Gun Rights Are Human Rights, Guaranteed by Natural Law
In arguing for the wisest public policy proposals to bind our fellow citizens, we must look to the broad vision of human flourishing and the common good that we draw from our Christian heritage.
Doing so prevents us from lapsing into the most common deadly errors that pervade a culture enfeebled by a cheap utilitarianism, which sees the goal of government as maximizing the number of happy moments for the greatest number of voters. We must look to natural law, the law of human flourishing that God wrote on our hearts, which is equally available to pagans and to Christians.
Those of us who are Catholic need to realize that citing Church documents — none of them with infallible authority, by the way — is a feeble means to persuade our fellow citizens and is anyway unnecessary. We have all the tools we need in our God-given reason and the wholesome civic traditions we inherited from British Common Law, whose medieval origins ensured that it served the dignity of the human person, a dignity reinforced by Christ’s incarnation.
On the issue of gun rights and gun control, we are speaking of perhaps the most basic human right imaginable: the right to defend yourself and your family against an immediate threat of violence — either against your person or your hard-earned property. The primary function of the state is more effectively to guard our lives, liberties and property from aggression, coercion and theft.
But the state cannot be everywhere, nor would we want it to be. Given that, there will always be situations where citizens must defend themselves and their families against immediate threats from criminals. That is their inalienable right, and for the state to deprive them of that right would be intrinsically evil. No situation justifies doing what is intrinsically evil. Therefore, no argument of public policy, no appeal to some “seamless garment” or sentimentalized version of Christian non-violence, could ever justify preventing citizens from protecting themselves from violence.
In seeking the common good, of course, we see that rights hang in tension. We must preserve public order and make sure that one person’s attempt to exercise his rights and protect his human dignity does not infringe on someone else’s rights and dignity. Someone who wishes to protect his property from trespassing children, for instance, may surround it with it fence, but not a lethal electric fence. Our efforts to defend our rights must be proportional to the threat and must not directly or through negligence harm the innocent.
Therefore, the state has good reason to regulate the level of lethal force available to private citizens, to make sure that it is proportional to the threats they may face. This means that there is no “one-size-fits-all” firearms regulation appropriate to all people everywhere. Christians living in the lawless parts of Syria, for instance, may well have to own and operate military-grade weapons to protect their families from the depredations of ISIS. For U.S. citizens, such weapons would be totally disproportionate.
In many American cities, violent crime is a constant threat to citizens’ well being — not only to their safety and that of their children, but to the fruits of their hard work. The home, the car, the possessions that a member of the working poor has managed to accumulate might have taken them many years to acquire and could prove impossible to replace. But short of full-on surveillance, there is no way for the state to provide such citizens adequate protection. So these citizens must be allowed to arm themselves in a proportionate manner.
The laws governing self-defense should rightly center first and foremost on the absolute right of each human being, the image of God, to protect himself and his family — not on the calculations of distant bureaucrats or the wistful imaginings of high-minded idealists.
On top of our right to defend ourselves against the daily threat of lawless people, we also have a right to resist the lawless actions of government. In virtually every case, this will take the form of going to court or voting in elections. However, we have seen that governments are just as tainted by original sin as any human institution. They can turn to evil with devastating force. According to scholar R.J. Rummel, governments in the 20th century killed some 262 million people — not including casualties of war. In most cases, those civilians were unarmed and hence unable to defend their most basic rights.
We know well that totalitarian governments such as the Bolsheviks and the Nazis made it among their first priorities to confiscate all private weapons from their citizens — where previous, well-meaning progressive governments had not already done so. The resistance movements that pushed back against the government brutalities relied on private weapons that still survived among the populace.
This grim history tells us that the American Founders were wise indeed to put a Constitutional protection of the right to private firearms in our country’s central document. They did so out of respect for natural law and our human dignity as images of God.
This column originally appeared at Legatus, and is reprinted by permission.