Gun Control and the Trolley Problem

It seems that the gun control debate is going forever through the same cycle of arguments:

“Gun freedom increases gun crime and gun accidents and costs us lives!” cry the gun control supporters, and they are of course right.

“Guns let victims protect themselves and create deterrence, thus saving lives! Besides, gun crime effect is not obvious!” cry the gun control opponents, and they are of course right, too.

Is it about saving lives? If so, seems like the debate would boil down to solving a mathematical equation. We could list all the terms:

  • A: Lives lost to gun accidents
  • B: Lives lost to increased gun crime
  • C: Lives lost due to “stray bullets” in that increased gun crime
  • X: Lives saved due to victim’s ability to protect themselves
  • Y: Lives saved due to crimes that go uncommitted because of deterrence factor

So it seems that all that is left is to decide whether A + B + C is greater than X + Y or not.

Well, not that simple.

To see why, consider a well-known trolley problem, which is discussed a lot in ethics.

T1: Imagine a train without brakes running down the tracks, towards 5 people tied to the track and unable to move. You did not cause this, and are not the driver of the train. You can throw a lever and divert the train, but it is bound to hit a single person, who is, quite inconveniently, also tied to the tracks.

What do you choose?

The utilitarian view is that you should throw the lever, because, well, 5 is greater than 1. Virtue ethics may disagree – because it is better to be not involved than responsible for the one death. And there are other schools as well.

What makes the trolley problem so important for the gun control debate is that it highlights the relevance (or lack thereof) of this “life math” to guide your decisions. To see how, let’s restate the gun control problem in these terms:

G1: You are a government of a nation N. You can allow your people to have guns, and your main statistician tells you that A+B+C people will die every year. You can confiscate guns from your people, and your main statistician tells you that X+Y people will die every year. Given that A+B+C > X+Y, will you act by collecting the guns, or refrain from action, allowing the guns?

So, it seems like if you know the answer to the trolley problem, you could settle the gun control debate (or at least reduce it to math and stats). Of course, there is no single agreed-upon answer to the trolley problem, but it gets even more complicated.

In the original problem, the choice you have is between an action (throw the lever) and inaction (do nothing). However, it can be claimed that anything that government does (or does not do) is an action. So, the government can be seen as “acting” if it refrains from introducing gun controls – similar to the driver of the train. When we evaluate the actions of the driver, we do not consider whether or not a lever was moved, we just look where the train actually went – provided this was not a genuine mistake.

So, let’s restate the trolley problem:

T2: Imagine a train without brakes running down the tracks, towards 5 people tied to the track and unable to move. You did not cause this, but you ARE the driver of the train. You can throw a lever and divert the train, but it is bound to hit a single person, who is, quite inconveniently, also tied to the tracks.

The two problems (T1 and T2) are not equivalent. Some people (like me) may think they have different solutions. Therefore, it is crucial to decide whether the government is the “driver” – which means, responsible for everything that happens – or an uninvolved party, at least when it comes to preventing gun accidents.

This is another difficult problem, and it has to do with what the proper role of government should be.

But it doesn’t end there.

Additional detail is the problem of political legacy. The government may come into power when gun control is already in place. Is it considered “acting” by cancelling it? Let’s state our trolley problem again:

T3: Going along the tracks, you accidentally kick a lever and it changes position. Just as you think about moving it back to where it was, you see the train coming on without brakes. You also realize that if you move the lever to where it was originally, 5 people will die, whereas if you leave it, one person will die.

Before we continue, my solutions to all these problems are as follows:

T1: do not touch the lever, and watch 5 people die. You are not responsible for their deaths, as you did not bring about that situation. If you throw the lever, you will be responsible for the single person’s death.

T2: throw the lever. You are the driver responsible for where the train goes, and must choose between the lesser of two evils. Your physical action or inaction is irrelevant, any and all choices you make regarding train’s direction are action, so even if you do nothing, you’ll still be responsible for the death of 5 people.

T3: move the lever back and watch 5 people die. If you leave it in place, you will be responsible for killing the one man; however, if you move it back, everything will be left in its “natural” state, as if you had not been involved at all.

As you see, in order to settle the gun control debate, we need to answer not one, but two very difficult philosophical questions. One is the “trolley problem” (in all three versions T1-T3), and the other is whether or not the government is in the “driver” position regarding gun safety. Depending on the answers, we may also need to actually answer the statistical question whether or not A+B+C is greater than X+Y.

This only means one thing – the gun control debate will never be settled.

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