The Gun Debate and the “Right to Kill”

By Catherine Monnet

Is the gun control an issue that humanists should take a stand on? Since it concerns human welfare, the answer is a definite yes.

Individual freedom is not necessarily compromised by gun control. Citizens of the United States, as in any society, cannot do whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. Laws are in effect in the U.S. and around the world to limit individual freedom in order to protect individual freedom. Some laws are more effective than others, and our current gun control laws are not very effective.

I have been concerned with the problem of gun violence for many years. Whereas I find the evidence for stricter gun-control overwhelming, many Americans will contradict, ignore, belittle or flatly deny not only the facts, but plain common sense. Most of the evidence proves that an excessive quantity of guns and their easy accessibility is one of the leading factors responsible for the United States’ excessively high rate of death from firearms.

Gun advocates will point to other reasons for gun related injuries and mortality, such as mental illness, video games, violence in films, the lack of security in vulnerable areas. But we know that these factors are also prevalent in many other societies. The one thing the U.S. does have is more guns, (we represent 5% of the world population but own 50% of the world’s guns). The statistics which demonstrate the relationship between access to guns and gun violence are so indisputable, that I don’t see any point in repeating them.

A compromising position, one which may be negotiated between gun rights advocates (predominately represented by the NRA) and gun control advocates is to concentrate on keeping guns out of the wrong hands and limiting their use and ownership to law-abiding citizens by implementing more background checks or other regulations. The wrong hands are criminals, children, and people capable of mass homicide, such as the mentally ill. Everyone agrees that such individuals shouldn’t be able to get their hands on guns. But they can and they do, and currently, there are not enough measures or the enforcement of existing measures, to prevent it, probably due to the overwhelming quantity of guns in circulation throughout the nation. They are everywhere.

Recently, the disputable factor getting the most media attention concerns the mentally disturbed, since mentally disturbed people are responsible for most mass killings. Obviously, we aren’t going to grant firearm use to someone who is judged mentally ill, but mental disturbances, such as paranoia, delirium, schizophrenic or bi-polar behavior are not always predictable. In fact, any “normal” person can act irrationally in a given situation. Anger and fear, confusion, and panic, render people irrational. Like the mentally disturbed, they are overly impulsive, lack judgment and may misinterpret reality. Any “law abiding citizen,” is capable of acting irrationally, and irrational people shouldn’t be able to use a lethal firearm.

However, the priority in the U.S. isn’t keeping firearms out the “wrong hands” but rather assuring the right of “law-abiding citizens” to own and use them legally.

The main defense of gun ownership is the 2nd Amendment. Gun advocates brandish this document in much the same way that Christians will use the Bible to defend their positions. The Constitution of the United States, it seems, is as indisputable as the word of God.

The U.S. Constitution is an admirable document, but it was written by mortal men over 200 years ago. The Bible was written by mortal men over 2,000 years ago. (Unfortunately, women weren’t involved much in writing either.) Both of these documents are guides to normative behavior, dictating what one can and cannot do, both are open to interpretation, and the interpretations of the text in both cases, have varied over time and according to circumstance.

It seems that there are even fewer Americans who will dare to question the validity of the 2nd Amendment than those who question the validity of the Bible. According to gun advocates, the Constitution in general and the 2nd amendment in particular, cannot be put into question, doubted or revised. It is the ultimate defense of our individual freedom.

But freedom to do what? What was and is the real purpose of the 2nd Amendment?

It seems to me that an ethical interpretation of the “right to bear arms,” is essentially the right to self-defense. (The fact that less than 1% of all gun deaths are used in self-defense does not seem to invalidate this argument). But this inalienable right to self-defense could be resumed as the “right to kill,” a right that can be lawfully exercised by any mentally fit, law-abiding citizen if the situation calls for it. Guns are made to kill or seriously wound: that is their function.

If the primary reason individuals can or perhaps should own firearms is for self-defense (I’ll get to the case for hunting animals), why must these defense weapons necessarily be made to kill or permanently maim with lethal bullets?

I don’t dispute the principle of self-defense as an inalienable right. We should have the right to defend ourselves in “life threatening” circumstances. But I do dispute what methods of defense should be permitted or encouraged in a “civilized” society.

As it stands today, we do not allow individual citizens to defend themselves with machine guns, grenades, deathly bio-chemical products, canons, fire rockets, nuclear weapons, etc. We have already placed limits on the weapons allowed for individual use for very obvious reasons, like collateral damage. Most citizens in most circumstances do not need such weapons to defend themselves. Neither do most people need assault weapons to defend themselves, but as the NRA positions itself, “where do you draw the line?” The fear (or paranoia) implicated in this position, is that if you begin by restricting assault weapons, there will be no end to what the government will restrict in terms of what kind of firearm a free “law-abiding” citizen can own.

I don’t want to embark on this “slippery slope” argument which cannot be resolved. Every ethical argument; abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, becomes a ”slippery slope” argument which seems in itself, a justification for resisting any change to the status quo.

But I do have a point to make, a very humanistic point, about self-defense and the right to kill, and one that points out the hypocrisy of the NRA position.

