Gun Violence and the Right to Self-Defense

Music industry leaders have issued and signed an open letter to Congress on gun violence.


… it is far too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on guns

We call on Congress to do more to prevent the gun violence that kills more than 90 Americans every day and injures hundreds more, including:

Require a background check for every gun sale
Block suspected terrorists from buying guns [Full Text here]

Certainly, it is far too easy for dangerous people (persons who are violent and mentally ill; terrorists; gangs and other violent criminals) to obtain firearms. And the actions suggested in the petition, as at least the first steps toward reducing gun violence, are measured and reasonable.

As a strong supporter of the fundamental human right to self-defense, I nevertheless support the call for universal background checks. It presents a minor inconvenience when an individual is selling a firearm privately. But the inconvenience is worth the improvement in security for the nation.

Of course, every reasonable person agrees that we should block suspected terrorists from buying firearms. The only point at issue here is how to determine if someone is a *suspected* terrorist, and how an unfairly accused citizen might obtain legal relief from this restriction by due process of law.


The terrorist watch list is a poor way to accomplish that just and reasonable goal. It is not a list of terrorists, but mainly a list of aliases used by terrorists or suspected. The names on the list do not have enough additional information, such as date of birth or address or social security number, etc., to distinguish between the suspect’s alias and other persons with that name. Most persons on the list are not U.S. citizens and are not in the U.S.

The no-fly list is an even worse way to accomplish the goal of keeping guns away from dangerous persons. Certainly, we should keep suspected terrorists from flying and from buying guns. But a person might be reasonably prohibited from flying, even though they are not a terrorist. And some persons who should not own firearms, such as the mentally ill, should still be permitted to travel by plane. These are two very different decisions: who should not fly, and who should not own guns. There is some overlap, but the two groups are not identical. Treating those two groups as if they were identical is idiotic.

Moreover, we all understand how poorly every government bureaucracy works. If the terrorist watch list is used to keep people from owning firearms, it is all too likely that the government will put persons on the terrorist watch list solely because it does not want those persons to own a gun. Veterans who have PTSD or some other serious mental illness should not own firearms. But I’m concerned that the government will place such persons on the terrorist watch list as a means to that end. Yes, government entities are stupid enough to do such a thing.

I’m also concern that political activists, who are non-violent, will end up on that list because the government will not want them to own guns. When the government is liberal, conservative activists might end upon the list. Witness the use of the IRS to target conservative groups. When the government is conservative, the same thing might happen to liberal activist groups. And pro-life or anti-war groups might get the same treatment. They might be disingenuously classified as suspected terrorists, so that they cannot own firearms, as retribution for opposing the government.

If everyone has their heart set on a list of people who cannot buy guns, then it needs to be a separate list, solely for that purpose. And the right of due process of law must be respected. Inevitably some persons will end up on that list who should not be there. Justice requires that there be a way to obtain legal relief from this restriction.


I support the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear firearms for the purpose of self-defense. The right to self-defense is a fundamental human right, and it is necessary, in the current circumstances of modern society, for individuals to be able to defend themselves with a firearm. There is no possibility that, in the short term, we can prevent all criminals and other violent persons from obtaining weapons.

Now if everyone were disarmed, gangs of criminals could still attack, harm, and kill innocents with knives, bats, and other types of weapons. The strong would prey on the weak. But if a law-abiding citizen has a firearm for self-defense, he or she can prevent or stop a serious crime (forcible felony) from harming the innocent.

It is not moral to deprive law-abiding citizens of the fundamental human right of self-defense as a means to the good end of preventing gun violence.

Many famous musicians and actors employ private security guards, who are legally armed. It is reasonable for persons to use firearms in self-defense. Violent crimes and terrorist acts can occur anywhere. Use of gun violence in self-defense can be moral.

Disingenuous Numbers

Where does the “more than 90 Americans every day” figure come from? According to the CDC, 33,636 persons died in the U.S. (2013 data) from firearms. That’s just over 92 persons per day.

The problem is that most of these deaths are not really due to criminal or terrorist violence. Here’s how the CDC breaks down that figure (PDF file)

21,175 — Intentional self-harm (suicide) by discharge of firearms
11,208 — Assault (homicide) by discharge of firearms
505 — Accidental discharge of firearms
467 — Legal intervention with a firearm [an LEO using deadly force]
281 — “Discharge of firearms, undetermined intent”
33,636 deaths from firearms

Now that last figure from the CDC, 281 deaths from “undetermined intent” is a lie. The FBI data for the same year, 2013 gives that same figure, 281 killed, as “Justifiable Homicide by Weapon, Private Citizen”. The CDC is reticent to admit that private citizens can lawfully use deadly force in self-defense. And within those 281 justifiable homicides are 58 per year non-firearms deaths (knives, etc.). So the actual total is 33,578 deaths from firearms (91.99 deaths per day).

Now of these 92 Americans killed each day (on average) by firearms, 58 per day are suicides and roughly one each per day is from accidents, law enforcement officers, and legal self-defense by citizens. About 31 (~30.7) deaths per day are due to criminal assault (homicide) by firearms. The figure “more than 90” is triple the real value, “more than 30”.

Stop Gun Violence Now

Modern culture speaks and acts as if it were all-powerful, as if it could answer every question definitively and solve every problem. But the culture cannot stop sinful persons from obtaining and using weapons against the innocent. People have free will, and people are fallen sinners. So it is not reasonable to assume that, if only the right laws are passed, if only the culture strongly rejects gun violence, everyone will be safe.

We should take reasonable measures to prevent gun violence and terrorism. But we should not speak and act as if prevention will ever be 100% effective, nor as if guns are not useful to stop gun violence and terrorism as it is unfolding. One way to stop gun violence is to prevent dangerous persons from obtaining firearms. Another way is to make certain that the police have the weapons and training needed to stop gun violence and terrorism once it begins. And a third way is to permit law-abiding citizens to keep and bear firearms for use against terrorists and dangerous criminals.

Disarming the populace does not make them safer from violent criminals and terrorists. People who break the law will be able to obtain firearms illegally. And innocent citizens need a way to defend themselves against gun violence. We cannot always wait until the police arrive.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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