As I watched the nation’s response to the latest wave of gun violence, a lesson on rights taught by my philosophy GSI during my sophomore year came to mind. Rights are great, he effectively said. The problem is that everyone has them.
When two people’s rights conflict, in a sense, they cancel out the imperative nature of the other’s right. Deciding what to do based on what’s required to uphold someone’s right is no longer adequate when two rights necessitate mutually exclusive action. The decision remains over what should be done.
Rights are central to the gun control debate. Many individuals — as well as the Supreme Court — interpret the Second Amendment to mean that Americans have the right to own and carry guns. But there is another right at stake as well — the right to life.
When the founders drafted the Constitution, they originally omitted a guarantee of specific personal liberties out of fear that it would be interpreted as an exclusive list. The Bill of Rights was later added with the clear message that the enumerated rights were not the only ones worthy of protection.
The right to life was not included in the Bill of Rights, but it’s clear that it underpins the Constitution itself. The Declaration of Independence boldly declared life to be an inalienable right. And really, could anyone enjoy their right to bear arms if they weren’t already alive to do so?
The idea that everyone has the right to live seems obvious; the government’s broad responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens is uncontroversial. It tasks itself with deterring murder, fighting terrorism and subsidizing life-saving health care. In many cases, Americans even tolerate a tradeoff of their personal liberties to enable the government to protect them.
But gun control debates have taken a different tune. Any proposed infringement on individuals’ rights to buy or carry weapons is viewed by many as strictly unconstitutional. Recently, the Senate even voted down a bill to prevent those on the terrorist watch list from buying guns.
The bill was derided for potentially placing an undue burden on a relatively small number of potentially innocent individuals’ rights to purchase weapons without due process because those on the list are suspected — not convicted —teorrist threats. Despite the fact that former President George W. Bush advocated a similar policy in 2007, votes generally fell along party lines and the bill failed.
We have to change the way we talk about gun control. Framing gun control as a clear-cut personal liberties issue inhibits our ability to adequately respond to the specific issue of gun violence, as well as to our broadly construed counterterrorism efforts.
As groups like ISIS strengthen their ability to aid naturalized radicals in carrying out violent attacks, it will be crucial that the federal and state governments have a broader set of policies at their disposal to limit the damage these groups can do. Strict adherence to a pro-gun ideology that hamstrings even basic initiatives to prevent weapons from falling into terrorists’ hands is not a viable way to safeguard Americans against this evolving threat.
Many pro-gun advocates hold that the solution to the gun problem is to simply arm more benevolent bystanders. Friday, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. even encouraged his students to carry weapons to protect themselves and others. In their view, there is no tradeoff between respecting individuals’ right to carry guns and protecting their right to live safe from gunfire. According to their argument, the only thing standing in the way of a safer society is the fact that more people don’t go about their days armed and ready to shoot an active gunman.
This argument makes one pivotal assumption: These armed good guys are both capable and willing to shoot another person should it become necessary.
We don’t live in a country full of James Bonds. Shooting is considered a sport for a reason — it’s difficult and most people can’t master it easily. Even hitting a non-moving target at a shooting range is difficult — I’ve tried unsuccessfully on more than one occasion. Accurately targeting a moving gunman amidst all of the chaos inherent in an active-shooter situation may be a higher bar than the average concealed carry licensee could conceivably clear.
There is also little data to support the idea that more guns lead to fewer deaths by gun violence. The number of concealed handgun permits increased more than 15 percent in 2014 alone. Yet, crime rates involving gun violence haven’t fallen. In other countries, lower per capita gun ownership is actually correlated with lower rates of violent crime involving guns.
I come from a family of hunters. I strongly believe that guns have a sizeable, legitimate place in American culture. For those who know how to use and care for their guns responsibly, the weapons also have valuable functions both in sport and personal protection.
The government has a clear obligation to respect its citizens’ right to bear arms. But respect means something very different than what the government is currently doing — uncritically upholding pro-gun policy in all circumstances and at all costs.
Guns have a greater capacity to inflict harm than almost anything else the average American can legally buy. If Americans want to maintain their right to bear arms, they also must respect the power of those weapons. When so many criminals — and increasingly, terrorists — use guns to inflict harm on others, that respect may entail modest limits on who can buy the weapons.
In the wake of recent events, continuing to allow the free sale and carry of guns requires a new attitude toward their regulation. Accepting the unnecessary deaths of innocent Americans is not a necessary requirement of the continued right to bear arms. But using overly simplistic personal rights arguments to posture against common-sense, popularly supported gun law reforms inhibits the government’s ability to protect its citizens with little payoff for gun rights.
Victoria Noble can be reached at email@example.com.