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A Cerebral Defense of Gun Rights

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Arthur Brooks' finding that gun owners are markedly happier ("[C]ontrary to the implication of Mr. Obama's comments, for many Americans, happiness often does indeed involve a warm gun") reminds me of another gem by philosopher Michael Huemer, "Is There a Right to Own a Gun?" (2003. Social Theory and Practice 29(2): 297-324):

It is difficult to deny the existence of at least a prima facie right to own a gun. But this says nothing about the strength of this right, nor about the grounds there may be for overriding it. Most gun control advocates would claim, not that there is not even a prima facie right to own a gun, but that the right is a minor one, and that the harms of private gun ownership, in comparison, are very large.


I shall confine my consideration of gun control to the proposal to ban all private firearms ownership.Footnote This would violate the prima facie right to own a gun. I contend that the rights-violation would be very serious, owing both to the importance of gun ownership in the lives of firearms enthusiasts, and to the relationship between the right to own a gun and the right of self-defense.

Brooks' results are quite relevant to Huemer's section 4.1:

4.1. The Recreational Value of Guns

The recreational uses of guns include target shooting, various sorts of shooting competitions, and hunting. In debates over gun control, participants almost never attach any weight to this recreational value — perhaps because that value initially appears minor compared with the deaths caused or prevented by guns. The insistence that individuals have a right to engage in their chosen forms of recreation may seem frivolous in this context. But it is not. Consider two forms that the charge of frivolousness might take.

First: One might think life is lexically superior to (roughly, of infinitely greater value than) recreation, such that no amount of recreational value could counterbalance even one premature death. This cannot be taken to imply that risks to life should never be accepted, since it is impossible to eliminate all such risks. Instead, I will assume that those who affirm the infinite value of life would favor maximizing life expectancy.

This position is implausible, since recreation is a major source of enjoyment, and enjoyment is (at least) a major part of what gives life value. Consider the range of activities whose primary value is recreational or, more broadly, pleasure-enhancing: non-reproductive sexual activity, reading fiction, watching television or movies, talking with friends, listening to music, eating dessert, going out to eat, playing games, and so on. Would it be rational to give up all those activities if by doing so one could increase one’s life expectancy by, say, five minutes?...

Second, and more plausibly: one might claim that the value of the lives that could be saved by anti-gun laws is simply much greater than the recreational value of firearms. It is not obvious that this is correct, even if gun control would significantly reduce annual gun-related deaths. Many gun owners appear to derive enormous satisfaction from the recreational use of firearms, and it is no exaggeration to say that for many, recreational shooting is a way of life. Furthermore, there are a great many gun owners. At a rough estimate, the number of gun owners is two thousand times greater than the number of annual firearms-related deaths. Even if we assume optimistically that a substantial proportion of recreational gun users could and would substitute other forms of recreation, we should conclude that the net utility of gun control legislation is greatly overestimated by those who discount the recreational value of guns. For obvious reasons, the utility resulting from recreational use of firearms is not easy to quantify, nor to compare with the value of the lives lost to firearms violence. Yet this is no reason for ignoring the former, as partisans in the gun control debate often do.

Brooks results amusingly suggest that Huemer was too quick to declare the recreational value of guns "not easy to quantify." But Huemer was dead on to tell the philosophy profession that this recreational value is significant.

HT: Tyler

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The author at amcgltd in a related article titled Gun Fun, Gun Right writes:
    While perhaps cerebral, this defense of gun ownership was nevertheless one I'd not heard before.... [Tracked on April 22, 2008 7:44 AM]
COMMENTS (29 to date)
curtd59 writes:

Fine analysis. Still, I don't care. The purpose of guns is first to protect life and property, since that protection does not exist in any other form, and secondly to prevent an opressive state from gaining a monopoly of force. The argument for the recreational use of guns is a chimera: it is an effort by those in the debate to distract the audience from the primary purposes of guns. Purposes which illustrate the weakensses of government, it's necessary and natural incompetence, by trying to center the debate around something that is independent of government: recreation. Government is dangerous. Not all of us need to be armed. Just enough of us to make the govenrment at all times fearful and nervous. People should not fear their government. Their government should fear their people.

Les writes:

I believe that Curtd is correct that recreational use of guns is not a central issue. Recreation is a luxury, not a necessity.

The necessity is self-protection from violent criminals and deranged people, from whom government is unable or unwilling to defend us.

Criminals and deranged people can always get guns, legally or illegally, to commit crimes and go on shooting sprees. Those of us who are willing and able to lawfully get guns need to protect ourselves and others when government can't or won't do so.

