The right to bear arms, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment, is at once both distinctly American and highly controversial.
We usually think of the Bill of Rights as recognizing and guaranteeing to Americans important basic human rights, already articulated and defended by philosophers like John Locke. But how about the second amendment, the “right to bear arms”? Did the second amendment recognize our right to own guns, or create it?
America is an anomaly. Other liberal democracies don’t see gun possession as a fundamental human right. They don’t see it as having the status of as freedom of religion, or speech, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, excessive bails and cruel punishments. So perhaps our right to guns is just an historical accident, a fluke, a huge and consequential mistake, that doesn’t reflect a fundamental human right? A gun is basically a way of making holes in objects, including humans, at a distance. How can the ability to make holes in other humans at a distance be a human right? Doesn’t having people around us, with that capacity, diminishes our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Perhaps gun rights derive from the fundamental right to defend oneself. Free speech isn’t worth much, if one is not allowed to publish and broadcast and, nowadays, tweet and email. Similarly, the right to life, liberty and happiness, including the right of self-defense, isn’t worth much if those from whom you are defending yourself have guns and you don’t.
One could argue that the right to drive a car is quite analogous to the right to bear arms. Driving an automobile gives me the power to run over people. It doesn’t give me the right to run over people, but it gives me the power. Similarly, owning a gun may give me the power to make holes in other people, but it doesn’t give me the right to do so.
Handguns, one might argue, are basically intended for protection, for self-defense, just as cars are intended for transportation. Both guns and cars are capable of harming others, in the wrong hands. But just as we trust people to not to use their cars to hurt innocent people, shouldn’t we trust gun-owners to use their guns for self defense, or target practice, or hunting, and not for gratuitously hurting other humans? Shouldn’t an old person, living alone in the woods, have the right to a gun for self-protection? Or a family in a neighborhood full of criminals, where police protection is too little and often too late?
If this is a good analogy, the second amendment, at least as interpreted by many, goes to far. We require licenses to drive cars; we requires training to get a license; we don’t allow nut-cases to drive; we tax cars; we keep careful track of who owns what car. Our automobile policies are not based on a paranoid fear that the federal government will exploit responsible regulation and registration to confiscate all of our cars. It seems only reasonable to have similar safeguards for guns.
But wouldn’t a society in which no-one has guns, or at least the kinds of guns designed to be concealed and to injure and kill people, be even better? The old lady and the family wouldn’t need guns, if criminals didn’t have them. Other societies get by without a population that is armed to the teeth. Why can’t we?
That brings us back to the 2nd Amendment. Were our forefathers prescient, in realizing that America was destined to be a gun-using society, and that government regulation would only guarantee that law-abiding citizens would be less well armed that criminals? I think it's more plausible that they make an incredible mistake, with this weird amendment, making a big contribution to America’s being, by far, the most violent and murderous of all the liberal democracies.