Junkyard Dogs, Moral Complicity, and Guns


Due to the recent terrorist attacks and mass shootings in the United States,  the predictable public debate surrounding gun control has emerged once again.  While much of the world is simply baffled by the American reticence to adjust the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution, in the United States, average citizens are still undecided about whether or not they’d like to give up what they regard as a right to effective self-protection.  Many Americans doubt the efficacy of proposed gun-control regulations, pointing out that only law abiding citizens would be bound by those regulations.  After all, criminals are bound to break laws anyway-further laws would likely not deter them from obtaining firearm illegally.  Additionally, this puts law abiders at a significant disadvantage when it comes to self-defense.

Along those lines, one powerful sort of claim that 2nd-Amendment supporters make regarding gun laws is an appeal to real-world situations in which strong gun control laws fail to act as an effective deterrent for acts of extreme violence with firearms.  Such supporters will appeal to the recent attacks in Paris and California, places in the world where laws exist to make the purchase and ownership of firearms difficult or impossible, pointing out that such regulation has not been effective in the elimination of such violent crimes.  This argument should give those considering gun-control policies pause, as it is important in any policy discussion to fairly regard the effectiveness of such restrictions. Unfortunately on both sides of the issue, though, most discussions on such policies park on the subject of effificacy.  Gun control advocates will assert that the laws that exist in California are not effective enough-and that more laws need to be written to be most effective, while 2nd Amendment supporters will readily cite any number of instances where gun control regulations failed to protect people.  What we regularly fail to consider in these discussions is the question of whether or not such regulations–or lack thereof–make us morally complicit in gun violence, regardless of the effectiveness of those policies.  Perhaps more important than the efficacy discussion is this discussion of complicity and moral responsibility.  In what follows, I’d like to present an analogy that I believe crystalizes this discussion of complicity.  It is not a complete 1:1 analogy, but I’d be interested in your thoughts.

The Junkyard Dog

Imagine that I’m the owner of a salvage yard in a small town.  Recently, I’ve decided that for security reasons, I need to purchase a pit bull to patrol my property at night to deter any potential thieves from stealing my property.  I legally purchase and diligently train this dog to stay within the boundaries of my property and ferociously chase down and attack anyone who violates those boundaries after business hours.  I take a couple of steps to inform my town that I’ve purchased this dog for my security: I put an ad in the local newspaper, and I post clearly visible Beware of Dog signs around my salvage yard.  However, because of the considerable expense involved, I opt not to enclose my salvage yard with any kind of fencing.  For the purpose of my analogy, assume that my training of my dog is so effective I can ensure with 100% certainty that he will never leave the confines of my property, and I regard the construction of fence as unnecessary.

As often happens on Friday nights in small towns, a group of bored teenagers ride around town looking for some excitement, and on one particular Friday evening, they happen past my salvage yard, and they decide that, on a dare, they will try to steal something from one of my junk cars and make it off the property before my dog can catch them.  A reckless young man volunteers for the challenge.  He runs onto my property, grabs a hubcap, and is promptly mauled by my dog. The dog never leaves the boundaries of the property, and once the boy escapes my yard, the dog disengages, as I’ve trained him.

Because of the severity of this young man’s injuries, a public discussion ensues.  His parents sue me, asserting that because I did not enclose my junkyard, I am at least partially complicit in their son’s injuries. Because I did not take reasonable steps to ensure that people do not violate my borders, I am at fault for the young man’s suffering.  Of course, they argue, their son is responsible for his own actions, but by not doing everything that I could to deter him from acting this way, I am morally culpable to some degree for his injuries. Imagine that you were the jury hearing this court case.  Would you assign financial blame to me for negligence?

Gun Control and Complicity

My moral intuition in this situation indicates to me that I would feel guilty for the injury of the young thief, and I am certain that a jury of my peers would find me partially responsible for his injuries.   Had I enclosed the yard, and the young man still violated my borders, I am inclined to think that I would feel and be judged much less responsible, because I had taken every reasonable step that I could to deter him from doing so.  In both cases, my steps to deter trespassers were ineffective, but had I built a fence, I would be less culpable in the young man’s injury.

If you sense the force of this analogy, perhaps you can appreciate how it might inform our policy discussion regarding gun control.  When examining France’s or California’s gun control laws, it is easy to see that they failed to protect the public in the case of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.  However, effectiveness is not the only criteria one should consider in such policy decisions.  If a government can take reasonable measures to make it difficult for bad actors to perform their criminal acts, and that government fails to put those measures into place, does that government not bear some responsibility for those actions?

In the case of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, it seems to me that the rage of the public can be appropriately directed to the criminals who wreaked havoc on their city, as opposed to the government who stood idly by and did not take every step it could to stop such havoc.  Had these governments not taken reasonable regulatory actions, they are as negligent and morally blameworthy as I was in not enclosing my junkyard.

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