That Oh-So-Gray 2nd Amendment (Part 1)

Frédérik SisaThe Recreational Nihilist

[img]7|left|||no_popup[/img]When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Washington D.C. gun ban was unconstitutional, that was surprising. Less surprising is a Chicago man challenging the court to take the ruling (D.C. vs. Heller), which applies to federal territories, and expand it to cover all states and cities. On the surface, the issue is about the Second Amendment right to own a gun. The discussion has been fierce by both gun-rights and gun-control advocates. But there’s a suspicious equivocation going on, one that clouds the philosophical heart of the matter, between defense and gun ownership.

Before elaborating on that point, it helps to clarify just how vague the word “right” is. The word implies obligation, entitlement, necessity. But from whom? From where? A common answer is from God. This is what we find in the Declaration of Independence: “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The problem, of course, is that God’s existence is assumed, through faith, and not proven. Take away God, and these unalienable Rights are neatly defenestrated. But let’s go ahead with the assumption that God exists and that, indeed, rights are unalienable because they are grounded in God. What happens if God changes his mind? The very notion of divine rights is rooted in a mysterious mutable will that no one can agree on – this is God we’re talking about, after all, and the world’s religions. Certainly the Old Testament is filled with examples of God ordering one thing then changing his mind, as in the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac. How reliable can rights be if God is able and willing to change his mind?

If divine rights are problematic, then what about natural rights, that is, universal rights arising from the laws of nature? The two are occasionally treated as one and the same – God creates nature that, in turn, grounds rights – but even when treated separately, we run into the problem of how nature can give rise to rights that translate to specific legal and ethical obligations. That leaves the notion of rights as civil rights, rights that come from a social contract. The rub is illustrated by the crux of Lysander Spooner’s arguments against the U.S. Constitution: It can only bind the people who sign the agreement in the first place.
Of course, philosophers and political scientists can have themselves a festival trying to sort it all out. For our purposes, the point is that the so-called “right” to own a gun is pretty murky from the beginning. However, let’s assume that the word “right” refers to reasonably objective needs living creatures have for preserving their life and quality of life. In this we can take the word “right” in its common use and say that we have a right to own a gun, whether by the grace of God, government or society. What does this mean? When we say we have a right to an attorney and one will be provided if we can’t afford one, this means the government will provide us with legal representation. Does this mean, then, that the government has an obligation to provide us with guns since we have a right to own them? If not the government, would it be necessary to mandate the existence of gun manufacturers if none existed? If somebody refuses to sell you a gun, is he or she violating your right to own a gun?

We can continue asking questions, pointing out how many assumptions we make when we start using the language of “rights” in regards to gun ownership. For example, how absolute is the right to own a gun? Do we want criminals or people with severe psychological disorders to own guns? If the answer is no, then we admit to reasonable restrictions to gun ownership and open the door to background checks. Depending on the outcome you want, the language of rights can either be an angel’s halo or a devil’s horn. That is the really the fundamental philosophical problem of the gun ownership debate – that, and the U.S. Constitution itself.

Next week: The 2nd Amendment delivers a kick in the teeth

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