"There is only one power that determines the course of history . . . the power of ideas." — Ayn Rand
Friday, December 21, 2012
Gun Control Should Focus On Principles, Not Guns
The recent horrific, heart-wrenching massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut has once again thrust the issue of gun control into the forefront of national dialogue. And once again, there appears to be movement towards some kind of political consensus for increased restrictions on the ownership of guns. Whether this will lead to legislation, or fade once again into the background, remains to be seen.
In any event, it is an important topic. To have a rational discussion, we must begin with some basics. The first and most important questions to ask are:
Does an individual have a right to self-defense? How should that right be implemented in law?
"...to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men..."
Those famous words are, of course, from the Declaration of Independence, and they refer to the individual's "unalienable Rights [to] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Why must governments be created to secure--or protect--individual rights?
As Ayn Rand, who solidified the philosophical case for individual rights and the proper purpose of government, explains:
"Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.
"The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.
"The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative."
But, as Rand explains:
"The use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens. Peaceful coexistence is impossible if a man has to live under the constant threat of force to be unleashed against him by any of his neighbors at any moment. Whether his neighbors’ intentions are good or bad, whether their judgment is rational or irrational, whether they are motivated by a sense of justice or by ignorance or by prejudice or by malice-the use of force against one man cannot be left to the arbitrary decision of another."
"If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.
"This is the task of a government—of a proper government—its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.
"A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws.
"There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement."
Some questions arise. When the people consent to delegate their right of self-defense to the government, is this delegation complete and total? Since the government's job is to protect its citizens from the initiation of physical force, does it follow that the citizen may no longer act in his own defense under any circumstances?
The Founding Fathers' stand on these questions is made blazingly clear in the Second Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." To my knowledge, Rand did not specifically address the issues raised by these questions or of gun control. However, from the principles she laid down as well as the Second Amendment, we can extrapolate some answers.
It is generally recognized that a citizen may act in his own self-defense, including with the use of physical force, in the rare circumstance when he or others near him are in imminent danger. It's obvious why: government's agents--the police--can not be everywhere at once.
The delegation of the right of self-defense to the government is not unconditional and total. The right of self-defense is fundamentally an inalienable individual right, which means that in any circumstance in which the government is not there to protect an individual, that individual retains the right to take appropriate actions to defend his life and property.
It follows, then, that the individual citizen must retain the right to possess the means by which to defend himself from the objectively demonstrable threats that may occur whenever the government is not there to protect him. In other words, he must be legally free to possess weapons at least equal to those available to domestic criminals who, by definition, operate outside of the law. The right of self-defense--a corollary of the more fundamental right to life--is a sham without the legal right to possess adequate means to defend oneself.
Since the government properly must have a legal monopoly on the use of physical force, it must have the right to objectively define when a private citizen may use defensive or retaliatory force, as well as what kind of force to use. It would be entirely appropriate, for example, for the law to forbid the ownership of weapons that exceed the necessary capacity to stop a criminal in the act. Rocket launchers, chemical weapons, tanks, and the like would fit into this category.
What should we make of the current move to ban so-called "assault weapons?" Frankly, I don't know. I don't own any guns, and never have, and I don't have any expertise on the subject of weaponry. But that question must be answered in the context of the principle of the right of adequate self-defense.
Since rights are unalienable and held equally by all people at all times, it follows that--aside from people who are objectively demonstrable threats to society like convicted violent criminals or the insane--no one should be denied the right to own legally permitted guns--that is, weapons commensurate with the domestic threats present.
Nor should laws be so stringent so as to effectively make gun ownership impossible. A basic criminal and mental background check, along with basic training in the guns being purchased, is all that should be required to own a gun. Securing a gun license should be as easy and routine for responsible citizens as securing a drivers license.
As the Second Amendment states, the right to bear arms is "necessary to the security of a free State." We need more security. We need more defense against violent criminals in the act of commission. Sadly, there were no trained, armed citizens available to secure that school. We must stop demonizing guns. It is simplistic and infantile. Guns exist. They have been invented. Get over it. A law can no more rid society of guns than prohibition could rid society of alcohol. The horse is gone, so forget about closing the barn doors. We must recognize, as the Founders did, that guns employed in the capacity of self-defense--whether in the hands of police or private citizens--is a good and necessary thing. Is there nothing we can do to prevent future mass murders, or reduce crime in general? Not at all. Expanding, not restricting, the ability of self-defense is the answer. The Second Amendment also sanctions "A well regulated Militia." We already have volunteer private neighborhood watch groups. We have unarmed, crime-patrol organizations like the Guardian Angels. Why not trained, armed, licensed-to-carry private militias embedded in the population, to supplement the police, who are usually called after a crime is in motion, and arrive after the fact? For many, particularly on the Left, "gun control" is a back-door means of banning guns. We must reject this approach outright. Restricting the ownership of guns in the hands of law-abiding, responsible citizens is wrong. Any gun control laws that violate the principle of individual self-defense are morally invalid and, in practical terms, counterproductive. Every responsible citizen who chooses to equip himself for self-defense--whether on his own property or at large--is a potential defender of others. The idea that alienating the private, law-abiding citizen from his right of self-defense against armed criminals can somehow reduce illegal gun use is absurd. There can be no right to life apart from the right of self-defense.