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A Tragedy in Waiting

The state of Washington just enacted a package of sweeping gun regulations, including an assault weapons ban, a 10-day waiting period for all firearms purchases, and mandatory training for buyers. People are focusing on Olympia’s assault weapons ban, but the most invasive part of the bill is the waiting period.

Waiting periods for firearms purchases disarm murder victims. Who needs a legal firearm urgently? Someone dealing with a stalker, or perhaps a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. In those situations, you can’t rely on the police to provide 24/7 security. 

Now, maybe you think the waiting period will prevent more murders than it causes. That’s doubtful, because criminals generally can’t pass the background check and get their weapons on the black market or by stealing them. 

But let’s suppose it’s the case. The waiting period is still a grave injustice. A thought experiment from philosophers Todd Hughes and Lester Hunt shows us why.

They ask us to imagine a victim of a violent attack, such as a home invasion. Legally and morally, the victim has a right to fight back, including with a gun, if she has one. The victim’s only responsibility is to stop the attack. Now imagine the attacker has an accomplice. The accomplice grabs the victim’s gun and prevents her from firing it.

Is the accomplice acting rightly or wrongly here? Surely disarming the victim by taking away her gun is wrong. It makes the accomplice share the responsibility for whatever happens to the victim. Disarming a victim to allow murder to take place is itself murder.

Now imagine that instead of a criminal’s taking away the victim’s gun, it’s the government. The victim never had a gun, because she couldn’t get one in time. The attacker is then able to complete the crime, because the victim lacked effective means of self-defense. Doesn’t this make the government an accomplice to the crime? What’s the moral difference between disarming a murder victim in advance of the crime and disarming the murder victim during the crime?

When the government violates fundamental rights, it doesn’t matter whether there is a small, net social benefit to doing so. It’s still wrong. Taking away someone’s means of self-defense, making her vulnerable to criminal attacks, is a violation of that person’s rights. Waiting periods for gun purchases do precisely that. 

Since defensive gun uses across the country range in the hundreds of thousands to millions per year, it’s a virtual certainty that at least one person will lack the means of deterring or fighting back against an attacker because of Washington’s 10-day waiting period. That makes the new policy a grave injustice, regardless of what the courts may rule about its constitutionality.

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