Do we have a natural right to bear arms? Or is it some other kind of right?
The answer would seem to be important in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, as we try to come to terms with the place of guns in America. Everyone is talking recently about “gun rights.” Those who want to protect “gun rights” argue the right is based on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights. But what kind of right is the right to bear arms? Is it a natural right or a civil right?
This is an interesting question and goes to the heart of the problem of the very concept of natural rights and the problem of arguing we have “gun rights.” The answer would seem to be important as we try to decide how to respond to trajedies such as Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Could there be such a right to bear arms in nature when arms had not yet been manufactured? Does the right to bear arms not already suppose the existence of arms that one can have a right to bear? And does not the manufacture of arms imply the existence of human communities that invented them?
In what sense then can the right to bear arms be a “natural right” that precedes social life? Or rather, is the right to bear arms just an extension of the right to protect myself, by any means, which is an extension of my core natural right to life? But again, what is a valid extension of my right to life and who gets to decide?
Is it clear that my right to life can be extended to guns that are invented by humans? And if guns, why not a right to bear nuclear weapons? Where and how do we draw the lines between what is permitted to protect myself and what is not? Does nature tell us where those lines are or are those civil lines we draw and who gets to set them?
If it is society that draws the lines between natural and civil rights, as I believe it is, then how can anyone claim the right to bear arms is a natural right, as if those rights do not emerge from a social decision making process? And if it is a social decision of what ways to allow people to protect themselves, then why can’t we set limits and rules on the type of guns to sell and how they are sold? If we can set laws against people owning nuclear weapons, why can’t we also draw the line broader to include assault rifles and to ensure everyone has a background check?
The point I am making is a simple one but profound. Even if there are natural rights which are self-evident in nature, prior to human society, there is always an interpretation in society of how those rights get implemented. Societies are always involved in drawing lines and limitations when it interprets rights. The right to bear arms is no different. Even if we grant it such a right is “natural,” how that right gets implemented in a liberal society is by through a democratic process that brings values to bear in implementing the right. What counts then as a natural right is never clear in the abstract and always involves a matter of applying a set of values in a specific culture.
Of course we have the right to set limits on what types of guns are sold and by whom and under what conditions. That is the very process by which a right gets defined in a society that protects liberty.