A Principled Argument for 2nd Amendment Rights

I tend to be a supporter of increased gun legislation.  I don’t own a gun, I didn’t grow up with guns, and I don’t believe I’ve ever even held a gun or been present when one was fired.  So from a practical and personal standpoint, I would prefer to minimize private gun ownership.

However, I also recognize that there are other legitimate points of view.  I’ve often engaged in conversations with friends who are staunch defenders of their Second Amendment rights.  These are smart, thoughtful people, and their arguments go far beyond the standard arguments that I find easy to discount (e.g. guns make us safer, guns are necessary to prevent a totalitarian government).

One of these friends, who has to remain anonymous because expressing his opposition to gun control threatens his livelihood (he has lost clients and business over such political disagreements, and thus his wife has asked him to refrain from jumping into the fray), recently made a very compelling argument, which I will share here.

This argument hasn’t persuaded me to change my mind about my preferences, but it illustrates how it is possible to have a principled and rational argument for Second Amendment rights.

Every day, an average of 10 Americans die because of a wholly preventable evil.  That’s about 3,500 unnecessary deaths every year.  About 1 in 5 of the victims are children, aged 14 and under.  This affliction disproportionately kills African-Americans, who are affected 5.5 to 10 times as frequently as whites.

What is this plague on our society?  Water recreation.

Most of these deaths occur in swimming pools, though a majority of adult drowning deaths occur in rivers, lakes, and oceans.  Aside from am extremely small number of deaths attributable to those with seizure disorders drowning in bathtubs, these deaths were the result of people voluntarily deciding to put themselves in harm’s way.

Amazingly, water recreation likely accounts for the loss of more innocent American lives than guns.

In 2015, the CDC recorded 13,286 gun homicides.  This is much higher than the number of drownings, but doesn’t account for the little-reported fact that the vast majority of victims of gun violence have a criminal record.

There isn’t a lot of research on this topic (partly due to the NRA’s efforts to de-fund such research), but I was able to find a couple of articles from mainstream sources (e.g. not right-wing propaganda) that cite the homicide data recorded by the City of Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission is a non-partisan government organization that includes community organizations on its executive committee.  Its goal is to identify and recommend ways to reduce the homicide rate in Milwaukee, and where implemented, its methods have been shown to reduce homicides 52% (versus 9.2% in control sites).  Its Founding Director, Dr. Mallory O’Brien, is an epidemiologist who has worked on violent injury prevention for nearly 25 years, including at Harvard and Duke, and has received awards from the FBI and Department of Justice.  In other words, if we can trust any data, it is the MHRC’s data.  You can read more about the organization, including its detailed reports and data, here:

The MHRC data shows that between 2012 and 2015 (the most recent four years of data), between 76% and 85% of homicide victims had a criminal history (2012: 80%, 2013: 76%, 2014: 86%, 2015: 83%).  In 2011, 62% of homicide victims (gun or otherwise) had at least six prior arrests.

While Milwaukee is not necessarily representative of the entire country, the general narrative is that innocent victims of gun violence are more likely to live in urban centers where they might get caught up in a criminal crossfire.  For the sake of argument, let’s just simplify and assume that 75% of gun homicide victims have a criminal history.

It’s important to note that no one “deserves” to be killed, and that some people who have criminal histories are the victims of biased or otherwise flawed police work.  According to the FBI, 73.5 million Americans have been arrested for a felony at some point in their lives, which represents a little under 23% of the U.S. population.  I doubt that all of those people are career criminals.

However, it is also the case that the majority of Americans have never been arrested (including me, and probably you).  If we apply the 75% figure to the CDC gun homicide data, we can extrapolate that about gun violence claims the lives of about 3,300 “innocent” (i.e. no criminal history) Americans each year.

In other words, if you are an American that does not have a criminal history, swimming pools and water recreation are probably a bigger threat to your life than gun homicide.  (Unfortunately, I do not have data on what proportion of drowning victims have a criminal history to make it a true, apples-to-apples comparison.)

One could reasonably make the argument that if we are willing to tolerate about 3,500 drowning deaths per year as a necessary price to pay for enjoying swimming and other water recreation, that we might also be willing to tolerate the 3,300 innocent gun homicide victims per year as a necessary price for Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

I still support reducing the prevalence of guns in the United States (our gun murder rate is 25X that of a basket of 22 similarly-wealthy nations), largely because I don’t have any personal reason to value gun ownership, but it’s worth considering how you would feel if you heard that the government was going to criminalize swimming pool ownership, or prohibit the use of recreational boats?  Would you fight for your rights, even though you knew that exercising those rights led to additional deaths each year?

5 thoughts on “A Principled Argument for 2nd Amendment Rights

  1. I’m unlikely to be drowned by a stranger while I’m minding my own business.

  2. Aaron, it is undoubtedly true that it is unlikely to suffer death by without first voluntarily exposing yourself to water, but there are other effects of a similar magnitude. Drunk driving, for example, kills about 2,500 innocent victims each year in the US (and also kills 6,500 drunk drivers, and 1,500 passengers of those drunk drivers).

    All of these are bad. I just want to make sure that people like me who have a visceral mistrust of guns understand that there are emotional, non-rational reasons for those feelings as well.

  3. The ubiquity of guns leads to fear that severely degrades the quality of life in many contexts. I'm not afraid of drowning in a pool while walking down the street. A cop isn't afraid of getting drowned in a pool at a routine traffic stop. Pools sit in define locations. The threat is quantifiable and known. Guns are portable and discreet. The threat is everywhere. Your friend's argument is a bit specious because it is entirely true that society accepts a certain quanta of negative events as tradeoffs for benefits elsewhere. Alcohol is legal despite the damage it causes to many individuals and families. Cars are legal despite the large number of vehicular deaths. We don't, however, allow bombs despite the comparative low number of bomb-related deaths a year. Similarly, as a raw figure, there haven't been many terrorism-related deaths in the United States. However, we devote trillions of dollars and sacrifice the lives of thousands of soldiers in order to prevent terrorism. When threats are ill-defined but ever-present, the second-order effects are enormous. Look at the history of lynching in America. Look at the silent streets surrounding housing projects, especially after dark, in the inner city.

  4. Posted my comment before reading your response to Aaron's – would have worded somewhat differently. I would say that there is a rationality to gun control. Looking solely at raw figures doesn't account for the entirety of the damage something causes.

  5. *raw casualty figures

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