With the recent shooting in Florida, there is a reemergent call for gun control. A large number of Americans are asserting emotional appeals that the preservation of our individual right to bear arms in the second amendment is too high a price to pay at the cost of the safety of our children. Or that an individual does not possess a right to own “military-style” rifles. Another common tactic is to temper these lines of logic with platitudes about respect for the second amendment and a respect for the rights of lawful gun owners, but that there is no need for such weapons. Finally, they trot out the ever-popular statistic that the majority of Americans favor “common-sense” gun laws.
Unfortunately, at their core, all these arguments are inherently flawed because of either their intentional or unintentional oversight of natural rights. The only honest and accurate response to such talking points is one that most people are unwilling to say because such statements will naturally be completely distorted from the reality and truth it is grounded in. That truth is that when it comes to upholding the right to absolute gun ownership, or any right for that matter, feelings and emotions are irrelevant and do not matter in this discussion.
Let us look at the actual text: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Note that nowhere in that sentence is the right contingent on “once the justification for possession is provided” or “unless the majority vote to ban them.” And a basic understanding of history is all that is needed to understand why that is.
Classical liberal thought had effectively reached its pinnacle of development by the end of the 18th century with the common acceptance of natural rights, amongst them the right to self-defense. Natural rights are not granted. These are rights we possess in a state of nature and to which others do not have the right to deprive us of whether by our own consent, the legislation of the majority or through the use of force by the state. The Founders had a term for those who deprived individuals of such rights: tyrant. The critical takeaway is that government does not grant us our rights. They are ours simply by a matter of our existence.
The Founding Fathers were well-educated on what constituted liberty and thus they wrote founding documents which sought to clearly enumerate those rights and provide protection against the usurpation by a tyrannical government, as experienced under George III. They created a federal government which was intentionally weak and cumbersome in order that the whims of the citizenry, whom the Founders heavily distrusted with safeguarding liberty, could not be quickly and haphazardly imposed to subvert the individual rights and consolidates power back to the hands of the few over the many. Natural rights are independent rights to be exercised by the individual and are not subject to the whims of others. This historically was aimed at restricting sovereigns and rulers, but also applies to other individuals within a society.
Chief among these rights is the right to life. Along with that right, is the right to take those measures necessary to protect that right, known as self-defense, against either other individuals or the state. If an individual, therefore, reserves the right to life and the right of self-defense, an individual also bears the right to determine and to acquire and possess, those means by which they deem necessary to secure these right, not the state or the will of the majority. Thus, the state reserves no authority to deny an individual the right to bear arms that individual may deem necessary to secure their rights. This was codified well before the establishment of the United States as a sovereign state and is rooted in English common law as an individually recognized right. Thus, it was reiterated by the Founders in the Constitution, as a natural safeguard for the preservation of one’s liberty.
The Constitution is foremost a framework and empowerment of government, not an all-encompassing document regarding the rights of the people. Our Bill of Rights does enumerate several of these natural, negative rights in the first and second amendments. As an added safeguard, the Founders included the 9th amendment so that people would not be confused by the wrongful notion that their lack of enumeration implied that a natural right did not exist. The Founders wanted to ensure that it was plainly known that the government and the will of the majority did not grant us our rights, but existed as part of our natural state.
Thus, gun ownership is among our absolute rights prominently ensconced within the Bill of Rights specifically written to assuage the fears of anti-Federalists who, in retrospect rightfully, believed that the original lack of enumerated rights could be interpreted as a way for the state to deny such rights to the citizenry. Even Federalist’s were willing to acquiesce to this demand that the individual right to bear arms be enumerated, despite claims that such a fear was absurd because individual rights were believed to be common knowledge of the day. Federalists relented to the demand so as to secure the central government they sought without believing they had conceded anything other than a simple enumeration of that which was commonly accepted: that the state had no authority to deprive the citizenry of their arms.
