliminate guns from everyone: police, citizens, and criminals. Short of that, innocent law-abiding people will disproportionately suffer because (1) criminals will get guns illegally and find law-abiding citizens easier targets, and (2) police will be more tempted to use excessive force because they are on-the-spot arbiters of justice, some of whom put their own lives, those of their fellow officers, and their racial group above the lives of others.

Requirements for police to wear bodycams and preferences for stun guns, rubber bullets, and tear gas are all ways that police violence can be checked without preventing them from providing a secure environment. The justice system also has a role in both locking up dangerous offenders and creating rehabilitating prison environments so inmates have a better chance to succeed in society after they are released. This involves many more variables to plug into homicide forecasting models.

Defense, not offense

The ultimate reason behind the right to bear arms is to guarantee self-defense and prevent subjugation by another person or a government. If this can be accomplished without bearing arms, an alternative method of self-protection should be in place before the present one is removed. People will consider asking them to give up their means of self-defense to be a threat on their own life.

The principle of defense and the illegality of aggression is a foundational principle of just war theory that dates back to Hugo Grotius’ The Rights of War and Peace (1625) and enabled the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). In order to create enough trust for an international system of states to develop, one of the first tenets of international law was the protection of state sovereignty. This meant no state had a right to attack another or violate its sovereignty, but every state had a right to defend itself and respond to aggression proportionally, with no right to conquer or totally destroy the aggressor.

This same principle applied to the creation of a system of United States in North America, which the states would not have joined without the Second Amendment. On an individual level, this principle generally applies to any person consenting to any government. Every individual desires his or her own sovereignty and does not want to be abused by the aggression of anyone else. Taking away this right leads to the possibility of slavery or annihilation, and will be met with understandable resistance.

Conclusions

Here are three conclusions I draw for the gun control debate from the above discussion:

  1. Citizens ought to have the right to self-defense from attacks by individuals or oppression by governments. However, I would qualify the word “citizen” to mean a responsible adult. Individuals would lose the rights of citizenship when engaged in criminal behavior or are too mentally impaired to care for themselves. Loss of citizenship in this sense does not mean deportation from the country, but loss of rights related to civic responsibility. This would include the right to purchase a gun. Similar arguments would also hold for rights related to other civic responsibilities, like the right to vote.
  2. The more a device can be used for self-defense but not offense, the higher the morality associated with that device. For example, it is more justifiable to stop an attacker with a stun gun or mace than to kill them with a gun. It would be more justifiable to shoot an intruder with one bullet to stop his aggression and send him to the hospital than to destroy him with a burst of 30 rounds from an AR-15.
  3. Ultimately, the best way to prevent mass shootings is to raise people to learn and develop non-violent responses to frustration. This means more responsible parenting, increased courses on citizenship and civil discourse in schools, a more responsible press, and more responsible entertainment that portrays police and others with higher moral standards. This requires a major evolution in cultural and social norms.♦ 

Dr. Gordon L. Anderson (UTS Class of 1978) is the President of Paragon House, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal on World Peace, and Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He earned an M.Div. in Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from Claremont Graduate University.

Photo at top: The Minute Man statue in Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts.

14 thoughts on “Gun Control: Context and Purpose

  1. Dr. Anderson’s article forces one to think, but it’s really not all that complicated. As many have said: “To stop a bad guy with a gun, you need a good guy with a gun.” It’s as simple as that.

  2. Nice try to support the right to self-defense, Gordon, but your three conclusions are based on false premises and faulty reasoning.

    1. When you decide to qualify that a citizen is a “responsible adult,” you create the condition for some person(s) to decide what constitutes “responsible.” To what purpose would such power be put? History offers stark lessons here. But this is really just shifting gun control to people control for the same purposes. Why should any person who breaks society’s rules lose their natural human rights? Sure, in the moment, a person aggressing violently may be killed, and in that sense have lost their right to life, and so forth commensurately down the ladder of offense in which material harm is done against another. If imprisoned, however, a person simply cannot exercise their rights, they don’t lose them. Once released from prison (if they are…and some should never be), their natural human rights absolutely remain in effect, because no person has any authority to strip another human being of their natural rights. Period. To do so is to be the aggressor yourself. A person considered too dangerous to purchase a firearm to exercise their right to armed self-defense belongs in prison where their rights cannot be exercised. A mentally ill person who has demonstrated violence should be similarly restrained, though not in a prison for criminals. A person without any proclivity toward violence should not have any natural human rights stripped from them.

