The Aurora Trajedy and the Right To Bear Arms

July 21, 2012

Government, Second Amendment

I am continually amazed that the tragedies such as the slayings in Aurora don’t motivate Americans to set more limits on gun control. Clearly easy access to weapons makes slayings of this sort easier. Don’t you agree? Were we to limit access to such weapons and put more restrictions on guns, these kinds of slayings would be more difficult. Why don’t we limit access to weapons like assault rifles, shotguns and so forth? “Because Americans have a natural right to bear arms.”

That’s baloney. The problem with the NRA and other defenders of our right to bear arms is that they don’t understand anything about liberty, our natural rights or our American Bill of Rights. How so?

First, there is no natural right to have guns. Even if you believe in natural rights (and there are reasons to have doubts about the concept which I talk about elsewhere), there is no natural right to acquire weapons. There is a natural right to life and to self-preservation. But what that right means is subject to interpretation and implementation by a society.

For example, one could argue that I have a right to life and therefore should be able to have weapons of mass destruction to protect myself against other individuals or even my government. Hardly anyone would take that position, I hope. Which shows you that most people (even those who defend the right to bear arms) realize that society can put limits on how we can prepare ourselves to defend ourselves. We won’t let every homeowner have a nuclear weapon because of the risk to others, even if such a right might deter others from attacking that homeowner. By the same token, we don’t let people drive tanks down the city streets, even though that might preserve their lives more effectively than driving a car, which is an instrument of death.

We implicitly recognize society’s right to limit our freedom by virtue of living together. That is the definition of liberty by classic theorists of liberty, such as John Locke. And it is within the power of a society to define how we balance individuals’ rights against the needs of society.

Some might argue that the American Bill of Rights nonetheless gives us a Right to Bear Arms. However, this is a specious argument as well. To begin with, it is not at all clear what rights in the Bill of Rights were conceptualized by the founders as “natural  rights” versus “civil rights.” The distinction has all but vanished from our vocabulary. But the founders and the philosophers they relied on distinguished between natural rights, which belonged to everyone, from civil rights that individual societies chose to protect. It seems the Bill of Rights is intended as some mixture of both since it protects freedom of conscience and the press, among others. Clearly freedom of the press can’t be a natural right since “the press” doesn’t exist in nature.  Furthermore, as amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is subject to revision and change. And therefore there is recognition implicitly that these Amendments can be adjusted. If they were natural rights, how could they be adjusted? One does not see, for example, the right to life and liberty listed in general, signaling that the basic core natural rights did not need to be mentioned, only the implementation of rights that the founders thought important to protect.

Furthermore, I have written elsewhere about the meaning of the second amendment’s Right to Bear Arms. It is clear that this amendment may have been more concerned with protecting the rights of the states to have militias  than specifically the rights of individuals. But even if this was not the case and the right was intended as protection of individuals’ rights to bear arms, there is no reason that we cannot make a change.

Arms in the time of the founders did not have the power they do today. We did not have assault rifles and machine guns. The Constitution envisions our ability to change it.  It is time to say no to the NRA and to remember that liberty is also about the right to live with security and to make decisions as a community in line with our values. We can set limits on guns while staying true to our values of liberty.

What do you think?


“In the last 60 days the suspected perpetrator bought four weapons legally at two Colorado gun shops, authorities said. The weapons included an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, and a .40 caliber Glock handgun, said Chief Oates, and all three were believed to have been used inside the theater.” NYTimes

John Locke on Freedom

Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us…a liberty for everyone to do what he lists [i.e. likes], to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, …a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man… (Second Treatise §22)


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