The United States of America has a complicated relationship with guns. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment to the Constitution as protecting an individual right to own a gun. At the same time, reasonable people disagree over whether gun ownership really is a constitutional right, and what regulations are permissible under existing precedent. Guns are prevalent in entertainment (from movies to video games), and statistics suggest there are more guns in the United States than people. As a result, notwithstanding the wishes of some people and the fears of others, it is not likely that guns will be regulated out of existence any time soon.
Scholars, activists, and the general public disagree about the ethics and justice of gun ownership and restrictions, about the consequences of gun ownership and restrictions for crime and accidental death, and about the politics of firearms, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. Even if a constitutional or moral right exists, it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about the moral obligations we have toward others in how, or whether, we manufacture, sell, own, store, and carry guns.
On November 11-13, 2022, the Center for Ethics in Society, hosted a group of political scientists, sociologists, historians, lawyers, and public health experts at a workshop - “The Ethics, Law, and Social Science of Self-Defense and Firearms” - to consider many of the issues associated with America’s gun culture. The workshop’s goal was to share research and advance the scholarly conversation on gun culture without the divisions and lack of nuance that characterizes the current debate.
"Regulating Guns as Products" Benjamin L. Cavataro, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
Toy guns are subject to federal product safety regulation. Real guns are not. If a defect in an air rifle causes it to discharge without warning, the manufacturer would be required to promptly notify a safety regulator (the Consumer Product Safety Commission); to recall the air rifle; and to provide a repair, replacement, or refund to consumers. Yet when such defects occur in real guns, the firearms industry has no such obligation. This unique immunity from product safety regulation allows gun defects to go unremediated for far too long. The result is tragic: needless deaths and injuries of police officers, ordinary gun owners, children, and bystanders.
This article argues that the status quo is unacceptable, and proposes a clear, workable solution. Congress should empower the Commission to regulate the safety of guns as products, without granting the Commission authority over "gun control" as traditionally understood. This approach resolves the inadequacies of industry self-regulation, tort, and state consumer law; appropriately leverages the existing Consumer Product Safety Act framework; and is consistent with the Commission’s longstanding oversight of holsters, gun locks, and gun safes. Under this approach, the firearms industry would be obligated to report safety defects, recall dangerously defective firearms, and offer remedies to consumers. The Commission could also consider adopting common-sense product safety standards (such as regulations to ensure that new firearms have functional safety devices, and do not discharge without a trigger pull), just as the Commission adopts safety standards for many other consumer products. But the Commission would be precluded from regulating guns to curtail gun violence or suicide, or to reduce guns’ prevalence.
This approach is fully compatible with the Second Amendment in light of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022). And lifting the firearms industry’s immunity from product safety law—thereby regulating guns as products—has helpful implications for broader debates on gun law and policy. By establishing that Commission regulation could simultaneously protect the public from harm and facilitate the right to lawful self-defense, this Article’s proposal demonstrates that some gun regulations can concurrently respect gun rights, uphold consumers’ rights, and protect lives—and, in doing so, reveals fissures between the interests of the gun industry and gun owners.
“The Harms and Benefits Inventory (HBI): Development of a Validated Survey-Based Measure to Understand Citizen Stakeholders’ Gun Policy Perceptions” Jennifer Necci Dineen, University of Connecticut [Co-authors: Mitchell L. Doucette, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Damion J. Grasso, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, UConn Health; Austen McGuire, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas; Kerri M. Raissian, Associate Professor of Public Policy Advancing Research, Methods, and Scholarship for Gun Injury Prevention (ARMS), Director University of Connecticut]
Abstract: Gun policies’ effectiveness relies on gun owner behavior. Therefore, it is important to consider citizens’ perceptions of the potential harms and benefits of gun policies when developing and implementing new policies or interventions. This project describes the use of a national, probability-based survey to develop and validate a novel, policy-neutral, assessment instrument, the Harms and Benefits Inventory (HBI). The HBI is intended to be a policy and intervention-independent survey tool to aid those making and advocating firearm policy in understanding and including citizen perceptions. Based on interviews with 2,007 adult Americans, we arrived at the 21-item Harms and Benefits Inventory, an empirically validated survey tool designed to assess the factors underlying citizen stakeholders’ perceptions of a policy or intervention as beneficial or harmful.
