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The ethical debate about guns in America pivots around the themes of harmful consequences and individual liberty. Gun control advocates argue for greater legal control of guns on the grounds that such a policy would save lives. They envision a society ruled by an enlightened policy that seeks to minimize harm and maximize benefit for all. On the other hand, proponents of gun control shift the focus in the debate from consequences to individual liberty, which they elevate to a position of overriding value. The government’s primary aim should be to protect individual liberty rather than promote the good of society as a whole. Of course, one important way in which liberty of choice is to be exercised is in using guns to protect myself against the choices of others. The circularity of this logic seems to fall beneath the radar.
The most noteworthy characteristic of this ethical debate is how quickly it leads to antagonism rather than resolution, as the parties seem unable to discover common ground. Yet I will be concerned here as much with what is not often made explicit in these debates. Why do appeals to harmful consequences—supported increasingly by hard evidence—fail to create moral consensus on gun policy? And why do we prize a conception of freedom that results in defensive fear toward our neighbor?
In this essay I hope to bring out the underlying vision of persons in society on which the familiar debate rests, though in inchoate form. Charles Taylor helpfully refers to such visions as “social imaginaries (Taylor 2007, 171-176).” Social imaginaries are worlds of human significance, ontological landscapes for meaningful action. They are, Taylor argues, grounded in narratives that orient human agents in a timeful world (Taylor 1989, 25-52).” As Stanley Hauerwas has noted, we can only act in the world we see, and our vision is shaped by the narratives we grant authority in our lives. I will there make reference in what follows to rival “theo-ethical visions,” and draw on this concept to open new horizons for ethical discourse. The debate outlined above, I will argue, rests on a vision where society exists to serve the interests of the private individual. Moreover, it is one that instructs us to regard others as a continuous source of threat to “my good.” It is a short step from here to the normalization of violence.
Understanding America's Gun Culture
Ryan, Mark, "American Gun Culture Encounters Christian Ethics: A Clash of Narratives" (2017). Books and Book Chapters by University of Dayton Faculty. 45.