4 Ethical Lessons of Bearing Arms

The bearing of arms is the essential medium through which the individual asserts both his social power and his participation in politics as a responsible moral being… (Historian J.G.A. Pocock, describing the beliefs of the founders of the U.S.)

There is nothing like having your finger on the trigger of a gun to reveal who you really are. Life or death in one twitch — ultimate decision, with the ultimate price for carelessness or bad choices.

It is a kind of acid test, an initiation, to know that there is lethal force in your hand and all the complexities and ambiguities of moral choice have fined down to a single action: fire or not?

In truth, we are called upon to make life-or-death choices more often than we generally realize. Every political choice ultimately reduces to a choice about when and how to use lethal force, because the threat of lethal force is what makes politics and law more than a game out of which anyone could opt at any time.

But most of our life-and-death choices are abstract; their costs are diffused and distant. We are insulated from those costs by layers of institutions we have created to specialize in controlled violence (police, prisons, armies) and to direct that violence (legislatures, courts). As such, the lessons those choices teach seldom become personal to most of us.

Nothing most of us will ever do combines the moral weight of life-or-death choice with the concrete immediacy of the moment as thoroughly as the conscious handling of instruments deliberately designed to kill. As such, there are lessons both merciless and priceless to be learned from bearing arms — lessons which are not merely instructive to the intellect but transformative of one’s whole emotional, reflexive, and moral character.

The first and most important of these lessons is this: it all comes down to you.

This is the beginning of a short but thoughtful essay on the ethical nature of owning or carrying a firearm by Eric S. Raymond.

When it comes to firearms, most of us focus on the purely practical most of the time. We talk about caliber. We ask questions about law. We train on tactics. This is as it should be since guns are practical tools.

However, if you take on the responsibility of knowing how to use a firearm for self defense, it doesn’t hurt to think a little more deeply about that responsibility. This essay suggests four ethical lessons every gun owner should know and it’s worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.