The issue of gun rights and the Second Amendment is a frequent topic of American politics. Most often, the debate around this subject manifests itself following one of two circumstances: a criminal uses a gun against innocent people, or an honest citizen uses a gun to stop a criminal. And last week, there occurred a nationally-spotlighted example of each situation, again thrusting the issue of guns to the forefront of American political focus.
In the first instance, 71-year-old Samuel Williams foiled the attempted robbery of an internet café using a handgun he had been carrying on his person at the time. After the two thugs entered the café – one swinging a baseball bat, smashing a computer, and the other wielding a firearm of his own – Williams opened fire on the two, hitting both. They scrambled outside with Williams following close behind them. Both of the suspects were later arrested by authorities. Other than the perpetrators, no one else was injured in the affair.
The second event is much more tragic. Jim Holmes, a 24-year-old former Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, entered a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colorado on Thursday night with three separate guns and opened fire. Wearing full riot gear and throwing tear gas, Holmes allegedly fired indiscriminately into the crowd of moviegoers, wounding 71 individuals total, killing 12. Holmes was arrested by authorities outside of the theater. Police later discovered trip wires and other booby traps in Holmes’s apartment which had to be disarmed before police could fully investigate his residence.
These two occurrences share only two things in common: the existence of a criminal act and the use of a firearm. And immediately, politicians on both sides of the aisle want to draw conclusions from the concrete circumstances of each event. They spend absolutely no time trying to identify the essence of each incident or to examine it against the standard of value that is man’s life. The conservatives point to Samuel Williams and exclaim, “See? Guns save lives and stop crime!” The Leftists, however, look at Jim Holmes and shout, “Are you kidding? Look what guns did here!” But both are totally and absolutely missing the point. Gun ownership and the government’s position towards it are not – and I cannot stress this enough – about guns.
Undoubtedly, the Leftists are trying with all their might (with rather substantial success) to frame gun rights debates around the guns themselves. Because Leftists are predisposed to believe that any man acting individually (as opposed to collectively) is a threat to other individuals, it is inherent that they oppose the legality of any man arming himself for any reason. As their argumentative form goes, no man would need guns if only the police had them. Ergo, guns should be banned such that no one except the police may lawfully possess them. Those who solely argue against publicly carrying firearms rather than privately keeping them in one’s home are no different fundamentally than those that would prefer to see the Second Amendment abolished entirely. They only differ in their degree of consistency, not in principle.
To achieve their ends, the Leftists entirely remove guns from the context of their user: man. Guns, they point out, are weapons specifically designed to injure or kill another living creature. As the Leftists consider injuring/killing another living being intrinsically wrong, then possessing an instrument that serves no other purpose is wrong by extension. Under Leftist ideology, only a gun wielded by the collective for the collective interest has any noble purpose.
By ignoring the human aspect of gun ownership, Leftists are able to control the language and tailor the debate in a manner that best suits their political ends. So long as they are capable of drawing attention away from man’s nature and refocusing it on the concrete effects of guns independent of any context, they can rather easily (though fallaciously) argue in favor of bans on gun ownership. And just as Slade Mendenhall pointed out in his essay “The ‘Y-Axis’ and the Future of American Politics,” “Their aim is to lure the Right down from the moral high ground to the nitty-gritty of bare knuckle politics. They want to level the playing field before the competition ever gets started.” And let there be no question: the moral high ground incontrovertibly rests with the proponents of gun rights.
At this point, allow me to substitute the phrase “guns rights” for another which more accurately represents the nature of the issue: the “right of self-defense.” This new phrase, the right of self-defense, explicitly reintroduces the self-interested, human element to the discussion. It reminds everyone, and it should remind us as well, that any discussion of gun ownership cannot take place without considering the owners themselves.
Man’s life requires the removal of initiated force from human relationships. If he is to further his life, he cannot be compelled to subject his judgment or self-interests to anyone. “This means instituting a system of government that erects objective laws banning every manner of initiated force against man’s rights… a constitutional republic that holds a monopoly on retaliatory force and wields it to institute justice to remedy injuries of individual rights” (“Political Capitalism”).
“This is not to say that individuals must relinquish their right of self-defense, but that justice must be instituted under the purview of the government in accordance with an objective set of laws, not the spontaneous whim of lynch mob” (“Absolute Liberty, Defined”). In fact, that is a right to which man should cling most passionately, as it ultimately is the same right which gives him the authority, as outlined by the Declaration of Independence, to “alter or abolish” his respective government when it becomes destructive to his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though the institution of justice must be ultimately delegated to the government such that it can be carried out impartially under an explicit code of objective law, the code itself must adhere to man’s rights.
Naturally, this includes man’s right to defend himself. The government cannot rationally ask man to accept the abuses of any thug that wishes to take advantage of him while he patiently waits for the police to arrive and solve the dispute. The government is not, and ought not to be, omnipresent. Therefore, when those tasked by the government to intercede on behalf of private citizens and halt violations of their individual rights are not present, that responsibility then falls – as it ultimately does anyway – to the private citizen himself.
But does this mean that man should be left, by government edict, to defend himself with nothing more than his bare hands? Should a victim be left to resist injury to himself or his property by grappling with a larger, stronger, better armed opponent? If Leftists were able to fully implement their policies of disarming the innocent, then that would be the natural result. Man would be asked to sacrifice an additional measure of personal security and instead merely “hope” that the police arrive before either he or his loved ones are robbed blind, maimed, raped, or killed.
