Gun Control

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.[1]
  • 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,[2] 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.

[1] The National Rifle Association website has numerous video clips of speeches putting the argument for gun ownership, whereas the NRA Institute for Legislative Action provided a written argument.

[2] 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.


  • As the debate on gun control continues, the real argument – of how best to protect America’s children – is not being resolved; the political horse-trading is described on HuffPost at
    At, Lisa Wexler suggested using economic pressure in the form of insurance, which isn’t likely to be very effective (would criminals insure their guns?) and is not really central to the argument. At, Josh Horwitz wrote about the Second Amendment to the Constitution, but mainly to say how irrelevant it is to the question of protecting children; at, in commenting on that post, justamessenger gave a succinct summary of why the right to bear arms was introduced. Neither the economic angle nor the legal angle is helpful when considering the merits of self-protection.

    • Amitai Etzioni’s article on gun control, at, states that “A true liberal position, the place to start, is to call for domestic disarmament”. He agrees that the Constitution does not prevent such a solution but he fails to provide a convincing explanation of how it might be implemented. Would criminals really sell back their guns? Whereas it might be useful to articulate an ideal position during a negotiation on governance, both sides will need to compromise in practice.

  • On Wednesday 17 April the U.S. Senate suppressed debate on the country’s gun laws. A CNN report, at, highlighted how politicians are failing to respond to the wishes of the people they represent. The Huffington Post reported that the impetus for change has come to a “Maddening End”; there was agreement that “The Senate was a stubborn institution… it might take changing its membership to pave the way for anything to happen.”
    Many senators must have decided that they have a better chance of being re-elected if they oppose changing the laws on gun-control even though there is popular support for change (see They might think that “the gun lobby would spend a lot of money and paint them as anti-Second Amendment”, to use President Obama’s words. For them to lose their seats at the next primary election, another candidate from the same party would have to stand against them – not necessarily on a gun-control platform – and no doubt LRA money would play a big part in their chances of success.
    The suppression of the gun-control debate is, as President Obama said, “shameful”. It means that the arguments for and against the President’s initiative have not been put on record. Ordinary Americans will not have had the opportunity to see the different points of view put forward in a single democratic process – so it is quite possible that they have only heard one side’s case (depending on the news channel they follow). And it would appear that the political system is not currently capable of producing the results that the population wants.


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