“The Ascriptive Republican Origins of the NRA,” chapter 5 in Race, Rights, and Rifles: The Origins of the NRA and America’s Gun Culture
Abstract: Scholars have long associated the ideal of citizenship in the United States with classical liberalism. However, liberalism cannot account for the martial practices—such as military preparedness and gun ownership—that Americans tend to associate with citizenship as a practice and as an ideal. In an upcoming book (University of Chicago Press, 2023), I argue that this gun-centric ideology is the modern expression of an ideological system that fused the classical republican ideals of the American Revolution with white male supremacy. I call this mixed ideology ascriptive martial republicanism because it weighs martial expressions of citizenship disproportionately to civic participation and recognizes as "true citizens" only those who fulfill specific identity-based criteria—key among them, being male and white.
In America, a "creative synthesis" brought together two ideological streams at the time of the Revolution, and the combined ideology became the foundation for the country's citizenship institutions. In this ascriptive republican ideological system, white men were the citizen-soldiers: the virtuous bearers of rights and duties to the Republic, including the right to bear arms. The National Rifle Association emerged out of the late 19th century citizen-soldiery, the National Guards, as a military organization aimed at training National Guardsmen and draft age civilian men in the arts of marksmanship and military discipline required for virtuous citizenship. This project traces the origins and contours of ascriptive republicanism to the ideology and institutions that emerged from the American Revolution and sustained by the NRA.
Abstract: Gun deaths have steadily increased over the past several decades, reaching the highest number ever recorded in 2020. Despite popular rhetoric, the expansion of self-defense gun laws do not decrease violent crime rates. Rather, considerable research suggests that states with firearms-related Castle doctrine, including stand your ground laws, experience more violent crime than states without (Cheng and Hoekstra 2013; Crifasi et al. 2018; Humphreys, Gasparrini, and Wiebe 2017; McClellan and Tekin 2017; Yakubovich et al. 2021). Yet, gun rights advocates continue to lobby for expanded self-defense gun laws. The expansion of Castle doctrine began in the late 1960s with a series of “Briney Bills” introduced into state legislatures — named in reference to Katko v. Briney, a 1971 Iowa Supreme Court case. These bills were the first notable codification of firearms-related Castle doctrine, and became the foundation for modern expansions of self-defense gun laws, including stand your ground laws. This research project aims to explain the early expansion of firearms-related Castle doctrine across the states using policy diffusion theory. We argue that the politicization of gun rights, combined with rising crime, created conditions of ideological competition and emulation. We hypothesize that external (NRA influence and ideological emulation) and internal (partisan control of state government and policy mood of voters) determinants resulted in the expansion of castle doctrine rights in each state. This research has important implications in the study of the politics of self-defense and firearms.
“Understanding American Consumers’ Responses to Responsibilization for Armed Protection Against Crime” Aimee Dinnin Huff, Associate Professor, Marketing, College of Business, Oregon State University [Co-authors: Michelle Barnhart, Oregon State University; Inara Scott, Oregon State University]
Abstract: We examine Americans’ responses to consumer responsibilization – a moralizing, neoliberal governance process that shifts responsibility from the state to the individual – in the context of armed protection against crime. This responsibilization has been perpetuated in recent decades by “pro gun” lobbying groups, consumer organizations, politicians, media, and market actors, and morally legitimized by the constitutional right to “keep and bear” arms. Using interview and online discussion data, we reveal the complexities in consumers’ responses to these responsibilization efforts. First, we find that individuals accept or reject responsibilization for numerous scenarios, which are characterized by actor-assemblage, space, and nature of criminal threat, and that they accept responsibilization for some proportion of the scenarios. Second, we show that the proportionality is determined through moral assessments of the responsibilization process to determine which scenarios should remain the responsibility of the state and which they should take on themselves. Consumers use these assessments to shape their responses to responsibilization. Third, we elucidate the recursive relationship between those assessments and consumers’ understanding of their right to keep and bear arms. The research contributes to research on responsibilization by illuminating the consumer’s role in receiving responsibilization efforts, identifying how responses to responsibilization is a matter of proportionality rather than accept-reject, and distinguishing between consumers’ responses to responsibilization, generally, and responses to responsibilization for themselves, individually.
“I Know It When I See It”: Public Opinion on Removing Guns from Compromised Owners” Margaret S. Kelley, University of Kansas [Coauthors: Neal R. Axton, University of Kansas; Christopher G. Ellison, University of Texas at San Antonio; and Pablo E. Gonzalez, University of Texas at San Antonio]
Abstract: “Red flag” laws allow the government to remove firearms from someone if a judge is persuaded that the owner is a danger to self or others. We present the evolution of these laws and then develop and test a series of hypotheses using data from the Guns in American Life Survey (GALS), a nationwide online survey conducted in late 2018 to investigate public opinion. Findings show that adults who believe they know a
“compromised” gun owner (dangerous, seriously mentally ill or suffering dementia) tend to be much more supportive of red flag laws, moderating the effects of immersion in gun
culture. GALS reveals that political underpinnings are not determinative of the views of
respondents. However, two sets of gun-related attitudes are strongly predictive of attitudes towards red flag laws–acceptance of scientific evidence that guns are “risky” and dangerous for civilians and principled rejection of gun control as a violation of the Second Amendment. Our results suggest that local circumstances (knowing someone who is a danger) can overwhelm macro-social attitude formation forces.