    2. No device carries a morality. That’s absurd thinking. Why is it more justifiable to stun or mace a person than to wound or kill them with a gun if you feel your life is in danger? Doesn’t the law and common sense already detail the appropriate level of force considered acceptable by society in general? If you punch me in the mouth, am I justified to shoot you? No. Am I justified to taze or mace you? No, in fact, I’m not, unless I fear my life is in danger and the facts don’t contradict that claimed fear. The morality lies in me and how I choose to use a tool. Is a hammer a more moral device than a sword? Is a baseball bat more moral than a fist to the larynx? Fists and feet intentionally kill more than twice those killed by all types of long guns (including the AR-15), and more than six times those killed in mass shootings.

    Using your example, if one bullet from my AR-15 stops an attacker in his tracks, will the law justify me firing another 29 into him? No, it won’t, and we’ve seen court cases where this was argued. I can’t think of a single case in the USA, ever, in which a person emptied a 30-round magazine into a burglar or even a violent, armed, home invader. Thirty rounds is sustained fire, and sustained fire is fairly impossible to demonstrate as justified, much less legal, force in court. In general, law-abiding gun owners shoot violent attackers until it appears the threat to their life is stopped. Sometimes that takes one bullet, sometimes it takes six or seven or until the attacker falls down. Courts rarely second-guess heat-of-the-moment actions such as these unless something egregious occurs (like pumping 30 rounds into somebody). And BTW, stun guns, tazers and mace absolutely do not work on everyone, or even a majority, especially on those committed to violence. As a former police officer, I can tell you that those tools are woefully inadequate to stop determined aggressors (and sometimes morph an undetermined aggressor into a determined one), in which case, not having a firearm handy means your maiming or death; if you’re a woman, add possible rape to your unhappy end).

    3. This conclusion is the magical thinking for which Unificationists are famous. It’s nice to fantasize that raising good children in happy homes will eliminate violence, but even if it was guaranteed to happen we’d still have to wait how many years from right now for that to be the case society wide? Ten? Twenty? In the meantime, then, what? Violence needs restraining, simple as that. And what do you call “responsible” parenting? Can you accurately point to the parent of any murderer as an irresponsible parent? How do you attach moral culpability to the parent of an adult person making their own choices in life? Was Hitler’s mom and dad irresponsible in how they raised wee Adolph? Did the Parkland shooter kill students simply because he didn’t have a dad? This conclusion demonstrates, to me, an inadequate understanding of the complexity of human nature and behavior and the way a person interacts with their family, upbringing, life experience, spiritual influence, and so forth. This conclusion is really advocating the parenting of adults by society, which is why you not only advocate “responsible” parenting, but “responsible” societal norms in art, entertainment, news, etc. Communism and socialism already do this.

    “No, no, this is centered on God!” Your view of God, maybe. What if there’s people who don’t see a God-centered society that way? This conclusion is a blueprint for the infantilization of humanity and its control by a “responsible” government, which ensures a “responsible” society that ensures “responsible” individuals. All backed, no doubt, by a “responsible” theology that ensures a proper moral base for society. Because people are diverse in their thinking and judgment some will disagree; how much violence will be needed to deal with them so they don’t corrupt such a peaceful utopia? Unificationists need to get a grip on the fact that human beings will do what they want, when they want, without restriction because they are created free. You can only control such people in the physical world by increasingly violent force; in spirit world you can’t control people at all because there’s no threat of death. Threats of hell, eternal punishment and such promulgated by religion is just another human means of people control but in the reality of spirit world is meaningless. People, to varying degrees, always do what they want. This country, without any gun control laws, was demonstrably a far more peaceable society (outside-the-home violent crime-wise) in decades past than today without any “responsible” parenting or a loving, God-centred society as advocated by Unificationists (even while rampant child, sexual and domestic abuse went unchecked, unpunished, even unnoticed at rates estimated far greater than in today’s America, for example). While unconditional love, consideration and do-no-harm should be advocated, human freedom should never be sacrificed to promises of a better tomorrow because, in the end, to shoehorn people into that grand new world violence is always required. And this conclusion is the exact formula for it.