Waldo writes:

Criminality is a relative and dynamic concept. When the government is incapable of protecting its law-abiding citizens, it responds by creating more criminals, through more controls. Reminds me of Thorsten Veblen stuff.

I can imagine my father's reaction if someone told him he was a criminal for keeping his double-barreled Parker in the corner of his living room. Duck.

Snark writes:

…and secondly to prevent an opressive state from gaining a monopoly of force.

I can think of no country (ours included) where, even if every private citizen owned firearms and banded together as an opposing force, could prevent their government from imposing its will if it were so inclined. At the time that our founding fathers conferred this constitutional right to the people, the military was essentially composed of a private citizenry, which certainly could have kept government in check through armed conflict. Today, that would be a virtual impossibility.

I agree with this right and want to see it preserved for the practical reasons you mentioned, but an armed citizenry by today’s standards would have little hope of staving off the depredations of a tyrannical government.

Z writes:

In reply to Snark, "I can think of no country (ours included) where, even if every private citizen owned firearms and banded together as an opposing force, could prevent their government from imposing its will if it were so inclined."
Hmmm...the private citizens in Iraq seem to be doing a pretty good job of banding together and hindering the government.

FC writes:

Empiricism should take Pure Reason out for a day at the range.

Snark writes:


Hmmm...the private citizens in Iraq seem to be doing a pretty good job of banding together and hindering the government.

I don't believe rebel insurgents trained and organized in terrorist camps and armed with rocket launchers and automatic weapons fits the definition of a private citizen.

Dain writes:

I don't believe rebel insurgents trained and organized in terrorist camps and armed with rocket launchers and automatic weapons fits the definition of a private citizen.

They should.

Snark writes:
They should.

Then so should everyone, including those who serve in the armed forces.

shecky writes:

The recreational value of guns in the US is tremendously high. Firearms also have value as self defense tools, but really, if for whatever reason, you need a gun to be safe, it would be much wiser to just move somewhere less violent than simply arm oneself. Shooting, either in a formal setting, or casually, is simply a fun activity.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Oh, I am going to be a bad boy in this festival of celebrating the happiness of gun owners, but I can't resist pointing out the very high correlation between gun onwershihp rates and suicide rates within the US. This actually does not disprove that gun owners might be happier than non-gun owners, just that when gun owners do get depressed, they are a lot more able to kill themselves before they have a chance to change their minds and get some decent therapy.

So, South Dakota has the second lowest youth depression rate of any state in the US. It also has the third highest gun ownership rate in the US and has a youth suicide rate twice the national average. OTOH, Rhode Island has the second highest adult depression rate of any state in the US, while its gun ownership rate is the fourth lowest and its suicide rate is the fifth lowest of any state in the union.

For that matter, the District of Columbia, whose laws restricting gun ownership are probably about to be overturned by the US Supreme Court, presumably to the loud cheers of most readers of this blog, has not only the lowest gun ownership rate in the US, but also the lowest suicide rate in the US. Methinks this may be one of those cases where correlation does imply causation, so I hope all of you cheering that forthcoming ruling also cheer the increase in the D.C. suicide rate that is likely to follow.

BTW, this correlation does not hold internationally, where suicide rates are much heavily determined cross-nationally by cultural factors. Thus, low gun-owning Japan has a higher suicide rate than high gun-owning US, which is easily explained by Japan's long cultural approval of suicide, derived from the old samurai code of hara-kiri, whereas suicide is very much disapproved of throughout the highly Chrisitan US.

OTOH, Japan has a much lower homicide rate than the US, with a homicide-gun-ownership correlation holding up very strongly internationally, even if a study by Miron suggests that accounting for the amount of drug busts by country can offset that.

Snark writes:

Studies have also shown that increased gun restriction laws, while reducing the number of suicide by firearms, resulted in no net decline in suicides, or a "constant marginal rate of substitution" if you prefer.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Name one. There certainly is a very strong correlation across the states between gun ownership and overall suicide rates, not just those due to guns. How is it that a depressed state like Rhode Island has such a low suicide rate while such an undepressed state has such a high suicide rate? Is there any other explanation than their respective rates of gun ownership? Why does D.C. have such a low rate of suicide? If the US Supreme Court ends D.C.'s gun ownership restrictions, do you really forecast that the low number of people poisoning and hanging themselves to death will decline further while they start blowing their brains out instead?

Do keep in mind that other methods of suicide are not nearly as effective as guns. The various methods are not perfect substitutes.

Snark writes:


This study is a bit dated, but sufficient for purposes of this discussion. Here's another. Some studies (Killias, although he admits gun control may not reduce suicide by other means) do show a correlation, but correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Bottom line is that there doesn't seem to be a consensus of findings showing cause and effect. I'm certain you can point to as many studies to the contrary, but you'd still have a difficult time making the case that removing all firearms from law-abiding citizens would significantly reduce the overall suicide rate in the U.S.