Abstract: The United States is in a league of its own when it comes to firearms. In fact, the United States Constitution is the seminal document for constitutional gun rights, inspiring other countries around the world to provide their own citizenry with firearms protections. Today, however, only Guatemala and Mexico join the United States in constitutionally protecting the right to bear arms, though there are strong restrictions on firearms ownership in these two countries. Despite a lack of constitutional firearms protections, there are strong gun rights movements in Canada and Australia. This paper utilizes process tracing to analyze the factors that have allowed the United States, Canada, and Australia to have robust gun rights orientations, while Guatemala and Mexico do not. We hypothesize that the electoral connection present in strong electoral democracies allow for gun rights to thrive due to the high levels of participation from gun owners in favor of gun rights. In addition, we hypothesize that democracy, and the civic engagement required to sustain it, are essential conditions for political mobilization around gun rights, while conditions such as corruption prevent the expansion of gun rights in Guatemala and Mexico.
“Sheep, Sheepdogs, and the Good Shepherd: Gun Culture in 21st Century American Churches” Andrew Moore, Department of History, Saint Anselm College
Abstract: This paper explores the ways in which Christian church and parachurch leaders addressed the question of guns in church in the early 21st century. With the constitutional right settled by the 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision, at least some Christian leaders engaged the issue of guns on theological and practical grounds, distinct from Second Amendment arguments. On the one hand, local church leaders encouraged parishioners to carry handguns in worship services and to participate in church safety seminars that prepare parishioners to defend against violent attack. They emphasize an individual’s duty to defend others – to be what sociologist Jennifer Carlson calls “citizen protectors” or what Christian ministry leaders call “sheepdogs.” From that perspective, carrying a gun would be a moral duty undertaken to protect others. On the other hand, there are those who point to the life of Jesus (the Good Shepherd) as a model. They emphasize the fact that Christians are called to “die to self” and “turn the other cheek.” Many of them see controlling access to firearms as a “pro-life issue” and they argue that defending the right to bear arms stems from what the Bible calls a “spirit of fear.”
“Firearms Arrests and Criminal Deterrence: A Spatial Network Approach” Zachary Porreca, Department of Economics, West Virginia University
Abstract: In this study, I provide the first analysis of the effect that arrests for illegal firearm possession have on subsequent shootings using contemporary causal inference methodologies. Estimating a high spatial and temporal resolution event study, allowing for divergence of trends before an arrest, on a data set constructed from incident-level microdata representing the city as a spatial network, I document that firearm arrests do not have any deterrent or escalation effects on future gun violence. Rather, firearm arrests solely respond to incidents of gun violence that exist before the arrest occurs. I further provide a framework for extending this study as better administrative data is made available from Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office.
“‘Pistols as thick as blackberries’: How America’s Gun Culture emerged from Consumer Culture, 1875-1920” Courtney Slavin, Department of History, Clark University
Abstract: The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is often used as a litmus test of American values at the end of the nineteenth century. Patrons walked the fairgrounds and strolled through museums carefully curated to commemorate the triumph of American progress. At the very heart of this national shrine lay an exhibit dedicated to America’s most cherished symbol: the gun. With a comprehensive display ranging from revolutionary muskets to Winchester repeating rifles, visitors were encouraged to inspect, handle, and even fire these weapons—actively participating in the transformation of American history. Certainly, the current obsession with firearms is not a new phenomenon but has a long history that is central to the modern American identity. One of the primary reasons for this national obsession is connected to the way guns became entangled within the larger national identity, one which also embraced conspicuous consumption and leisure culture. By reframing guns as objects of consumerism, we can illuminate why some Americans remain so defensive of their gun collections.
“Progressive and Armed: How Progressive Gun Ownership Challenges Firearms Discourse” Angela Stroud, Associate Professor of Sociology, Northland College
Abstract: This paper is an analysis of interviews with gun owners who have obtained firearms for self-defense and who politically identify as progressive and/or liberal. In a notable departure from conservative gun owners, these respondents see their firearms through a “rights lens” that they link to entitlements including a fair wage, women’s bodily autonomy, racial justice, and access to safe and secure housing. In their view, the Second Amendment is a right that should be exercised by progressives to ensure that neither the state nor political conservatives maintain a monopoly on the means of legitimate violence—something that is particularly significant in the wake of the Trump presidency.
