The prompt for this question comes from a 2008 essay titled, “The Ethics of Gun Control.” I didn’t read the entire essay because the website requires an ongoing subscription to read the whole thing. But the opening lines were provocative: “The phrase ‘Gun Control’ means different things to different people. One bumper sticker states that ‘Gun Control means hitting your target.’”
In any setting, the mere mention of controlling gun ownership is controversial. My focus is not writing about gun control, it’s whether ethics matters to those who write about gun control.
For example, the pro side of the gun control debate argues that, “Guns don’t kill people—people kill people.” Literally true. Guns don’t murder. Humans do. But is the argument itself subject to any ethical norms?
Nonfiction is by definition true. Essays, op-eds, ads, political platforms, and speeches about gun control ought, at a minimum, be true.
Let’s call truth Ethical Norm Number One when writing about gun control.
Another writer insisted that , “A deeper analysis is needed, one that identifies the beliefs underlying the arguments surrounding gun ownership. Why do people want to own high-powered weapons? And do they have a point?” Her article was about gun ownership as opposed to gun control. She posed “protection” as the point. “This is the primary line when it comes to gun ownership – criminals exist, ergo I must protect myself. Regardless of the best efforts of law enforcement, mental health and education services, violence will always exist and neither prevention nor enforcement will ever be 100% effective.”
Clarity. I’ll label that Ethical Norm Number Two.
Example number three is an article about differentiating gun control from gun violence. The author, Colette Berg, said, “Most peoples’ opinions on gun control are based on intuition and personal experience rather than data. Good data about gun violence is hard to find, because Congress has refused to provide funding for gun violence research since 1996.”
Data-based. Ethical Norm Number Three.
In a strong essay entitled, “It’s Time to Stop the Madness,” Dr. Steven Mintz argued, “Dozens of mass killings have occurred in a variety of locations during the past ten years in the U.S. Sadly, now we must add to the list the mass killing of 17 school children and wounding of 14 more last Wednesday by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Coral Springs, Florida. Many people blame our mental health system for the violence. The problem is those who first encounter mentally disturbed people, like Nikolas Cruz, may not be capable of dealing with the complex issues of mental health. We need to fix the problem before it becomes a problem because we’ll never identify all the red flags of all the people who seem determined to act out in violent ways. We need a new approach. It should start with mental health evaluations in schools. If we begin at the K-5 level, then it will become ingrained in our culture that mental health evaluation is part of every school curriculum for every child, every year. I know, it may not help. But we need to do something dramatic.”
Solution-driven. That is Ethical Norm Number Four.
Four ethical norms is a good start. Writers by the thousands are writing about gun control, gun ownership, gun violence, and solutions to the epidemic we all face every day. We should write ethically by applying these four ethical norms: Is your writing true? Is it clear? Is it data based? And is it solution driven? While there are many more ethical tests, these four are essential when writing about guns and their role in 21St Century America.
If all else fails, readers might remember that the issue never was the Second Amendment. It’s always been gun sales, not gun ownership, driving the debate.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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