Following the massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School on 14 December 2012, the question of gun-control in America is being debated. The subject raises some interesting issues of governance, which are touched on in the book Patterns of Power:
- There is a deep disagreement between people who want a change in the law, to make future massacres less likely, and others who prefer to be independent and buy guns to defend themselves (7.2.1). The argument for tighter gun-control was eloquently put by The Economist in an article written after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, two years ago. An example of the gun-lobby argument can be seen on the NRA website.
- From a moral perspective there is little disagreement about the desire to protect children from gunmen; the debate is about how best to achieve this in practice.
- The legal perspective is somewhat clouded by the Second Amendment to the Constitution:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
This was drafted in the 18th century, when weapons were very different. When judges use their discretion (5.2.2) in interpreting the Constitution, they might take into account the probability that the founding fathers had only envisaged the possession of a musket (which can only fire one shot each time the weapon is loaded).
- It has been suggested that the answer is to have more armed guards in schools – though this would not be 100% safe and it would be costly. Gun owners could compensate the rest of society in economic terms – through a purchase tax on guns and an annual licence fee, to pay for the armed guards and for a fund to compensate the families of all victims of privately-owned guns. The amounts paid might reflect the type of weapon and might deter the purchase of assault weapons. As Michael Sandel might say, though, this isn’t really a problem which can be solved solely in economic terms.
- There may be a question of whether politicians are trying to reach decisions for the benefit of the people or whether they are subject to the influence of money (6.4.5), in the form of donations from the NRA.
It will be difficult to have a meaningful political negotiation (6.8.4) on this topic.
 Michael Sandel has written a book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, exploring the difference between an ethical approach and one based purely on economics. His article in Prospect magazine in September 2012, entitled If I ruled the world, briefly explains his views on the inappropriate use of economic arguments.