The Ethics of Armed Self Defense

“Shehid Jîn” battalion of mothers in Kobane, Syria. Photo: HAWAR News/teleSUR

Discussions about the role of guns in society often founder under the weight of dueling statistics thrown out by both sides. I’d like to avoid the statistical food fight and base this article solely on the ethics of armed self-defense.

How much do you value your life?

Modern America has a strong pacifist streak that originated among some of our Christian denominations and spread to non-religious people, most notably during the 1960s. It is now associated with the liberal side of the political spectrum and with those who support strict gun control.

It is easy to find people who say they would never use potentially lethal force against another person, even to save their own lives from a criminal assault. Under this principle, the life of a violent sociopath is more valuable than theirs. Each person has the right to place a value on their own life, so it may seem difficult to argue against this way of thinking. But let’s pose some serious questions and see where this line of reasoning takes us.

Do you have an obligation to your loved ones?

If you won’t save your own life by using lethal force, what about your spouse, children or co-workers? If you allow yourself to be killed by a violent attacker, what effect will this have on those who depend on you? If you are responsible for supporting them and you are killed, the results will be devastating.

Let’s say you are not killed, but suffer a brain injury that leaves you unable to work, or you are abused in ways that leave you unable to work due to lifelong psychological issues. In a way this is worse than death, as you are now a burden on those you felt obliged to provide for.

Giving up your life for your beliefs is one thing, but making people you care about suffer for those beliefs is something much more serious.

Do you have an obligation to your neighbors?

If an intruder breaks into your home while you are there, or you are suddenly the victim of a carjacking, you must decide if you are going to fight, flee if you can, or submit. Let’s say the criminal leaves unharmed and let’s ignore whatever he did to you, be it fatal, crippling or just degrading. He is now free to repeat this kind of attack again, in fact he is probably emboldened by his success. By denying your communal responsibility and failing to stop the criminal, you have condemned a neighbor to a similar or worse fate than your own.

Is self-defense a right or a responsibility?

Now, this depends on what situation you are in. For example, if you had home alarm systems that were triggered by an intruder, and you either returned home whilst they were still there or you were home at the time, I would argue that we have a responsibility to defend ourselves and our communities from criminals with whatever force is allowed by law. You have already installed a sound alarm system and if you feel unsafe, the next step may be to defend yourself. Sadly, the concept of personal responsibility has largely faded from our culture. Too many of us expect our government to protect us from all possible threats to our health, safety and happiness, without much effort being required on our part. In a utopian world, perhaps the government could do all of these things, but in real life, there is too little money and too much incompetence.

Aren’t you taking the law into your own hands?

No, in a self-defense situation you don’t need a judge and jury or the CSI team to know who is committing a violent crime. The criminal is the fellow assaulting you. You are fully justified in using lethal force if you are justifiably in fear for your life or the lives of others. You are only considered a vigilante if you go out looking for trouble.

Can you rely on the police to protect you?

The answer to this question is clearly NO. Not only are the police understaffed and overcommitted, they have no legal responsibility to protect anyone in particular. People have tried filing lawsuits against law enforcement agencies for failing to protect them. The suits are always dismissed, as this is considered settled law. The job of the police is to arrive after the fact, collect the evidence and try to find the perpetrator.

An interesting contradiction

Some people feel that self-defense, especially with a weapon, is a dirty, low-class and risky thing that smart, civilized people don’t do. Yet they also feel that it’s perfectly OK for police officers to risk their lives to protect us. What makes the lives of cops less valuable than yours? If you won’t protect yourself, why do you expect them to do it for the modest salaries we pay them?

And let’s not forget the fact that police officers carry and use guns. For those who believe that guns are despicable tools of evil, isn’t it hypocritical and elitist to expect men and women with guns to come save you?

What are the odds that a person will have to use force in self-defense?

The thought of being in a violent, self-defense situation and possibly using lethal force is too stressful for many people to deal with. Due to their upbringing, their religion or their conditioning by the media, they just can’t or won’t think about it.

Realistically, most Americans live a pretty violence-free life. While we are bombarded by media depictions of violence, most of us will never be directly affected by it. That brings up the concept of your personal cost/benefit ratio. Will the cost of being prepared to protect yourself be greater than the benefit you are likely to receive? What is your personal risk of being a crime victim?

Whatever statistics you may happen to see and believe or disbelieve, it is virtually certain that they don’t apply to your unique situation. This is something that each person needs to determine for themselves.

I often use the analogy of keeping a fire extinguisher in the home. The odds of a house fire are extremely low and the cost of a good extinguisher is significant, so is it better to go without one? Would you like the government to decide that for you or would you rather make up your own mind?

We can also use the example of being prepared for a widespread disaster. Many people aren’t prepared to think about scary scenarios and make the recommended preparations. It’s just easier not to deal with it.

Another interesting contradiction

Many people who look down on gun ownership feel their risk of being violently victimized is so low that they don’t need to own a gun. They say they feel perfectly safe. Yet these same people often act as if they are terrified by the presence of guns in the society around them and support all manner of restrictive gun laws.

Who should decide?

Since the cost/benefit calculations are different for each person, is it realistic to apply the usual one-size-fits-all type of government regulation to the questions of who can use firearms for self-defense and what kind is best suited for their needs? If you are satisfied with how our government manages our education system, defense procurement, immigration, health care and criminal justice system, then for you the answer may be yes. For the rest of us, the answer is a resounding NO.


Suggestions for further reading:

In the Gravest Extreme, M. Ayoob

Nation of Cowards, Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, J. Snyder


Dr. Tim Wheeler

—Dr. Michael S. Brown is a pragmatic Libertarian environmentalist who has been studying the gun debate for three decades and considers it a fascinating way to learn about human nature and politics.

All DRGO articles by Michael Brown, OD.