Published Mar. 6, 2023
By EMMA BROWN
Two mass shootings shocked California in late January after 11 patrons of a dance club died in Monterey Park and seven were murdered at a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay. The tragedies raised questions about the efficacy of the state’s gun regulations, which are among the strictest in the United States.
Though shootings are nothing new to the American public, the vast majority of conservative politicians remain fervently anti-gun control, leaving the nation in a legislative gridlock. Given the violence that results from unstable and violent individuals having access to firearms, is it ethical for representatives to oppose restrictions on gun purchases?
To begin to answer the question, the effectiveness of such legislation must be proven. The state–among other restrictions–requires a 10-day waiting period for all firearm purchases and bans those convicted of certain misdemeanor violent crimes from buying a gun for 10 years.
In California, the gun death rate is one of the lowest in the country, with roughly 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people, in contrast to vastly higher rates in states such as Mississippi, which has 28.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Center for Disease Control. In fact, Californians are 25% less likely to die in a mass shooting, compared to other states, based on research conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Having established the efficacy of such legislation, are those who refuse to support it immoral?
In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” he distinguished General Will from the Will of All. General Will is what the public ought to want, based on what would benefit the community, whereas the Will of All is what people want based on individual motivations. In the case of gun control, restrictive legislation, such as mandatory waiting periods on firearm purchases, would be an aspect of the General Will or part of a solution that would benefit society at large. By contrast, constituents and politicians who oppose gun control are viewing the issue from the lens of the Will of All, believing that their own desire for unfettered access to weapons trumps what the community needs to be safe and function.
Rousseau believed that operating in accordance with the General Will was the most effective way to maintain harmony within a society, while still allowing people to experience freedom. However, his ideas are founded on the notion that all people are inherently good and wish to benefit their society rather than focus on their own needs. According to the precedents set by the General Will doctrine, those who do not support gun control are acting unethically, focusing on selfish needs rather than putting the will of the community first.
This ethical determination is significantly impacted by utilitarianism, one of the main branches of moral thought.
Jeremy Bentham introduced the Greatest Happiness Principle to the philosophical world, proposing that the ethical thing to do is always what will create the most happiness for the greatest number of people. To determine what will result in the most pleasure, which in Bentham’s eyes was the absence of pain, people must perform Felicific Calculus by adding up how much pleasure an action will create, considering its duration, intensity and likelihood to create other pleasures. Then, the units of pain caused by the action must be subtracted from the happiness total. The resulting value is an action’s utility, or its usefulness in bringing about pleasure in a society.
The pleasure brought about by unfettered access to guns is limited. Those who wish to lawfully obtain firearms for non-violent purposes will derive no less pleasure from waiting 10 days to receive their weapon than they would have if it was immediately given to them. Yet the potential pain is astonishing. As can be seen across the country, when guns fall into the wrong hands, the entire community is put at risk, not only for personal injury, but for experiencing a collective loss. Simply put, the pain overwhelmingly outweighs the potential pleasure of a lack of gun control legislation.
As such, politicians and constituents who are fervently opposed to gun control have no ethical foundation to stand on.
Rick Humm '70 / March 7, 2023
thank you for your concise treatise, ms brown
Frank / March 7, 2023
Well said. Thank you!