A gun evens the odds. It places in the hand of a victim all the power in the world necessary to repel an attacker in a small cartridge of gunpowder and lead. It requires that criminals confront their prey knowing well that their physical advantages of speed, size, strength, and number are effectively nullified by the simple ability to aim and squeeze a trigger. Why is it that we arm police officers and soldiers with guns rather than baseball bats? Because it is a gun which is the most efficient and effective means we can provide them to defend themselves and end criminal acts. This fact does not change because of the absence of a badge.
And though it should be patently obvious to most, it seems necessary to point out that man’s moral use of a firearm against a criminal is not confined solely to attacks against himself. While I doubt that this is necessary to iterate to those who already accept man’s inalienable right to self-defense, there are surprisingly those who make the case that, though man can defend himself, he is morally disallowed from engaging a criminal attacking someone else unless the victim asks. (Though not explicit, this principle can be gleaned from Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s defense of using US support to apprehend Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony: “… they asked for our help.”) Admittedly, I have only heard this case made explicitly once before, and it was by a libertarian. Even so, its consequences are so severe that it deserves categorical refutation.
According to the libertarian, man can only stop a criminal act against another if the victim himself extends an invitation to be helped. He based his case on the very libertarian foreign policy of “non-interventionism,” a warped offspring of the already destructive doctrine of pacificism. Though unsubstantiated by libertarianism’s underlying principles of amorality which necessarily ends in pacifism (a rejection of force in all cases, even to stop other force), some libertarians attempt to argue that it is non-interventionism, not pacifism, that is the proper libertarian foreign policy. Under non-interventionism, only when a nation is directly attacked itself can it respond with military force – to self-interestedly intervene in defense of an ally or oppressed peoples is unacceptable. If we provide assistance where it is unsolicited, we are, according to non-interventionism, violating their “liberty” to handle their own disputes, even when there is a clear and vivid distinction between initiator and victim. Even if an attack is imminent, the non-interventionists insist that we allow it to occur before we take offensive action, lest we be the “initiators” ourselves.
The libertarian applied same principles to conflicts between individual men. The ends of such a policy are the same on individual level as they are on the international: the inaction of the good to the benefit of the evil. To them, a murderer must pull the trigger before the victim is allowed to do the same. If man happens upon another being mugged, he is required under the principles of non-interventionism to not intervene. If man sees that his neighbor’s house is being emptied of all its valuables by thieves, he is required to let them as his neighbor is not there to ask him for help. If the police receive word of rape occurring in a personal residence, they are required to let it continue until they receive a personal invitation to stop it from the victim herself. These are the effects of non-interventionism in all their naked irrationality, kept at bay only by the inconsistency in the philosophy of individual libertarians. The one who made this argument, however, was a fully consistent adherent to non-interventionism.
Obviously, this is not the case. Man is certainly free, based on the value he rationally places on individual rights, to help others where their rights are infringed. Had Sam Williams been outside the internet café rather than within when the botched robbery occurred, would he be required to stand idly on the sidewalk and let the events unfold before him while he has the means and desire to stop them? The consistent proponents of non-interventionism respond simply that yes, he would. Though they say he still has the authority to call the police, they deny him any right to protect individual rights. And when this principle is practiced consistently, one arrives at the same conclusions of the Leftists seeking to disarm the innocent: that the individual lacks the right to protect his own individual rights and, therefore, has no purpose in owning a gun.
But how far does this crime-stopping authority to act extend? As stated, a rational government will retain a monopoly over retaliatory force insofar as it applies to the execution of justice under a code of objective law. So where does it cease to be an issue of stopping a criminal act and apprehending (if possible) the criminal himself and instead begin to be an issue which should properly be carried out by the judiciary?
This is where the “objective set of laws” comes into play. The law must respect an individual’s right to self-defense while also outlining the difference between a justifiable act of self-defense and the aforementioned rage of a lynch mob. How the law is to be framed, however, is something for rational lawmakers to implement. It is a highly technical issue, but I can say this much of the principles: the right of an individual to use force against criminals unquestionably lasts as long as the crime itself is occurring, but that right does not extend to doing anything more than restraining the criminal until authorities arrive after he has been incapacitated or apprehended. Defining man’s authority to use force against criminals after a crime has been stopped but before that criminal is incapacitated or apprehended (i.e. the criminal is fleeing) is much more difficult to outline. Certainly private citizens have the authority to pursue and attempt to restrain the criminal until he is captured or until the police are able to officially take control of a given incident, but does that authority extend to the use of a firearm to injure/kill that criminal? The only real answer is that the use of retaliatory force must be proportional to the crime committed and the current threat the criminal poses to other honest citizens. But again, the task of properly phrasing this principle objectively in law falls on judicious lawmakers.
The last point worthy of making is that while the right to self-defense is inalienable, the right to own and carry a firearm is derivative and contingent. The laws that bar convicted felons from owning a firearm in the United States, for example, are entirely rational. Though the felon did not give up his right to defend himself when committing his crime, it is rational to assert that he forgoes permanently (or, at least, for a considerably long amount of time, proportional to the crime) his privilege of possessing a firearm. By exhibiting contempt for man’s rights, a felon (at least one who has violated legitimate criminal statutes) has demonstrated himself a threat to upright men, and therefore loses the ability to possess a weapon which he could use to harm upright men.
But again, this by no means justifies the disarmament of guiltless men. Those who could carry a gun only as a means of protection rather than extortion fully deserve and retain their ability to own and carry firearms. The rights of no man are in danger by an ethical man possessing a firearm. His right to self-defense and all derivative privileges from that right remain in full so long as he continues to be worthy of them.