Many of the respondents interviewed to date see their being armed as a response to social and political unrest that is both promoting fascist political movements and putting people from marginalized groups in danger. This project also explores what versions of domination / vulnerability are articulated in these positions, and how they are raced, classed, and gendered. This is particularly significant given the spillover effects that are likely when guns proliferate; guns and gun violence have always most harmed the marginal. Will these allies actually help to make the world a safer place for marginalized people? Or does the promotion of violence inevitably result in downstream negative consequences for those who are already vulnerable? What kind of world are progressive gun owners building?
“Run, Hide, and Fight? A Precautionary Business Ethics to Hold Manufacturers Accountable for Preventing Gun Violence” Lev Szentkirályi, Social Responsibility and Sustainability Division, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado at Boulder
Abstract: While the CDC recently announced that rates of gun deaths have reached new historic highs in the U.S. (MMWR of May 13, 2022), gun manufacturers continue to appeal to their lack of causal responsibility for gun-related violence—consistently noting that it is people who harm and kill others, not guns per se. This reasoning informs the gun industry’s consistent rejection of moral culpability and legal liability for the harm and death associated with gun violence: a justification that is grounded in traditional theories of moral responsibility and the ethics of risk, which maintain that when an actor’s causal contribution to some harm or impermissible risk of harm cannot be scientifically corroborated, there is no ethical foundation for holding the actor morally responsible. Given the complexity of the problem of gun violence and prevailing uncertainties in our social scientific understanding of its likely causes, industry actors have generally enjoyed immunity from criminal and civil liability. However, is there a plausible justification for holding the gun industry accountable—even if we accept that gun manufacturers avoid culpability on traditional ethical accounts? And if so, what would this standard consist in? Applying my recently published theory of precautionary ethics to this pressing problem of business ethics and social justice, I explore various reasonable precautionary measures that the gun industry has routinely failed to implement to safeguard the public against scientifically-uncertain possibilities of gun-related violence, and I argue that in wrongfully gambling with the welfare of our communities, industry actors must be held to account.
“Preaching on Pistols: Religious Elites and Their Capability to Move Attitudes on Guns” Abigail Vegter, Department of Political Science, Berry College
Abstract: American pastors have recently been emboldened to speak about guns and gun policy from the pulpit, whether they be instructing their followers to keep their guns “locked and loaded” as an executive order from God or touring the United States to melt guns into gardening tools. Undoubtedly, there are conflicting messages concerning guns coming from the religious elite in America today. The question remains, however, are these messages capable of moving the attitudes of these pastors’ congregants? I have fielded two original survey experiments to assess how religious messages can change attitudes about gun policy. In the first, participants are exposed to an evangelical pastor’s religious argument for gun control policy in the United States; in the second, they read a religious argument for gun rights. I hypothesize that when participants share a religious identity with the messenger, their attitudes will move toward the messenger’s as compared to the control group. Moreover, following the theory of dissonant identity priming, I suggest that when the elite delivers an unexpected message, attitudes will move further as a result of greater systematic processing.
“Articulating the Standard Model of Explaining the Irrationality of Defensive Gun Ownership” David Yamane, Department of Sociology, Wake Forest University
Abstract: A renaissance of interdisciplinary research on guns has followed the shift in American gun culture from hunting and recreational shooting to self-defense, from what I call Gun Culture 1.0 to Gun Culture 2.0. Latent in this body of research is what I call the Standard Model of explaining the irrationality of defensive gun ownership. This Standard Model unites scholars’ critical responses to Gun Culture 2.0 across disciplines, including sociology, psychology, political science, economics, and public health. The irrationality is identified at both the individual level (self-defense guns increase a person’s risk of harm without any offsetting benefit) and societal level (self-defense guns increase rates of harm in society without any offsetting benefit). Because it is not a rational response to our current reality, the Standard Model sees defensive gun ownership as just a pretense or rationalization. There must be something else that is actually motivating it. How these rationalizations and pretenses are conceptualized vary by discipline. At the individual level they include hegemonic masculinity, racial resentment, disinhibition, and coping with psychological or identity threats. At the societal level, we add the cultural work being done by the gun industry and gun rights organizations to sell the myth of armed self-defense. This paper articulates the 6-point logical structure of the Standard Model and critically engage its claims based on my 10 years of research on defensive gun owners and culture.