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With Gun Control, Cost Benefit Analysis Is Amoral

by Harry Binswanger, Forbes.com  |  published on January 2, 2013

Before the Newtown horror, I, like many people, was in conflict regarding gun control. On the one hand, guns are dangerous. Their wide availability means people can kill on impulse, and surely that means more domestic quarrels turn into killings. And only anarchists would deny Ayn Rand’s point that “the government is the means of placing the use of retaliatory force under objective control.”

On the other hand, what about those who want to use guns to defend themselves? What about people who aren’t ever going to fly into a rage and shoot anyone in anger? And at Newtown, wouldn’t a few armed adults have meant that the lives of many of those children could have been spared? We don’t need statistical studies to know that banning guns from cities doesn’t stop criminals from getting them.

Note that this “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” does not arise from looking at different aspects of the same case but from focusing on two different kinds of cases. The pro-gun side focuses on cases of legitimate self-defense (and hunting and target-shooting). The anti-gun side focuses on wrongful uses of guns: the Newton killer or an enraged husband who shoots his wife (and on deaths from accidents with guns).

Both sides are looking at cases that are real. The question is: how can we take all of them into account? What is the proper way to think about this issue?

The answer I’ve come to is radical: reject entirely the collectivist mindset. Don’t look at populations; don’t ask: among 300 million Americans, would law X result in more lives being saved than lost? That sort of cost-benefit analysis is amoral; lives are not balanceable one against the other. And, in practice, it leads to endlessly battling statistical studies. I realized I should not take a God’s eye perspective, looking down on the flock, seeking to preserve the herd. Mankind is not a herd.

Junking the collectivist approach, ridding myself of the idea that the lives of the few can be sacrificed to the lives of the many, I found the issue almost settled itself. Taking the individualist approach, I asked myself: what laws should the individual be subject to? What is the principle governing the individual’s relation to the state?

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