Granted that every individual has the right to bear arms for self-defense, I find it very hard to believe that in our modern society, with our current technological know-how, that we can’t fabricate an object of self-defense, as easy to use and as immediately effective as a pistol, that doesn’t kill. If guns were equipped with “pellets” (for want of a better term), that instantly rendered unconscious or paralyzed their victim, there would be far fewer mortal accidents. A child finding a loaded gun in a drawer, a night prowler looking for food, an angry husband, a vindictive neighbor, even an innocent bystander in a cross-fire shoot out, would be “anesthetized” but not killed. An intruder, aggressor, madman, could be immobilized until help from police officers or other people capable of restraining and disarming the individual arrived on the scene.

Is this an outlandish idea? Idealistic? Impossible? Stupid?

I don’t believe so, and an opinion article that I read recently voiced a similar thought. Make guns “smarter” it said, by incorporating software so that the gun could be localized and limited in the number of shots it could emit in a crowded area, or so that it would be disabled if pointed towards a child, or pre- programmed to broadcast the gun’s location. Is this any less technically difficult than what I have just suggested? If we can send data gathering robots to Mars, transplant vital organs, isolate atoms, we can fabricate defensive devices that don’t kill people. Even primitive jungle inhabiting societies had the know-how to make poison darts which disabled their aggressors.

Unfortunately, such an overhaul of defense methods would be received with laughter as being not only unrealistic but undesirable.

I have faith in the kindness and good intentions of most human beings, but there are some people who have a violent nature and for various reasons, from sadism to frustration, see violence as the only alternative for satisfying their needs. There is a feeling of power with a deadly weapon, one that can carry out vengeance, permanently debilitate, destroy, or exterminate. Although it’s obvious that some people will continue to use any object they can, if not a firearm then a knife, spear, stick or their fists, in order to kill, firearms kill more swiftly, more easily, and they can kill a greater number of people in a shorter amount of time, then knives, spears, sticks or fists.

On the other hand, many people, like me, would be much more comfortable keeping a weapon for defense that didn’t kill, rather than one that does, just like most women would prefer to keep pepper spray in their purse rather than a knife or gun.

There is of course, another aspect of the self-defense argument, especially for the ownership of assault weapons. One that is in my opinion more radical and less rational, yet all too easily propagated in American society. It is the argument that the 2nd Amendment refers not only to self-defense from dangerous individuals but from the government itself, in the event of a “democratic tyranny.” Regardless of this extremely unlikely event, there are some people who actually believe this is a valid reason for owning assault weapons. (I suppose a simple shotgun would be relatively ineffective against a government army). However, there would also have to be a massive coordination between high capacity gun-owners. How many government soldiers can one assault weapon hold off? Moreover, even if a tyrannical government really did decide to take control, an infantry type shootout seems rather simplistic and primitive. I should think that a sophisticated modern government would find some other sort of pernicious and clever method to control the public, such as putting a debilitating drug into the public water system.

Most people will probably find what I’ve proposed quite laughable. And it is rather ludicrous, not because it’s technically impossible but because considering human nature, it would ultimately be undesirable. Violence, like sex, is a human instinct, one that has always insured our survival as a species. But in modern civilized society, human instincts need to be controlled, suppressed or otherwise sublimated.

There are subliminal methods of satisfying our killing instinct, such as hunting. It’s certain that hunting wouldn’t be a very satisfying sport if shotguns weren’t lethal. I doubt that a paralyzed partridge or deer would be very interesting, especially if the goal is to eat it. But this sport, (which seems to me rather unfair being given that the animals can’t shoot back), is one of the few legitimate reasons for owning a “killing machine.” And, if the only legitimately owned lethal arms were hunting rifles, I’m sure the mortality rate across America would drop drastically.

American society is curious, both in its need to express individual liberty and in its need to regulate it. The fear and cost of defending individual liberty is being played out every day, culminating in thousands of gun deaths every year and the all too frequent massacre of innocent victims. It seems to me that our individual right to kill is anachronistic. Our level of technological sophistication is centuries ahead of our survival instincts, which until recently necessitated incurring fatal consequences in order to assure our personal safety.

Following the advice of the current NRA representatives who say that more guns, not less, will assure more safety and more freedom, is in my opinion a step backwards, not forward, in our evolution as a species. Freedom from fear is one of the greatest freedoms of all, and if everyone is armed with a deadly weapon, I predict people will be even more fearful and feel less free.

Freedom was the whole point of the 2nd Amendment. We can only conjecture what the founding fathers would have said about owning an AK15, mass killings, and the 10,000 plus gun deaths every year in the U.S. Such conjectures are not solutions, but they should inspire us to think more creatively, more in tune with today’s reality, not an 18th century reality. We must respond to these problems with modern thinking. Survival depends upon evolution, and evolution depends upon adaptation. As far as the gun control issue is concerned, America has a lot of evolving to do.

Catherine Monnet received undergraduate degrees in comparative literature and psychology, an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. She has lived in Paris for the last 30 years and worked in journalism as an editor and translator. She currently dedicates her time to philosophical research and counseling at