    So, thanks for not overtly demonizing firearms (the guarantor of self-defense), but, in the end, you kind of covertly did.

  3. Christopher,

    Basically you replied to my sociological and philosophical arguments with political arguments, so they did not really address my points.

    You seem to want to say that responsibility is unimportant for political purposes because someone has to decide and you do not want to let society make decisions because history shows they are corrupted and abused. I agree with you that this is the history of governance, but if a government to is to protect people, it still must make some determination. Take the case of driver’s licenses for cars: would you abolish them? Society gives a right to apply for a license at a certain age. Society might not always select the best age, but what would impede a “natural right” would be to withhold licensees arbitrarily from certain people, say Muslims, because some Muslims are terrorists. But society still determines an age of responsibility to get a license, even though giving the license itself will not assure the driver will be responsible once they have it. Responsibility is related to the consciousness of the person himself or herself and not to what a government says. That is what I meant by “responsibility.”

    Your second point also missed this point, because I was not inferring that devices are moral. I agree with you that is absurd. My point is a person who stops someone from a crime without killing them is exercising a higher concern for that other person than one who actually looks for an excuse to empty 30 rounds from an AR-15 into someone. It reflects a higher level of consciousness and love for others, and it, therefore, is more moral. From that standpoint, tasing someone and letting him stand trial reflects a higher standard of morality than killing. I pretty much agree with what you are saying about courts, but that is a political discussion that my article did not address because it does not seem as relevant to a discussion of the Parkland mass shooting as the state of consciousness of the shooter.

    On your third point, it’s hard to believe you are actually against raising children, or that teachers or society don’t have a role in how people think when they mature. Rather you seem to be against communism and the way it tried to raise children through government. I agree with you 100%. This was my point, the government can’t raise children, and the big mistake is when it tries, and for people to think Washington can solve the problem of mass murder. But that doesn’t mean parents and schools shouldn’t try harder to raise fewer dysfunctional people. In the end, you seem to be saying the same thing as I with the statement, “unconditional love and doing no harm should be advocated,” but your fear of freedom being taken away led you to focus on government rather than a discussion of what society (not government) can do without taking that freedom away. And that is primarily, raise better and more responsible people who don’t go around trying to kill others.

  4. I support Gordon’s remarks concerning the third point. It’s often said that we should want to create a better planet for our children. Fine, but the key to achieving that is raising better children for our planet. Better parenting starts with becoming better parents.

    I believe it was Teilhard de Chardin who said that we are not human beings on a spiritual path, but rather spiritual beings on a human path. As such, recognizing and manifesting our divine attributes is an important aspect of our growth and maturity as citizens of CIG. Our identities (who we are) are defined by what we choose to value, treasure and love.

    DP, if adopted and practiced well, can unravel our individual and collective sin and get us on the path toward finding our truer selves, Truer families, and be better stewards of our communities/planet. It’s fairly obvious that for government to function in a more virtuous way requires that those holding public office should be more virtuous. Personal corruptions lead to public corruptions.

    Ascertaining the moral codes that help us becoming better people/families/stewards is an important first step and DP is (or should be) our source material.

  5. Great overview and insights. Have you considered submitting similar articles to your local newspapers? I did with mine on climate change. It should be published soon.

  6. Gordon,

    Thank you for an insightful piece. Providing clarification about the Second Amendment and why it exists is very helpful both for non-Americans and citizens of the USA. The “Right to Bear Arms” is too often misconstrued. Many may question whether the Second Amendment is still relevant given the sophisticated machinery available to the federal government or to any government that might infringe on the rights of the states in this day and age.

    Agree that the breakdown of the family and decline of morality has much to do with increasing violence in society. Most advanced countries have similar issues to those found in the USA. Conditions and statistics are similar when it comes to divorce, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, and more. Yet, the level of violence with firearms or other weapons is not on a par with the USA. How do you explain the vast differences between most industrialized countries and the USA?

