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Rifles are displayed at Coastal Trading and Pawn, Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
Rifles are displayed at Coastal Trading and Pawn, Monday, July 18, 2022, in Auburn, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
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Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a to Maryland’s 2013 Firearms Safety Act. Maryland is one of ten states who have active assault weapons bans with California having some of the most restrictive gun laws in America. Most of these assault weapons bans tend to focus on semi-automatic rifle platforms like the AR-15 given that they are among the most lethal kinds of guns available. 

Whether an assault weapons ban is justified is highly dependent on the values of a society. Among high-income countries in the western world, America places special importance on preserving as many freedoms as is reasonable. Many of our European cousins object to such claims but it’s difficult to resist the thought when we look at the sorts of legislation enacted in countries like the UK and France. 

In the UK you need a “special reason” to carry a chef’s knife in your car and in France children are banned from wearing religious symbols in schools including the Christian cross and hijabs. Naturally, many European countries have implemented strict gun laws, banning civilians from owning most kinds of firearms.

America’s resistance to the sort of gun reform that has taken place in European countries is essentially a case where we’ve committed ourselves to a trade-off between freedom and  safety. 

Gun rights supporters may shy away from stating that they’re choosing greater freedom over the lives of fellow Americans. They may claim that their opposition to gun control is substantially motivated by preserving our ability to defend ourselves and thus, that resisting gun control is in actuality prioritizing safety. 

But if we look at all of the available evidence, preserving our right to bear arms is not about safety. The US has the highest rate of gun violence among highly developed countries. Are we supposed to conclude from this that guns make us safer? It may make me as an individual safer in the event that a criminal enters my home, but it doesn’t make us safer as a society.

Instead, gun rights advocates should embrace their commitment to prioritizing freedom over safety. It’s arguably just as acceptable for a country to choose greater safety over freedom, like the Europeans have done, as it is to choose greater freedom over safety. 

The 2nd amendment isn’t the only instance where we have to choose between competing interests where freedom is involved. In fact, we make trade-offs like this all the time. We could improve the quality of life of millions of people and add years to life expectancy if we outlawed junk food, alcohol, and tobacco. 

We choose to allow people to die early because even millions of premature deaths and of dollars in lost economic productivity are not enough to outweigh our interest in preserving those freedoms. 

The prioritization of freedom over safety isn’t absolute. You must prove that you can competently operate a car by acquiring a license and you must be wearing a seatbelt while doing so. By requiring seat belts, we are sacrificing only a small amount of freedom, while significantly improving safety. 

Gun rights supporters should argue that our right to bear arms outweighs whatever improvements in safety we would get from implementing assault weapons bans like those in California. According to a 2023 conducted by the RAND Corporation, there is little evidence that assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans decrease mass shootings. 

The lack of evidence doesn’t entail that these bans wouldn’t decrease gun violence overall. But in order to justify assault weapons bans, we need more conclusive evidence that they work and the improvement in safety must be significant. 

Despite what some may think, the right to bear arms isn’t frivolous. Firearms are an important cultural artifact for many Americans, perhaps even equivalent to cultural features like food and religion. It should not be underestimated how recreational shooting, hunting, and self-defense may be deeply tied to the identities of millions of people. 

When there is such a strong interest for individuals to be able to own guns, it’s not enough to simply point to a slight increase in safety, particularly in a society like ours where freedom is especially prized. 

Rafael Perez is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Rochester. You can reach him at rafaelperezocregister@gmail.com.

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