Kant vs. Augustine on Concealed-Carry Handguns

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The Obama Administration is floating, via the Washington Post, several fairly serious gun control measures that would, if adopted, most likely have little impact on the pace or devastation of gun massacres such as the one in Newtown, but could, over decades, make it somewhat more difficult for criminals, and the dangerously deranged, to get their hands on guns:

A working group led by Vice President Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors, the sources said.

All of these measures are reasonable. Strengthening mental health checks is obviously important, and a national database of gun sales could have some use, particularly for post-shooting investigations, and closing the so-called gun show loophole, as I've written before, would at least place a stumbling block before unqualified gun buyers. But unless and until the government comes up with a plan to radically reduce the number of guns in civilian hands (roughly 300 million, and that number is most likely growing at a torrid pace, because discussion of stringent gun control measures sends gun buyers flocking to stores and gun shows), then not too much will change. Which is why I believe law-abiding, screened and trained citizens should be allowed to carry handguns, if they so choose. It's an unfortunate, but realistic, response (not the only response, of course) to the tragic fact that criminals and the dangerously mentally ill have fairly easy access to weaponry.

My colleagues Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Fallows have disagreed with me on this, and TNC and I had a back-and-forth on the subject, which you can read here. Fallows has weighed in on the discussion, in particular on my Augustinian challenge to TNC, who stated that he was actively uninterested in owning a handgun for self-defense. (I was arguing, in essence, the Augustinian perspective, that we have a responsibility to defend the lives of others, even if we choose not to use violence to defend ourselves.) Jim came in with this comment:

Since we're rolling out the big-time thinkers, I'll say that the reason I prefer the Coates side of the argument (more guns are not the answer), over the Goldberg side (in the right circumstances they can be), is well expressed not by Augustine but by Immanuel Kant.

The whole concept of Kant's "categorical imperative" -- testing an idea by what its consequences would be if everyone acted that way -- seems an ideal match for the "more guns" question. In Jeff Goldberg's hypothetical, I personally would feel better if I, uniquely, had a gun in hand to use against the perpetrator. But I would not prefer a situation in which everyone was carrying guns, all the time, and ready to open fire on anyone who looked threatening. Or even if a lot more people were doing so. Thus for me, a "more guns" policy fails the categorical imperative test. It's better for me if I do it, worse for us all if everyone does it. But read the exchange and see what you think.

I'm not sure Jim is actually arguing with me here, because I don't believe that "everyone," or any number of people close to everyone, should be carrying guns. I believe that only vetted, licensed and trained citizens should be allowed by their states, or their local authorities, to possess weapons outside the house (and, actually, this sort of oversight for people who don't even want to bring their guns outside would be okay with me).

The population of concealed-carry permit holders in the U.S. now exceeds 9 million, and this group is responsible for very little crime -- they commit crime at a rate lower than the general population, and lower than police officers, and they certainly, as a rule, don't open fire on anyone who looks threatening. They are not the problem, and concealed-carry generally is not the problem. It may even be part of a solution, until such time as a giant magnet appears over the continental U.S. and sucks into the sky America's civilian-owned weapons, or until the gun control movement convinces the majority of Americans who believe in private weapons ownership to open a debate about the 2nd Amendment.

In the meantime, I can't get two Newtown numbers out of my head: 26, the number of people, mainly small children, who were murdered in the school; and 20, the number of minutes it took the police to arrive.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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