With that background, let us clear up the most prevalent misrepresentation of the second amendment: the popular, and false, narrative that the amendment is worded such that gun ownership is contingent upon membership in the militia. A basic understanding of grammar is all that is needed to accurately interpret this amendment. As expressed in the District of Columbia v. Heller ruling, “the Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause.” In short, the first clause is why, and the second clause is the right. Yes, membership in the militia was compulsory in the 18th century and individual citizens were expected to maintain their own arms, but such militia membership was not the reason that the government was restrained from restricting the individual’s right. Rather, since the militia had taken the role of the standing army and already been used twice to suppress the people, it was history and fear of the dangers of the “well regulated militia” that prompted the Founders to limit the power of the state to disarm the citizenry and deny them the right to self-defense.
The second common misrepresenetation is the nonsensical proposal of “common sense” gun regulations. At the most basic level, there is a clear lack of common sense in violating an individual’s natural right. These “common sense” regulations typically fall into two general positions: 1) there is no “need” for specific weapons and 2) certain people should not be eligible to buy any weapon. Each has their own specific failures in logic, and both share some overlapping fallacies.
Let us address the first case of “need” in the broader sense. As we have established earlier, gun possession is a natural right due to its role as a means of self-defense. A natural right requires no justification of “need” or proof of purpose. The right exists of its own accord. A narrower version of this argument is that there is no “need” for “military-style” weapons. Ignoring the arbitrary verbal gymnastics, rights again are not contingent upon validation of a need, much less a validation of the method by which one exercises their right. The determination of the need for such a style of weapon is reserved to the individual based upon their own assessment of what is required to secure their life. Should we require the individual to provide what “need” they have to print a newspaper or post to a blog? Or what “need” they have to practice their faith? We, naturally would not reasonably expect to be required to do so, yet, our society has gradually begun to be misled into believing that the second amendment requires a different level of treatment as our right to free press or religion.
The second case of arguments is that we should inhibit certain select individuals, most popularly the mentally ill, from procuring weapons. So, let us ponder a hypothetical in this situation. Let us impose a regulation prohibiting all people with mental health issues from owning a gun. Common sense, right? But on what authority do we have to deny someone their natural right? Such tyrannous laws are typically justified on the assumption that these individuals will or are more likely to commit crimes with weapons, and therefore we as a society must preemptively strip them of their natural right to self-defense, and yet they have committed no actual crime. Instead, they are arbitrarily presumed to be more likely to commit a crime. Procedurally, ethically, and morally we require due process under the 5th and 14th amendments to deprive someone of such rights. But what crimes have our targeted mentally ill citizens committed that would warrant such a usurpation of liberty? Are we arguing that mental health issues themselves are the crime? If not, then upon what authority do we as a society have to collectively deprive the individual of their liberty without the application of due process? How have we not denied them equal protection under the law, guaranteed to all citizens? The answer to the objective observer is: of course we have treated them differently and thus relegated them to a different status than other citizens.
Finally, the most dangerous argument is the use of statistics that demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans feel that stronger gun control measures should be in place. As discussed above, rights were specifically enumerated to ensure the protection of individuals from tyranny by the state. But commonly overlooked is the equally, if not more so, dangerous tyranny of the masses. Popular acclaim and the demands of the citizenry have long been recognized as a pervasive threat to the liberty of the minority in a democracy. And while democracy remains an essential ally for the preservation of liberty, the steadfast protection of rights against the tyranny of the majority is essential to secure our individual liberties. In no society can the whims of the majority usurp the rights of the individual and be considered free.
This piece is chiefly written regarding the issue of gun rights, but the key points raised are universal across all natural rights. Emotional pleas, individual feelings, or worst-case hypothetical scenarios are not enough to warrant the unlawful suppression of our individual rights. Yet we have already begun seeing the encroachment on our civil liberties under the guise that there are “limits” to our freedom that can be arbitrarily imposed and regulated. This practice can also be seen in the calls for restrictions on speech such as “free speech zones” or prohibitions on “hate speech.” We should all fear a society that is willing to yield its rights, or demand it from others against their consent, to the state; for what limits could we then hold the state accountable to?