I'll grant your point that other means of suicide aren't perfect substitutes, but there are some (drugs, suffocation, poison) that come pretty darn close. Here's a disturbing piece describing methods of suicide among the 10-19 year old demograpic.

ronaprhys writes:


You're basing your argument on suicides? And on top of that, you're providing no links to source data? I'd say that's somewhat flawed in its basic premise.

1 - As pointed out, you've got a correlation = causation flaw right off the bat.
2 - You're using two different groups of people under different circumstances and making comparisons.
3 - While I don't mean to minimize nor trivialize the impact of suicide on those who are close to the person, if someone chooses to take their life, what business of that is mine?
4 - How about some absolute numbers? Are we talking 10 people in SD vs 5 people in RI? Some more context is needed.
5 - Links to source data are critical. Please provide some.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Thanks for providing some sources. Will reply further below, except to note that regarding the international data I have already stated that national cultures predominate in the results for overall suicide rates, e.g. Japan's higher suicide rate than the US, despite its very low gun ownership rate.


Oh, dreadfully sorry. How terrible of me to make assertions without providing links. That never happens around here or on other blogs. Anyway, here goes. This press release from the Harvard School of Public Health on April 10, 2007 announces the publication of "Household firearm ownership and rates of suicide across the 50 United States," Matthew Miller, Steven Lippmann, David Hemenway, and Deborah Azel, Journal of Trauma, April 2007, vol. 62, pp. 1029-1035.

This study finds strongly significant relations between home gun ownership and overall suicide rates, with no relationship at all between such gun ownership rates and non-gun-related suicides, which calls into question the substitution argument. An important point is that 90% of suicide attempts with guns are fatal, whereas only 3% of non-gun-related suicide attempts are fatal. There are over 33,000 suicides per year in the US, with substantially more than half due to guns. Among those under age 30, suicide is the third highest cause of death. So, we are not talking about small numbers here at all.

Of course it is always extremely difficult to prove causation from correlations, although John Lott loves to do these time-series studies and make claims about causation, and the one cited by Snark is such a one. So, here is another, which I apologize I did not write down the link for, but a quick google will turn it up. "Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated with Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act," Jens Ludwig and Philip J. Cook, Journal of the American Medical Association, 2000, vol. 284, pp. 585-591. This study found a significant reduction in suicide rates among people over the age of 55 in places following the implementation of this specific form of gun control.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Oh, and just to hammer home how strong this correlation between gun ownership and suicide is by states, let me simply note the following bit of information. The five lowest states in gun ownership rates are in order D.C., New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The five lowest states in suicide rates are D.C., New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Of course that last outlier has already been explained, given that Rhode Island has the second highest rate of adult depression in the country.

DensityDuck writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Barkley Rosser writes:


Very eloquently and cerebrally stated there in that second paragraph.

Snark writes:

There is credible evidence to support a strong argument for either side. I’m not convinced the Harvard study settles the issue any more than proponents of gun control were convinced by the National Academies Study of 2004 or by this recent CFIF article. In any event, it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court decides on this case. Let’s hope our justices are not as prone to confirmation bias as most of us appear to be.

Barkley Rosser writes:


I said nothing about crime or homicides. That is what the second report you cite talks about only, not suicide. The other one agrees that there is a strong correlation between guns and suicide (at least within the US). It argues that "causation" has not been proven, but causation can never be proven by strictly statistical tests. This is a non-starter. One must use logic, and the much higher rate of death from suicide attempts with guns compared to means other than guns is the piece that suggests causation, even if it does not prove it.

Snark writes:

Then the following must just be my imagination:

Harvard Journal Study of Worldwide Data Obliterates Notion that Gun Ownership Correlates with Violence
Now, a Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy study shows that this is not just an American phenomenon. According to the study, worldwide gun ownership rates do not correlate with higher murder or suicide rates. In fact, many nations with high gun ownership have significantly lower murder and suicide rates.

You talk as if suggestions of causation are proof enough to maintain or enact legislation that would ultimatley affect everyone. IMO, the evidence you've presented is not sufficient to turn the 2nd amendment on it's ear.

And apparently, you didn't read the 2001 study I cited closely enough, which showed suicide by suffocation surpassed that by firearms within the 10 to 19 year old demographic. Personally, I think this is more than noteworthy.

Snark writes:

Furthermore, the National Academies piece clearly states:

Research has found associations between gun availability and suicide with guns, but it does not show whether such associations reveal genuine patterns of cause and effect.

