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Can Understanding Moral Frameworks Shed Light on the Gun Debate?

By John Morton


Again a school shooting dominates the news.  As a high school teacher for 30 years, I am horrified by these situations.  As in the past, people are shouting at each other rather than trying to find common ground to reduce gun violence in the future.


First, the problem must be defined.  Mass violence is only part of the problem.  In 2017, 762 people were murdered in Chicago, which has the strictest gun-control laws in the nation.  What is even more shocking is that on a per-capita basis, St. Louis has the honor of being the nation’s murder capital followed by Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland, Newark, and Memphis.  Applying ethical reasoning and economics may help us find ways to reduce gun violence.  This requires some understanding of the three major types of moral frameworks.


Duty-Based Ethics


Duty-based ethics focuses on a set of ethical principles, duties, and rules to guide action.  The Constitution is the rule book for the United States, and what a wonderful rule book it is.  We can amend it, but we ignore it at our peril.  The Second Amendment is still relevant because it allows citizens the ability to protect their other Constitutional rights against government intrusion and to protect themselves against other people.  Just ask the starving Venezuelans.  Confiscating the approximately 300 million guns is a non-starter.  The Second Amendment does not give us the right to bear any arms we wish.  If you need more than six bullets to protect yourself, you’re probably dead.


An even more disturbing idea about abandoning Constitutional rules is the current discussion to ignore due process of law, which is guaranteed by the Fifth and 14th Amendments.  Due process is the key to democracy itself. When President Trump says take guns first and provide due process later, I reach for the hooch bottle.


Virtue-Based Ethics


Virtues are the personal qualities that enable us to do the things good people do.  These virtues include courage, honesty, competence, civility, and concern.  In her February 17 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan writes that we must improve character and not just look at gun laws.  “A way to look at the question is:  What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?”  She answers the question:  “Porn proliferated.   Drugs, legal and illegal.  Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen.”


The Academy Awards showed us the people who produce the filth lecturing the country on gun control.  This is hypocrisy at its worst.  Let’s begin now to create a more virtuous society.


Outcomes-Based Ethics


According to outcomes-based ethics, the best action is the best outcome.  For example, are passing more gun-control laws or enforcing the laws we have the better use of government resources?  The Broward County Sheriff’s office was called 39 times about the behavior of shooter Nikolas Cruz.  A call to the FBI’s tipline said Cruz might shoot up a school.  This information wasn’t passed on to the FBI’s Miami bureau.  Cruz listed his occupation on FaceBook as “school shooter.”  An armed guard sat outside the school even as he heard gunshots inside.  Sheriff Scott Israel did everything wrong but went on TV and blamed everyone but himself.  “Ethically challenged” is too kind a description of him.  Are people willing to give up their guns and trust an incompetent government to protect them from violence?


Common-Sense Gun Control


There are many reforms that might reduce gun violence, but the impassioned rhetoric on both sides of the issue virtually guarantees more of the same.  It’s time for people to shut down their self-serving, ethical signaling and work on concrete reforms.




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You left Ferguson off of your dog-whistle list of 'places where the real bad people are.'

It's common knowledge that the vast majority of the guns that litter Chicago come directly from their irresponsible neighbor to the east.

Alright, that aside, I agree that common ground is hard to find on this issue. I'd posit that this is chiefly because gun people have shut down discussion of any reasonable policy that might reduce the number of guns out there, except, of course, the policies that take guns out of nonwhite hands. So we can't register the guns; we can't keep guns from the violently mentally ill; we can't differentiate sport and assault guns in order to limit the assault ones; we can't have any database of gun owners; we can't have waiting periods; we can't have meaningful background checks.

The rest of us have bent over backward to accommodate you gun people; eventually Occam's razor leads us to throw our hands up and say 'Fine, let's just stop new sales and start taking them all away.'

It's like Noonan's specious argument you cited. While I agree that violent films and videogames are probably a contributing factor here, I'm not with her on all the other stuff. The easy answer for gun violence has to be the proliferation of guns. It's not, as they say, rocket surgery.

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