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What Should I Do With My Late Son’s Gun?

Not long ago, our son died by suicide. Since his tragic death, our family set up a memorial fund to support need-based scholarships for young classical musicians from underrepresented communities, as well as prize money for talented young musical artists.

After his death, we found a handgun among our son’s belongings, which we placed in a safe deposit box. Now that we have the documentation to transfer ownership, we are questioning our impulse to sell the gun and donate the proceeds to our son’s music fund. (The gun is worth around $500.)

On the one hand, selling the gun and donating the proceeds allows us to keep his memory alive through our support of young classical musicians. On the other hand, we are terrified that the gun might be resold to the wrong person, who could use it to kill themselves, or others. Our other option is to surrender the firearm to the police, who will then destroy it. Which option is ethically correct? Name Withheld

There are a few ways of looking at the situation. Perhaps you’re concerned about whether the handgun will be used to cause harm. Last year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, about 45,000 people died from firearms in our country; and yet because we have, by some estimates, almost 400 million firearms in civilian possession, the chance of any particular weapon being used to kill someone in any given year is vanishingly small, something like one in 10,000. (The odds might be different for a recently acquired handgun.) Even so, you could feel that making another handgun available is a symbolic participation in a culture that has resulted in an appallingly high rate of gun deaths. You might also consider how handgun ownership shifts the probabilities of harm. Most gun deaths are suicides, and according to a California study covering handgun ownership over a dozen years, owning one is associated with much higher chances of killing yourself with a firearm — women who owned handguns, in particular, were 35 times more likely to die that way than women who didn’t.

Or you could, in light of the money you’d get from the sale, try for a financial analysis. Here’s a back-of-the-envelope line of thought (and let me underline that these numbers shouldn’t be taken too seriously). Various government agencies, looking at various industries, have made different calculations of the “value of a statistical life,” with slightly different results — reflecting what people are willing to pay to avoid a death — but a typical estimate is somewhere around $11 million in today’s dollars. A one-in-10,000 chance of an $11 million event has a value of $1,100. So the expected cost in just the first year more than offsets the $500 gained for your good cause.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t reflect everything that matters morally. For one thing, your son’s gun might be used to cause harms other than death. Not all injuries are fatal, and people often use handguns to scare or threaten others, including intimates. In theory, the gun could also be used to prevent harm, though here the odds are lower still. To be clear: We shouldn’t think about the value of a lost life simply in terms of the amount of money we’re typically willing to spend to avoid a death. But this crude arithmetic is surely an argument in favor of destroying this weapon, especially if you’re concerned about suicide prevention.

You could think about the handgun, finally, the way you might think about cigarettes. A carton of cigarettes is exceedingly unlikely to give anyone cancer; most smokers don’t get cancer, anyway. Nonetheless, you have reason not to traffic in cigarettes, because collectively, smoking drives up cancer rates, causing untold amounts of illness and death.

And then there’s your own peace of mind. Once a gun is sold, it can be resold and resold, and your knowledge of what the gun might do in other hands seems likely to haunt you. That’s a harm in itself, and avoiding it is surely worth the proceeds you’d forfeit.

My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in June. He recently had to renew his driver’s license. The form asks if you have been diagnosed with any disease in the last 12 months that may affect your driving. It specifically lists Parkinson’s as an example. Before my husband went to renew his license, I told him this. When he came home, he said they never asked. Obviously, they expect people to tell the truth when they sign the form. He didn’t. If he had, they would have evaluated his driving. Although I think his reaction times are slower than they used to be, I feel confident that he would have passed the evaluation. But I am still very bothered by the fact that he lied. If he did have an accident and hurt someone, I would always wonder if his Parkinson’s had something to do with it — and, consequently, if I had something to do with it by keeping his secret. I also worry that insurance might not cover an accident if it is discovered that he lied. His doctor is in another state, so it isn’t likely that the D.M.V. will find out that way. What is my role here? Honestly, I can’t see myself reporting him, but I feel as if I’ve been dragged into a lie that I don’t want to be part of. Name Withheld

You shouldn’t report him behind his back — that would be a serious violation of the marital relationship. But your worries are well founded: It’s a bad idea to lie on a government form, especially about an important question. In this case, the question he lied about is one that the state has good reason to ask, and besides, he himself ought to be concerned about whether he can pass the evaluation. Many people with Parkinson’s can drive safely; but unfit motorists imperil not only themselves but also others. His doctors can refer him for an assessment from a driving rehabilitation specialist. You should insist that he get one.

I am a single female, and several months ago I met a guy online with whom I had a great connection. We had two amazing dates, and then one weekend night he came over a little drunk. I thought nothing of it until the next morning, when he woke up at my apartment and started drinking gin — straight. It became clear at that moment that he was an alcoholic.

After that, we became closer emotionally. But whenever I saw him, he was always intoxicated. A few months ago, I told him that I would not see him while he was drunk, and I have held to that. I still talk to him on the phone, though. He says he wants to stop drinking and also talks about being curious about sobriety (he reads about it and listens to podcasts about it). He says alcohol is ruining his life.

I empathize with him — I myself struggled with addiction into my 20s, and it wasn’t until a failed suicide attempt that I was forced to get help. My mother was instrumental in getting me that help. Because of rehab, medication and continued therapy, I have been well for more than a decade now.

So my question is this: Can I ethically tell his family that he is an alcoholic? He broke his leg while he was drunk five years ago, and his family stepped in and he stopped drinking for a year. Then he started again. And according to him, during the pandemic his drinking became exponentially worse. His family has no idea — they still think he is sober.

I worry that his “rock bottom,” like mine, will be something horrible, like hurting or killing himself or someone else. I want to help prevent that, but I worry that my judgment is influenced by my feelings. After all, he has not specifically asked me for help or to help get him into treatment. Do I tell his parents and sibling, with whom he is very close, that he has relapsed? Name Withheld

You say he hasn’t asked for your help; you don’t say that he’s asked you to keep his ongoing drinking problem a secret from his kin. Given his past, you could appropriately invite his family members to try to intervene. But urge him to come clean with them first.

I notice, by the way, that your conversations with this man seem, in no small part, to be about how he could be a different man. The reality is that he might achieve lasting sobriety or he might not. And relationships based on a conditional — on people’s being other than who they are — must themselves be conditional.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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