How does this square with your claim that it "agrees there is a strong correlation between guns and suicide (at least within the US)."

Sure looks like a front-runner to me.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Again, I have not been talking about homicides and guns, although a multivariate study using eleven variables found that gun-related homicide rates of men, women, and childrean were significantly correlated across US states, "State-level homicide victimization rates in the US in relation to survey measures of household firearm ownership, 2001-2003," Matthew Miller, David Hemenway, and Deborah Azrael, Social Sciences and Medicine, Feb. 2007, vol. 64, pp. 656-664.

Internationally there are competing studies with the one you have cited also, such as Global Firearms Deaths (Toronto: Small Arms/Firearms Education and Research Network, 2005)

I have also said that there is no clear correlation between guns and suicides internationally because of cultural differences. Your new study disproves nothing I have said.

Also, I shall reiterate: there is no way to prove causation statistically, so harping on a lack of such "proof" is a red herring, and a dishonest one if you actually know any econometrics. Please do not cite Granger causality tests, as Granger himself fully agrees that they do not test for, much less "prove," true cauality. Cannot be done statistically.

In terms of the policy issue, the live one now is whether the Supreme Court is about to overturn the longstanding interpretation of the Second Amendment that it was directed at supporting a militia rather than being an assertion of absolute rights of individual gun ownership. The likely outcome of this will not be a tightening of gun control, but of loosening that in D.C., where the lowest rate of gun ownership coincides with the lowest rate of suicide in the US. Do you wish to assert that loosening gun controls in D.C. will further lower the suicide rate? I think it will raise it, despite this data being mere correlation.

A fina btw, snark: you do not happen to be the latest S.P. of J.L., perchance?

Snark writes:

Dr. Rosser,

I don’t think there’s enough meat left on this bone to fight over, so you’re welcome to the last word. I’ll just conclude by saying that if gun control advocates eventually carry the day and succeed (as some hope) in removing all guns from society, they’ll at least be able to take solace in the fact that those who are sure to commit suicide can’t use a gun.

I thank you kindly for your valuable time and comments.


* A fina btw, snark: you do not happen to be the latest S.P. of J.L., perchance?

For better or worse, I'm afraid not.

Barkley Rosser writes:


He is a very effective debater, for better or worse. And, for the record, I am not for taking everybody's gun away.

George writes:


I keep saying this when DC ends up at the bottom of various rankings, so to be consistent, I should point it out when we come out on top (in this case, the lowest suicide rate):

Unlike the real states, DC is entirely urban. This skews all kinds of data when you stack it up against other states (as opposed to cities, especially cities under a million people).

This could affect suicide rates in a number of ways: our population is younger, majority African-American, unlikely to be isolated (even by choice), and has access to a large pool of nearby employment opportunities.

We may also commit suicide-by-overdose more often; with no note, how should the statisticians classify these cases? It's kind of the urban "gun-cleaning accident" equivalent. (Incidentally, why do life-insurance policies pay off for gun-cleaning accidents? If I were Allstate, I'd put in a rider specifically aimed at that.)

I'm not sure how important this confounding factor is, but: we have a large transient population from the 50 real states. People so depressed that they're suicidal probably don't make it here at the same rate as healthier people.

The low-suicide top 10 also looks like a list of most-urban states: Rhode Island, because of its small size and concentration of population around Providence, should be treated with the same statistical skepticism as DC. New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts all have mid-range population sizes, but again, are very urban.

You need to rule out urbanization causing both low gun ownership and low suicide rates (which are not the same as depression rates, since an urban environment potentially increases the chances of getting help). One easy way to do this would be to look at data for New York City vs. the rest of the state (I'm pretty sure they have the same gun-control laws).

Finally, with regard to the efficacy of DC's gun-control laws: noplace in the District is more than six miles from Virginia, whose laws, um, differ. Enforcement is impossible as a practical matter. I served on a jury trying a schizophrenic teenager just out of a halfway house who had no problem obtaining a handgun. It may not be true for a larger jurisdiction like New York State, but here in Washington we outlawed guns, and now only outlaws have guns.

Shaheen Lakhan writes:

We recently wrote on the issue of gun rights in a very different situation at Brain Blogger. Disgruntled or disturbed patients have come into physician offices and assaulted staff or physicians. This has led some doctors to store firearms in the workplace.

I would like to hear your comments on this issue on our site. Thank you.


Michael Price writes:

The study on suicide rates in the US I saw was based on state-by-state data, despite county by county data being availible and the authors didn't mention that suicide is rural and guns tend to be too. So I just said "Oh look another rigged study designed to make guns look bad.". I love it when I can spot the flaws in the study before the end of the summary.

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