#23: The Morality Of Gun Ownership

Table of Contents:

The Morality Of Gun Ownership
Famously Unethical Gun Owners
The Brady Law
Ethical Law Enforcement
The Ethics of the NRA
Ethics & Empathy
The Appeal To Liberty v. Security Rights


The Morality Of Gun Ownership

Are there moral standards or norms of gun ownership? If so, why? Morality in its broadest form is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper. Is propriety a prerequisite for gun ownership? If not, why not?

As gun owners, we are regulated to some extent, obligated to a lesser extent, but not labeled as proper or improper. Most gun owners pay attention to propriety only when we clean, store, or carry guns. So why is morality even an issue? Who checks our moral compliance regarding the guns we own? It’s nobody’s business but ours, right.

This report was prompted by a serious piece of work titled, “On The Ethics Of American Handgun Ownership,” by David DeGrazia.[1] His essay on the ethics of “Handgun” ownership is narrowly focused on handguns, not long guns, Gatling guns, Uzis, or howitzers.[2] The reason for that ought to be self-evident. His moral and ethical lens is on gun violence on American streets and campuses. His thesis is clear.

“Guns occupy a major—sometimes terrible—place in contemporary American life. From time to time, a momentous gun crime will arrest the nation’s attention. So it was with the murders of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John Lennon, and the attempted murder of Ronald Reagan. So it has been, more recently, with the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University massacres. In the past two years alone, the nation’s attention has been riveted by the rampage that left Gabby Giffords severely disabled, the massacre at a Batman movie premier that set the American record for the most shooting victims in one spree, and the murder of several worshipers at a Sikh temple. Although such tragedies arouse widespread public horror, little seems to change. The U.S. continues to have very high rates of gun ownership and gun violence as well as exceptionally permissive gun laws.”[3]

Famously Unethical Gun Owners

Gun violence became abhorrent in the sixties, long before we were awash in handguns. It spiked again when a deranged man named John Hinckley, Jr. tried to impress Jodie Foster by shooting President Reagan in 1981. He used a .22 caliber revolver but missed when his bullet ricocheted off the side of the presidential limousine and hit him in the left underarm, breaking a rib, puncturing a lung, and causing serious internal bleeding. He was close to death upon arrival at George Washington University Hospital but was stabilized in the emergency room, then underwent emergency exploratory surgery.[4]

In addition to his base immorality, Hinckley was a terrible shot. James Brady was President’s Reagan press secretary. He and two others were hit, but not killed by Hinckley’s bizarre attempt to impress a movie star. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and District of Columbia police officer, Thomas Delehanty, were also shot. Brady was shot in the head and suffered a serious wound that left him partially paralyzed for life.[5] It took twelve years for Congress to legislate minimal gun regulations that might have prevented the shootings of Reagan, McCarthy, Delehanty, and Brady. They called it the “Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.”[6]

The Brady Law

The Brady Law imposed as an interim measure a waiting period of five days before a licensed importer, manufacturer, or dealer may sell, deliver, or transfer a handgun to an unlicensed individual. The waiting period applied only in states without an acceptable alternate system of conducting background checks on handgun purchasers. The interim provisions of the Brady Law became effective on February 28, 1994, and ceased to apply on November 30, 1998.

Predictably, the NRA mobilized to defeat the legislation, spending millions of dollars in the process. While the bill eventually did pass in both chambers of the United States Congress, the NRA won an important concession: the final version of the legislation provided that, in 1998, the five-day waiting period for handgun sales would be replaced by an instant computerized background check that involved no waiting periods.[7] The NRA then funded lawsuits in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Wyoming that sought to strike down the Brady Act as unconstitutional.[8]

The NRA’s intense and expensive arguments found purchase in the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the NRA argued that the Brady Act was unconstitutional because its provisions requiring local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks violated the 10th Amendment[9] to the Constitution.[10] In 1997 the Supreme Court ruled that the provision of the Brady Act that compelled state and local law enforcement officials to perform the background checks was unconstitutional on 10th amendment grounds. The Court determined this provision violated both the concept of federalism and that of the unitary executive. However, the overall Brady statute was upheld and state and local law enforcement officials remained free to conduct background checks if they so choose.[11] Many did. Some did not.