    We learn in DP that freedom or rights do not come without responsibility. During the period of maturation enforceable laws with consequences are needed to make sure immature people don’t act irresponsibly. Striking a balance with a citizenry that considers itself mature is tricky.

    • Franco,

      Canada and Australia are not “the leader of the free world” as America is. Who defends others for the sake of freedom? America. Who also is God’s providential nation of “One Nation Under God” with an exceptional constitution about the ideas of a creator God and balance of powers? Why was America settled by a nation of immigrants? For freedom and the freedom to prosper under God in America. This was God’s providential plan that our founder asked us to support, even with the imperfections in the settlement and society, that reminds us of how difficult it is to restore fallen people, even with God’s intervention for the restoration of his children.

      If you study the formation of America and the many presidents and statesmen who stood for God,the word of God and freedom, you will see God’s hand in the original voices and shapers of the American tradition. No other country has stood for God and the Judaeo-Christian tradition as America has….So, it is attacked by all the evil forces that want to destroy God’s providence. This is a key answer to your question. See William Federer’s newsletters which contain an archival collection about God and freedom in American history. He publishes these weekly to remind us how God-centered many American statesmen and people have been.

      As our founder often said, “If America goes down, the world goes down.” (See Washington Monument and Yankee Stadium speeches, too.)

  7. Donna,

    Most of us understand that America is the “leader of the free world.” Especially, those of us who are associated with the Founder and who have served the USA, in some cases with great personal sacrifices. There are many readers of this blog who may no longer live in the USA who understand this point very well. We are also are very familiar with the Founder’s words on this topic and the providential role of America (both positive and critical). Some of the readers indeed risked their lives to serve America. Opinions and views that may come from across the pond (Atlantic or Pacific) or even from north of the Border may sometimes be helpful to the USA. Even your presidents have admitted so much from time to time!

    Each country has their providential role and something unique to contribute to God’s providence. It is too often the case that the USA gets into trouble in foreign relations because its leadership is not fully aware of circumstances and realities outside its borders. There are simply too many examples that span the 20th century, including, but not limited to, the World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, not to mention circumstances in the Middle East during the 21st century.

    Since the US is the leader of the free world, it can from time to time listen to the views of Europeans, Australians, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans. And it might be helpful to hear from contributors from each of the above-mentioned parts of the world from time to time.

    Most of us really do love America and want it to succeed.

  8. Market forces may play as important one as the current push for control or regulation. Remington is filing for bankruptcy

    And recently Blackrock and CALPERS said they would slowly divest from this market. For them, it was a financial decision, they see gun sales declining and costs rising for the manufacturers. This will also make it more expensive for manufacturers to raise capital. Remington’s filing confirms their viewpoint. Another factor is the tariffs on steel and aluminum recently enacted by President Trump. One of the unintended consequences of those tariffs will be to raise the cost of materials to manufacture guns.

    • The tariffs on steel will hurt the economy. Already taxes on corporations were reduced, which has a beneficial impact on both the economy and the steel companies. Steel companies are playing on a more level field and U.S. steel can be offered to the world at a lower price because of that tax reduction. I think Trump should have pushed that point with the steel companies.

      • Yes, and gun manufacturers are not the only sector that will suffer from this collateral damage. Car manufacturers, heavy equipment companies like Caterpillar, John Deere, and all the associated parts companies that feed into these will as well. These are all sectors with employment in areas with strong Trump supporters. As just happened in western Pennsylvania where a moderate Democrat looks like he just won a congressional seat in a district that Trump won by 20 points, this could repeat itself.

  9. Gordon,

    Good article for those with extra time on their hands. I don’t know any of those people. I skipped over most beyond the introduction and onto the bullet points and conclusion. I applaud your efforts and conclusion but would like to see a Cliff Notes version of your treatise. 🙂

    My synopsis of the “gun debate” is that it is all about “control” from the elite political class. This is revealed by the recent killing of 10 people in Canada by truck. Almost no media coverage and no “anti-vehicle” marches on WDC by those who weren’t even there.

    God has given us the solution to all violence and murder and it begins with my tribe. But, that is only the beginning.

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