Right to kill

Guns and gun rights in America are a big thing in the news right now because of the Connecticut kindergarten massacre, and although this causation is right and good, it is of course unfortunate that such things are taboo at other times.  This is acknowledged daily by those who wish it were otherwise.  To me, what is truly appalling is the everyday acceptance of the gun-rights position that owning a gun is an acceptable means of ensuring the safety of you and (supposedly) your family.  The author of this Op-Ed, for example, finds that to be the case.  I don’t deny that self-defense is a right, but I do deny that there is a right to kill.

It is not true that everyone agrees that it is not right to kill; that is, there are many situations where almost every American would say killing is somehow acceptable.  Combat during war is one example (war itself is also thought to be acceptable); executions are another one that is still more popular than it deserves to be.  Self-defense is the ultimate example, though, for a killing in self-defense by an ordinary citizen is legally excusable: there is no other place in American society where any person can kill any other person given only that the latter might have been attacking them.  I know why this is so: because if an assailant comes at you with the intent to kill or at least to make you despair of surviving the attack, in the heat of the moment you should not be held responsible for finding their life to be worth less to you than your own.  And, therefore, the law excuses you and upholds your judgment that indeed, they were not deserving of life.  This is sort of an “oops rule” for getting into a big fight.

This weighing of souls extends many-fold into the situation where you are protecting someone else, or perhaps many people; just as a killer is multiply execrated for multiple victims, a killer-in-self-defense is multiply exonerated for saving them.  I have no idea how this germ of utilitarianism has gotten such cultural approval when the general feeling is that the “greatest good for the greatest number” is either repulsive, communist, or heartless.

This “oops rule” for killing in self-defense is both illogical and oblivious.  It is illogical for several reasons, the first being that once a fight becomes a life-or-death struggle, both parties are acting in self-defense, and thus, whoever wins, their act of killing should be excused.  Consequently, neither the original attacker nor the original victim can be said to be in the wrong so long as the fight becomes deadly.  One could object that the instigator of the deadly fight is responsible for inserting deadly force where it did not exist before, but I am skeptical that it is that easy to discern a true intent to kill and distinguish it from a bluff, a threat, or an intent to merely injure—particularly for the frightened victim.  And if the victim is carrying a gun, they may be better equipped to threaten the attacker, but if that doesn’t end the fight, it automatically becomes deadly; so carrying a gun with the intent to use it in self defense is actually excusing any attacker from guilt in trying to kill you.

It is, of course, possible that the attacker is unambiguously acting to threaten the life of the victim, say by strangling them.  This leads to the second source of illogic: that the victim is not expected to prove an attempt to end the attack non-lethally.  It is probably more difficult to kill someone than it is to beat them away, though almost no one is trained in self-defense (and those that are, are also told to run away from fights when possible.  This is good advice for people whose lives do not frequently include fighting).  Regardless of circumstances, if resort to killing is the first course of action then the actor loses my moral sympathy.  Of course, few people would jump immediately to a credible killing threat, but my point is that it is not expected of people that they do not, and therefore it is accepted if they actually do.  And the barrier to killing drops if one is armed with a weapon whose every use is an act of lethal force.

The reason the “oops rule” is oblivious is that it puts moral and legal judgments in the hands of people who are not to be trusted with them in circumstances when they are especially not to be trusted.  It also makes a right of something that most people are psychologically not equipped to handle doing, either before or after.  (And those who are, are a special issue.)  It may be possible to train people to think clearly and legally about the issues, just like it is possible to train people in the use of guns.  However, the more allowances are made for a person’s training, the more trust is placed in that person, and in this issue, the trust concerns something that is the province of the judicial system.  If more training is an excuse for allowing people to kill in self defense, then administration of the law is placed in the hands of arbitrary citizens.  Taking the law into one’s own hands is the enemy of civilization.  Since administration of the law is the domain of certain government professionals, so is protection of the citizens.  It would truly be the decay of civilization of government were unable to do that, but asking the government for the right to take over its job is admitting its power over you to prevent that, and in that case, it should.

The right to own guns is being defended on the practical grounds that would-be gun owners have the right to protect themselves with them (it is also defended on the impractical grounds that the historical culture of the United States at the time of the Revolution included gun ownership, but that is literally neither here nor there).  A gun is a lethal weapon and cannot be anything else: a gunshot wound to any part of the body can cause deep and extensive tissue damage that is either outright deadly even to non-vital organs, or a serious medical challenge to heal.  An assault with a gun is always assault with the intent to kill, no matter how skilled a marksman the shooter is.  Therefore the right to carry a gun is the right to kill.


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One Response to Right to kill

  1. Mitch says:

    I’m not sure this detracts from your larger point, but the law does require that force used in self-defense be reasonable, so jumping straight to killing in response to a non-lethal attack might not be a sufficient excuse. Moreover, I believe that self-defense isn’t a justification for violence used to respond to an attack that one has provoked. Still, there is no doubt it is difficult to untangle what happened in many lethal situations, so none of these exceptions is perfect.

    As to the larger point, though: why is it antithetical to civilization to allow people to defend themselves? Isn’t this a core aspect — perhaps the most fundamental aspect — of personal liberty?

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