Ethical Law Enforcement

Law enforcement depends inherently on guns to make arrests, intervene in hostile environments, protect the public, and guard people. And it has moral and ethical standards built into its mission and service. The International Association of Chiefs of Police created a Code of Ethics in 1957.[12] It is the preface to its mission and commitment to the public all police officers serve. Every law enforcement officer in America is bound by nine ethical precepts:

  1. My fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.
  2. I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency.
  3. I will maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. Honest in thought and deed both in my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the law and the regulations of my department.
  4. Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.
  5. I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, political beliefs, aspirations, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions.
  6. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities.
  7. I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service.
  8. I will never engage in acts of corruption or bribery, nor will I condone such acts by other police officers.
  9. I will cooperate with all legally authorized agencies and their representatives in the pursuit of justice.”

All professions have oaths, creeds, and standards of conduct. And all law-abiding citizens abide the law because they believe that is the moral and ethical way to live. So not surprisingly, gun owners have ethical and moral obligations arising entirely of their being gun owners.

The Ethics of the NRA

In his essay, Professor DeGrazia differentiated ethics from politics. “Although the thrust of this paper is ethics, not politics, it would be remiss not to say something about the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) on American legislators, who have been so reluctant to pursue gun control measures or even provide means for thorough enforcement of existing laws. My understanding is that the NRA has dominated both parties of Congress, every presidential candidate since 2000, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and even the CDC.[13] Here is a remarkably direct statement about NRA’s influence on the CDC through a co-opted Congressman: From 1986 to 1996, [CDC] sponsored high-quality, peer-reviewed research into the underlying causes of gun violence. People who kept guns in their homes did not—despite their hopes—gain protection…. Instead, residents in homes with a gun faced a 2.7-fold greater risk of homicide and a 4.8-fold greater risk of suicide. The National Rifle Association moved to suppress the United States.”[14]

Ethics & Empathy

Hana Callaghan is the director of the Government Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Like Professor DeGrazia, she wrote a compelling essay linking ethics to gun ownership. She said, “After the blood was spilled in three devastating mass shootings in a week, the ink immediately started to flow on both sides of the gun control issue. The problem is we are shouting over each other but not talking to each other. In the aftermath of each mass killing spree we seem to become more emotionally entrenched in our positions. Those on the left believe we will all be safer if we have stronger restrictions on guns, those on the right believe safety is found in more gun ownership by individuals. Until we can find common ground, stop demonizing each other, and stop argument by meme, people, including children, are going to continue to die. And that is a result that no one on either side of the gun control issue wants.”[15]

Prof. DeGrazia also leaned toward empathy in his essay. Is the status quo—both current policies and individual choices regarding guns—morally acceptable? Should the American public tolerate this status quo or work toward changing it? He posed a profound question; Do private citizens have an “undefeated” moral right to own guns (i.e., a moral right that is not overridden by competing moral rights or appeal to the general welfare? He argues that neither popular opinion nor the American legal system can determine what makes the most ethical sense. In exploring the issue, he relied on eight noted experts who had earlier written extensively on the issue.[16]

He found the answer in acceptable policy and responsible choice. “First, legality is not sufficient for acceptable policy. Earlier I mentioned laws permitting slavery in the U.S. Consider also laws at the heart of South African apartheid before that system was abolished. Such laws are unacceptable, so there is reason to change them. Ethical reflection is often needed to identify laws that need changing. But why, one might reply, can’t we Americans today simply appeal to our laws as the basis of acceptable or appropriate policy? Our legal system and the Constitution that serves as its foundation are pretty sensible and respect-worthy. And debates about guns often focus on the question of the constitutionality of particular laws and policy proposals. Why is ethics needed in the discussion?”[17]

He found the answer by considering the American legal status quo. “In the U.S., the legal right to private gun ownership is well-established. The laws of individual states have long permitted private ownership of guns, with Washington, DC a conspicuous outlier. The nation’s capital banned handgun ownership and required that all long guns—shotguns and rifles—be secured with a trigger lock or kept disassembled. The constitutionality of DC’s strict gun control laws was challenged in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). . . That case upended the legal world in favor of the NRA and left the American population with millions of gun owners and thousands of gun violence cases every year.”[18] Consequently, undefeated legal right to private gun ownership has been both lauded and challenged by legal scholars. That’s why ethics are needed—the law alone is insufficient—courts are not empathetic.

