The recent shooting and devastation at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has revived the gun control vs. Second Amendment debate. However, this time seems different for some reason. Perhaps it has been listening to the voices of the victims; perhaps it is something else. But I can say that for me personally, this has caused me to reexamine and revisit my own assumptions and beliefs about guns and the Second Amendment.
What is more frustrating than anything else is the level of dialogue or discourse that ensues after a tragedy like this. Both sides shout at one another, blame one another for the tragedy, and completely talk past each other. On the left, I see calls for unity to change gun laws but then demonize the NRA and other conservatives for wanting to defend their Second Amendment Rights. On the right, I have unfortunately seen demonization of the victims for speaking out and overblowing many gun regulations as if they came from some dystopian nightmare. This needs to stop. We need an honest discussion on guns.
No matter what stance you take, it goes without saying that life is precious. Both sides acknowledge this, and that’s why both sides of this issue fight so vigorously for their point of view. They believe that their solution will best protect that life.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m not a gun enthusiast but I am a defender of our Constitution and of human life. At the very least, I want to put forth some philosophical arguments that will hopefully make both sides think about where they stand. Hopefully, you will be one of those people who raise to the level of discourse rather than lower it.
The Second Amendment
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
This is the Second Amendment to our Constitution. Some love it. Others hate it. Liberals tend to view the first half of the amendment as being the scope to which the second amendment should apply. In other words, only those in militias should have guaranteed access to firearms. Conservatives look to the second half of the amendment to justify their position, citing the right of the people (meaning all citizens) to keep and bear arms.
The Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that:
The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.
It later ruled in McDonald v. Chicago (2010) that these rights were incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, meaning that state governments could not violate them as well as the federal government.
However, this does not mean that no regulations can be passed on guns. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the Heller decision,
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons
This is similar to other rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, such as in the First Amendment. Our right to free speech gives us the right to say anything we want, up to a point. People are not allowed to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, cause a stampede, and not be held accountable. Similarly, although we are guaranteed freedom of religion, we cannot use religious freedom as justification for things like polygamy or human sacrifice.
So, in reality, the question is not really about whether guns can be regulated. They already are (and should be). As was hinted to in the Heller decision, several classes of weapons (such as explosives) are not allowed to be in possession of civilians.
So which gun regulations ought we to have? I don’t have an exact answer to this question, but they need to strike a balance between legitimate reasons for gun ownership and legitimate reasons for limiting gun ownership. What are some of these reasons?
3 Legitimate Reasons for Gun Ownership
According to both Gallup and Pew Research, roughly 2/3 of gun owners say that they own guns for personal protection. I very strongly believe in a right to life. People have the right to not have their life threatened by others. Similarly, if someone’s life is threatened by another person, they have a right to defend themselves. In accordance with this principle, people have the right to own and use tools such as guns in order to be able to defend their lives effectively. This not only allows someone to preserve their own life if threatened, but, in some cases, an armed person can often deter a violent crime without firing a shot.
Sun Tzu wrote in his treatise The Art of War:
The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
If you can have a defense so strong that no one wants to challenge you, then you can prevent an attack from every happening. The same principle applies with guns as well. If a criminal knows you are armed or even thinks about the possibility that you may be armed, this can, and often has, deterred many crimes from occurring.
According to those same surveys, hunting and other forms of recreation make up the other significant reason for gun ownership. I think it’s fair to say that in today’s modern era, very few people still depend on the ability to hunt game in order to survive. Most people that I know who hunt do so for fun and/or to have some juicy meat to grill at home. Others enjoy activities like target shooting. In fact, shooting is an Olympic sport. It’s important to recognize the good that comes from enjoying leisure activities such as these. People should be generally free to engage in such pursuits. However, I would add that as far as moral significance is concerned, the protection of life should have greater weight than the pursuit of leisure should the two ever conflict.
3. Protection from government tyranny
This is probably the reason most balked at by those in favor of more gun regulations, but it is a legitimate reason that has a deep connection with the founding of the United States. Our founders rebelled against Great Britain and the injustices they were suffering under at the time (although we would probably call some of those injustices very minor by today’s standards). While we don’t live in a dystopian society, we should not be so arrogant as to say that it could never happen. Although this is not a likely reality for us, this is still a reality for many around the world living under government oppression. If all the weapons are in the hands of those in power and those loyal to them, then they can easily oppress those who have no adequate means of defending themselves. While this can seem a bit abstract or removed from our current situation, common sense tells us that an armed populace provides a deterrent to government tyranny and oppression.
3 Legitimate Reasons for Gun Regulations
1. People are not perfect
Although our modern secular worldview would dictate that humanity is intrinsically good, Christianity tells us that humanity is born sinful and rebels against God to follow after their own passions and desires. Sin both corrupts and distorts humanity in how we were meant to be and what we were meant to do. (Thanks be to God that he provided salvation through Jesus Christ!) As much as we might try, there will always be people in this world who want to hurt others. Irrational actors will want to shoot innocent children at school. Someone will want revenge for some perceived wrong against them and want to shoot them. Gangs will want to shoot opposing gangs and innocent people will get caught in the crossfire.
Christians recognize that God established government for the good of humanity to praise good and punish evil (Romans 13:3-4, 1 Peter 2:13-14). We must also recognize that no government is capable of preventing all evil. No law we pass will make all of this evil go away. But if there are ways of preventing evil in such a way that does not significantly compromise the goods that come from liberty and freedom, these methods should be considered as they will invariably aid in our goal of defending human life.
2. Not all arms are created equal
While the Second Amendment does recognize the right of the people to keep and bear arms, does this include all arms? What definition of arms are we using? Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary (the first American dictionary, useful for gaining insight into the meaning of words of our Founders), defines arms as “Weapons of offense, or armor for defense and protection of the body.” This is a very broad definition. In theory, I would say all arms are protected, but then we run into some difficulties. Do we allow private citizens to own tanks, rocket launchers, machine guns, grenades as well as handguns and rifles?
To answer this we have to ask ourselves what serves the greater good. We can recognize the negative aspects of allowing rocket launchers to be held by private citizens. Not only would this pose a threat to national security if terrorists or a disgruntled citizens were able to easily obtain such weapons, but it would put a lot of power into the hands of one person to cause an unprecedented amount of damage.
The balance we need to be able to find is between the ability of citizens to be able to fulfill the legitimate reasons for owning a gun (self defense, hunting/recreation, deterrent to tyranny) while also limiting the ability of evil and broken people to do harm to others. This line has already been drawn in several places in the law, and for the most part, I would say it’s been drawn fairly well. But I would also say it doesn’t hurt to discuss issues like banning certain types of weapons, limiting magazine sizes, or other proposals that seek to better achieve that balance. It could be that such proposals may or may not help, but they should at least be considered.
3. Reasonable gun laws have the potential to save human lives
Saving lives should be our ultimate goal, no matter which side of this debate you are on. Even the NRA supports some gun regulations. Watch this video by Wayne LaPierre, President of the NRA.
Reasonable gun laws like background checks can keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally deranged while still preserving law-abiding citizens’ rights to keep and bear arms. But we also have to make sure these systems are workable and functioning as they were intended before calling for even more expansive measures. As LaPierre mentions in the video, if you have fish swimming through a net, you don’t need a bigger net. You need one with smaller holes.
No system will be perfect, but we should aim to achieve the goals of protecting the lives of our citizens while guarding our Second Amendment freedoms to keep and bear arms.