Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: How Do I Deal With a Gun at a Relative’s Home?

August 13, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “How Do I Deal With a Gun at a Relative’s Home?

The patriarch of our large family came out of the closet as an elderly man nearing the end of his life; he now has a husband who is much younger, whom I will call Tim. The family embraced Tim, but the adjustment has been rocky, especially among some of the men. Tim has earned back this trust by being both husband and physical caretaker of our ailing relative. One recent evening, while his husband was ill, Tim and I sat alone in their home. The conversation turned to gun politics; I’m a closeted gun rights sympathizer. Perhaps sensing some undue camaraderie, Tim stole away to the foyer, then returned with an unloaded black shotgun and ammunition. Tim told me not to mention this to our family — or to my relative, who doesn’t know about the shotgun even though they live together. We also have children in the family, who visit Tim and his husband with frequency, and I’m well aware of the statistics about households that keep guns. I plan to advise Tim at least to move the gun elsewhere, out of the house. However, that does not seem to be enough. Having the gun in the house suggests a lack of judgment; it seems like a serious breach of trust and, God forbid, potentially dangerous. Doesn’t this directly contravene Tim’s claim to being a responsible caretaker, an ethical impetus that overrides confidentiality? Another twist: I also know that if the gun (or ammunition) were discovered, it could be just the excuse our extremely anti-gun family needs to disavow Tim. This seems like a bitter pileup of issues — gay equality, gun safety and family loyalty. Name Withheld

My response: Your contradictions complicate answering. Do you support gun rights or consider them unethical? Why do you add “back” in “earned back his trust”? Why “patriarch” and not uncle, father-in-law, or whatever?

You may consider guns dangerous, but people who own them consider them safe. You probably consider cars and airplanes safe, even when used properly. I consider them dangerous. Will you stop flying? If not, then why should he get rid of the gun? You consider it dangerous, not him. From his perspective, what if a robber comes? Or if he wants to go hunting?

I would like to see fewer guns, but I long ago recognized that people like having them, many for safety. What do tolerance and support mean if not for people you disagree with? Beyond having the law on their side, they have the Bill of Rights. If you want him to get rid of the gun, I recommend talking to him and leading him, not trying to use authority, such as trying to get the New York Times to label it unethical. He considers it ethical and its his house.

You can tell other family members about it, which will cause great disruption, possibly tearing up your “patriarch”‘s relationship.

I recommend considering your options, creating new ones if possible, considering your resources and constraints, imagining their outcomes as best you can, and choosing among them based on empathy and compassion.

The New York Times response:

Let’s be clear: Tim didn’t show you an Altoids tin filled with crystal meth. Provided he has the necessary permits, he is entitled to keep a gun in his home. The largest danger posed by firearms in the household is that they will be used for suicide, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of gun deaths. I assume you don’t think he or your relative is at risk for that. (If they were, the solution would involve more than getting rid of a weapon.) True, there’s good evidence that people living in homes with guns are more likely to be homicide victims as well. And obviously, accidents with guns do occur, and you need guns around to have accidents with them. But a reasonable person who knows all this might decide to keep a gun. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 44 percent of American households have at least one gun. Tim’s not depressive or alcoholic — or you would have mentioned it — and it’s his home.

Certainly, guns should be stored where children can’t get at them; Tim should keep his locked up. (Maybe he does.) But I don’t agree that having an unloaded gun, even with its ammunition nearby, is evidence that you’re not a responsible spouse and caretaker. Our country is full of responsible spouses and caretakers who have guns stored safely in their houses.

In our divided country, though, people who disagree about gun ownership and regulation seem to be split into two great tribes. Each regards those on the other side as not just mistaken about policy but also wicked or corrupt. (For what it’s worth, I think guns should be more heavily regulated; I don’t think gun ownership is wicked.) The members of your family are on one side of the divide; Tim is on the other. Because of this, telling your kinfolk he has a gun, which he showed you in confidence, will give them an excuse to do what some of them are inclined to do anyway, which is repudiate him.

You don’t quite explain the basis of that inclination; family dynamics are complicated, and this patriarch’s new household falls into the Grace Paley category of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. But your mention of gay equality suggests that you think some of it has to do with their being disconcerted by their patriarch’s pairing off with a man. That is, you fear they would use the permissible prejudice against gun owners to excuse the now impermissible prejudice against gay people. In these circumstances, sharing the confidence seems not only wrong in itself but also likely to lead to some people’s behaving badly. The only reason to tell them would be if you thought the children were at risk because of it, and that need not be the case.

The problem with Tim’s conduct isn’t having the gun; it’s not letting his husband know he has it. That is a breach of trust, especially if Tim knows your relative would disapprove. I said it’s Tim’s home. But it’s not just his home. You could wonder whether someone who keeps that sort of secret fully respects his spouse. So provided Tim can assure you that the gun is stored safely when the kids visit, I’d focus on persuading him to tell his husband he has it. Unlike you, his husband is in a position to ask that the gun go, if that’s how he feels. If Tim won’t tell him, you may have to consider telling him yourself. The duty of confidentiality can be overridden by sufficiently weighty considerations. But getting in between two spouses, even if one of them is a close relation, is a pretty serious step.


I am an American and recent college graduate teaching English to children in China. When I arrived, I had no teaching experience whatsoever, and I did not study anything in college related to English or teaching. I recently found out that I make about twice as much money as local Chinese teachers, who all studied English and teaching in university, have advanced teaching certificates and usually have at least a few years of teaching experience. The company I work for explains this by saying that Chinese teachers get a fair, competitive wage for the city we are in, and that native English speakers would not be attracted at anything close to this wage. And yet it seems so immoral that I should get paid far more. What can I do to lessen my guilt? Name Withheld

My response: Learn and practice social and emotional skills. Not to pitch my book, Leadership Step by Step, but the first three-quarters of it cover aspects of personal leadership.

You don’t have to be a slave to your emotions. Through working on your self-awareness, environment, beliefs, behavior, and such, you can create in yourself the emotions and motivation you want. I teach you to develop them through exercises and experience. Since few schools use such experiential techniques for leadership, few people realize how much you can learn this way, but you can, as my students’ testimonials attest.

The book’s last quarter, by the way, teaches you how to create emotions and motivations in others, which is a major part of leadership.

The New York Times response:

We live in a world where wages are determined, in part, by the sorts of market forces your employers have mentioned. There are lots of ways in which these forces are modified by other ones. Some, like legal regulation, can be legitimate; others, like racial and gender prejudice, are not. Your case doesn’t seem to pose such issues. The company wants native speakers of English; if it paid them what it paid its Chinese teachers (who are getting a competitive wage in the local market), it would have fewer or none. You are working a long way from home and, presumably, for a limited time. I don’t think you need to feel bad about the premium you currently command.

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