Professor DeGrazia’s answer appeals to ethics, morality, and common sense. “So the question of whether individuals in the U.S. have an undefeated moral right to own guns is not settled by reference to the Constitution or other legal arguments, and the question has independent significance. Indeed, from a moral point of view it has greater significance. For if there is no undefeated moral right to own guns, then there can be no legitimate appeal to such a right in defending the American gun status quo with respect to any of the three major issues—gun ownership—the carrying of firearms, and gun control.”[19]

The Appeal To Liberty v. Security Rights

Prof. DeGrazia’s reach extends to both liberty and security. “The case for a moral right to own handguns will rest, ultimately, on an appeal to either liberty rights or physical security rights. Let us consider each appeal in turn. Although gun enthusiasts tend to regard their right to own firearms as importantly related to liberty, I submit that liberty is not the strongest basis for the alleged right. As Griffin and other scholars have persuasively argued, there is no general right to liberty—to do as one pleases—which is violated or overridden in every instance in which one’s liberty is curtailed. It is not as if people have a right to enter my house without my permission, and this right is overridden by my rights to property and physical security and laws prohibiting trespass and burglary. Rather, whatever you’re “right to liberty” includes, it does not include any prerogative to enter people’s houses without permission. Fair enough, one might reply, but how can we determine the boundaries of one’s liberty-based rights so as to evaluate the appeal to liberty as a basis for gun rights? There are, I think, two good responses to this question, both of which dampen the prospects of the appeal to liberty. First, the scope of morally protected liberty is highly contested and contestable. Some think it includes flag- burning, breast-feeding in public, and the use of currently illegal drugs; others think not. To be sure, some authors offer a principled way of sketching the boundaries of morally protected liberty. The strongest basis for a moral right to handgun ownership involves an appeal to physical security. That people have a basic moral right to physical security is not particularly controversial and will be assumed here. Although there is disagreement about what steps a society must take to help to protect people’s physical security, there is much agreement about certain negative aspects of the basic right. The right to physical security includes, un-controversially, rights not to be assaulted, not to be raped, not to be tortured, and not to be killed. It also includes a right to self-defense.”

The irony of evaluating a legal right in ethical or moral terms is embedded in the conclusion that we all have a right not to be killed and a right to self-defense. The conundrum comes when the former begets the latter. Whoever has the gun wins. The loser dies. The winner claims self-defense. It’s the presence of a gun that makes the difference.


[1] David DeGrazia (born July 20, 1962) [1] is an American moral philosopher specializing in bioethics and animal ethics. He is Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University, where he has taught since 1989, and the author or editor of several books on ethics, including (1) Taking Animals Seriously (2) Mental Life and Moral Status (1996) (3) Human Identity and Bioethics (2005), and (4) Creation Ethics: Reproduction, Genetics, and Quality of Life (2012). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_DeGrazia

[2] https://philosophy.columbian.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs1676/f/downloads/On%20the%20Ethics%20of%20American%20Handgun%20Ownership.pdf

[3] Ibid at Introduction, page 1 of 33.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attempted_assassination_of_Ronald_Reagan

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_Handgun_Violence_Prevention_Act#James_and_Sarah_Brady

[6] https://www.atf.gov/rules-and-regulations/brady-law

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_Handgun_Violence_Prevention_Act

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/United_States_of_America_1992

[10] Brief Amicus Curiae of the National Rifle Association of America in Support of Petitioners, Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, (1997).

[11] Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898, (1997)

[12] https://www.theiacp.org/resources/law-enforcement-code-of-ethics

[13] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the national public health agency of the United States. It is a United States federal agency, under the Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/

[14]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_DeGrazia at page 3.

[15] https://www.scu.edu/ethics/about-the-center/people/hana-callaghan/

[16] See, (1) Samuel Wheeler, “Self-Defense: Rights and Coerced Risk-Acceptance,” Public Affairs Quarterly 11
(1997) (2) 431-443; Samuel Wheeler, “Arms as Insurance,” Public Affairs Quarterly 13 (1999): 111-129. (3)
Todd Hughes and Lester Hunt, “The Liberal Basis of the Right to Bear Arms,” Public Affairs Quarterly 14
(2000): 1-25. (4) Hugh LaFollette, “Gun Control,” Ethics 110 (2000): 263-281. (5) Samuel Wheeler, “Gun
Violence and Fundamental Rights,” Criminal Justice Ethics 20 (2001). (6) 19-24; Hugh LaFollette,
“Controlling Guns,” Criminal Justice Ethics 20 (2001): 34-39. (7) Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Own
a Gun?” Social Theory and Practice 29 (2003): 297-324. (8) Jon Vernick, James Hodge, and Daniel Webster, “The Ethics of Restrictive Licensing for Handguns; Comparing the United States and Canadian Approaches to Handgun
Regulation,” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics (Winter 2007): 668-678.

[17] https://philosophy.columbian.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs1676/f/downloads/On%20the%20Ethics%20of%20American%20Handgun%20Ownership.pdf

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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