How Not To Argue for Gun Control

 by Sherry F. Colb

I strongly support gun control. I do so because domestic violence is far more likely to escalate into domestic murder when the batterer has a gun. And although mass shootings kill fewer people than one-on-one gun violence in the home, mass shootings are tragic as well and traumatize communities and the nation.

So what is my gripe with some proponents of gun control? Their common argument that a particular firearm has no legitimate use in "hunting." This argument annoys me for two reasons, one legal and one moral. The legal reason this argument bothers me is that it sometimes rests on the notion that people have a constitutional right to go out with a gun and slaughter nonhuman animals. 

The Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, however, recognizes a private right of gun ownership for self-defense, not for slaughtering animals. To be sure, the opinion contains a few references to hunting as an activity people who own arms might also undertake, but the holding of the case is that the Second Amendment "guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation" by an attacker. Elsewhere, the Court refers to the "core lawful purpose of self-defense."

It is therefore constitutionally irrelevant at best to point out that some weapon one hopes to ban is not a "hunting" weapon. If anything, weapons used to slaughter nonhuman animals are going to be very different from weapons that people use against assailants in self-defense. Therefore, pointing out that a particular gun is the wrong weapon for animal slaughtering tells us nothing about whether it is the right weapon for self-defense and accordingly, whether the Supreme Court would strike down a ban on the weapon.

The second reason I have for finding the slaughter hobbyist's argument disturbing is that slaughtering animals is wrong. It causes tremendous pain and suffering in the targeted animals, deprives them of their lives for no good reason, and leaves animal families bereft of a loved one. Anyone who has spent time with a dog knows that animals are at least as capable of love as humans. The slaughter hobbyist treats living, breathing, loving creatures as literally a "game" to test the slaughter hobbyist's skill. And no, the fact that the slaughter hobbyist consumes his victim's flesh after murdering him does no more to redeem his violence than Jeffrey Dahmer's consumption of his victims did to redeem his. There is plenty to eat that involves no slaughter, and slaughter is therefore unnecessary and evil. Period.

I suspect that people praise slaughter hobbyism in calling for gun control because they think it will show that they are "reasonable." But when I hear such arguments, I feel like retreating behind closed doors and not bothering to join the fight for gun control. If slaughter hobbyists are reasonable, then I am happy to be counted among the unreasonable. After all, the argument leaves itself completely vulnerable to the Second Amendment self-defense right that the Court vigilantly protects even as it guts women's right to defend their bodies from forcible pregnancy and birth. And the argument is morally bankrupt, embracing a right to slaughter. I would like to see animal slaughter stigmatized rather than treated as sacred.

Some say that "hunting" is more humane than so-called "factory farming," and that we should therefore praise "hunters." This argument is a non-sequitur. Farming domesticated animals (and purchasing the flesh and secretions that are taken from those animals) is utterly cruel and immoral, but shooting a wild animal in the field does not "save" anyone from being farmed. With all there is to eat, one needn't consume slaughtered beings at all, whether shot or stabbed in the throat. Murder is not humane.

Yet others argue that "hunters" help thin the herd and prevent overpopulation and starvation. My response to that claim is two-fold: when do we start slaughtering humans to thin our own overpopulated herd? And why do slaughter hobbyists kill males if they truly want to reduce overpopulation? It is females that determine the size of the next generation, not males. But males provide a more impressive trophy, and that is what the slaughter hobbyist desires. The answer to the second question is therefore that "thinning" the herd is simply an excuse for slaughter hobbyists. As Tolstoy has sometimes been translated as writing, "[a]s long as there are slaughter houses, there will always be battlefields." Perhaps it is time for the slaughter hobbyists to lay down their arms as part of any morally coherent plea for gun control and for others to stop referencing animal killing as a legitimate use for a weapon. I would certainly have an easier time fighting for gun control under those circumstances.