Here is a question that I think is important to the debate on guns:
Is there a principled difference between having a gun and just having a button that when pressed kills the person standing in front of you?
I have a hard time thinking of one. And yet for some reason, to talk of each person’s individual right to the possession of a kill-button sounds at the very least extremely worrisome. If it was kill-buttons we were discussing instead of firearms, which have a rich heritage but basically-indistinguishable capability, I think we would see vastly greater numbers of people admit concerns about universal possession.
Imagine an app designed to kill anyone standing within 50 feet of you. It’s very simple: swipe left to let live, swipe right to strike dead. Would you be comfortable with people possessing this app? Would anyone be comfortable with the existence of this terrible thing? No, it’s a dystopian horror. But what difference is there between that and a killing-stick which fires a bullet? Certainly, there are superficial differences. It’s harder to make principled distinctions, though. A gun has a less percentage chance of killing the target? Okay, but then what about an app that killed them 50% of the time?
One thing that has always been so frightening to me about guns is that the act actually required in order to end a human life is as simple as the pressing of a button. With knives and other kinds of weaponry, a person has a somewhat closer relationship with the damage inflicted. If I attack you with an enormous pike, I must be willing to use the force of my body to drive an object into yours. A gun allows me to inflict the same level of bloodshed at the touch of a button. There is a level of violence in a knife attack that is more muted in the pointing of a gun. In the knife attack, the act I commit (plunging the knife) is itself the thing that destroys the body; in firing the gun, the act I commit (pulling a trigger) is more mundane. Divorcing the act necessary to commit violence from the violence itself strikes me as a worrying change, which is one of the reasons I think gun rights proponents are wrong to suggest there’s no difference between killing someone with a gun and killing someone with a knife. The concept of the app exposes this difference. No, your capacity to harm doesn’t change. But the act required to commit the harm certainly does, in a most disturbing way. Many people do not see this as a relevant quality for determining rights, but I do not know how they would explain their discomfort with the app.
The only distinctions I can see are ones of historical and social context. The Second Amendment was not designed to protect such devices, they are not “arms” for its purposes. Well, that may be true, but why should we make that distinction? I think most defenders of the Second Amendment would like to believe that it can be defended rationally instead of merely historically. Otherwise the right is arbitrary.
Anyone who believes we should allow the gun and prohibit the app must answer the question of where our rights should end and why. Sketching the outer limits of the 2nd Amendment right is an area I think gun rights proponents are weak on. Very few of them would be comfortable vesting a single individual with the ability to, say, end all human life on earth. They don’t want individuals having nuclear weapons. But as soon as someone admits this, the question is where our boundary is. The right must exist on a spectrum. But how much firepower exactly is the individual entitled to? I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to this question.