Natural rights come with inherent hazards. We chance the opportunity that slander and fabrications may be printed in our newspapers, or for petitioners to advocate for policies that may be based on bigotry or ignorance, or for individuals to commit murder with guns. The instinct of many is to falsely correlate that abolishing these rights will in itself prevent those acts of which we disapprove of, or are outright violations of other’s individual liberties. However, our rights and the free exercise thereof are neither crimes themselves nor the cause of unlawful violations of our liberties by others. It is action in exceedance beyond those rights where unlawfulness resides.
It is popular to use the phrase that rights have limits, but the reality is that it is the rights of others that demarcate the extent of our rights, not limits on the rights themselves. A common example is that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The crime itself is not yelling “fire” or the exercise of free speech. The crime is the incitatement of panic and the violation of other individual’s right to well-being through mass hysteria based on false pretenses. That is the crime, not the recitation of the word “fire.” Even more simply, what immoral act or violation of another’s rights is occurring in my possession of a firearm? Murder, for example, has never occurred due to the free exercise of bearing arms. Murder is when an individual has unlawfully been deprived of their right to life. Arms may be a tool by which such acts may be perpetrated, but the free exercise of that right at no time violated another’s individual right to life, liberty, or property. The act of shooting someone, however, does. But then, the weapon itself is not an act, it is merely a tool. We do not have separate laws for killing another individual, whether by stabbing or shooting. They are both called murder, for murder is the violation of the other individual’s natural right. The tool is irrelevant to the crime that was committed.
So, what is the solution to gun violence? The first step is to recognize this for what it is and what it is not. We do not have a gun problem, we have a violence problem. As a society, we have sufficient laws on hands to deal reactively to such violations of individual rights. What we seek are preventative solutions. Due to the broad range of root causes for violence and the propensity of Americans to do so with firearms, it is not possible to comprehensively address all root causes in a few paragraphs, but as many analysts have come to realize, overarching bans and broad, generalized legislation do very little to actually prevent violence like this and only restrict the vast majority who have committed no crime from exercising their individual rights. Targeted actions at the root causes of violence are far more effective than ineffective legislation. When we as a society look to solve problems, we should be mindful that addressing symptoms does not cure the problem. The use of guns in the perpetration of violence is a mere symptom of an underlying cause. Addressing that cause is the only way to prevent such symptoms from appearing. The tool itself is not the cause of violence. And that root cause is a desire to cause violence against others.
Additional gun laws will do little to prevent these root cause of violence. Laws themselves, at best, deter actions. However, laws have proven one hundred percent ineffective at actually preventing such actions they prohibit from occurring. The law-abiding will be deterred from acting because they do not wish to be branded as a criminal nor suffer the repercussions of such violations, be it a fine or confinement. But those who are intent on committing criminal acts will not be prevented and will do so regardless of whether there is legislation against such action or not. History has born this out to be irrefutable fact. Legislation should serve one primary purpose: to provide objective standards of conduct between individuals in order to preserve individual liberty and those repercussions for such transgressions against said liberties. This is served by laws such as murder. It is not served by laws restricting types, times, or places for exercising individual liberties. Nor does the existence of a law itself, regardless of the size of the majority that voted for it, serve as valid justification for the violation of individual’s natural rights.
To possess a gun, one does not need permission, the permission of the general population, the government’s permission, a demonstration of firearm competency, or even a stated need. Individual liberties and rights will always trump others feelings, tears, fears, opinions, the will of the majority, or the demagoguery of an elected leader. To impose laws that suppress the rights of the individual is tyranny. A firm understanding of why rights are so critical to a free society is far more important than knee-jerk tyrannical responses to fear. Security cannot be bought at the price of liberty. And the cornerstone of liberty and a free society is the recognition and preservation of individual rights.