The recent horrifying upswing in mass shootings in the United States has again focused on the question of gun control — and rightfully so. At least in today’s posting, however, we are not going to take a position on the question of gun control, but to examine the underlying assumptions and principles of a very broad spectrum of opinions on the subject.
To begin, the Bill of Rights, as the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called, clearly states, “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.”
A virtual firestorm over the correct meaning of this wording has raged for decades . . . nut we’re not going to get into that, either, if only because there is no consistent theory in place on how to read the Constitution itself. Is it a “living Constitution”? Whose interpretation of that rules? What about “original intent”? What does that even mean? (In case you’re interested, we use the original intent understanding of constitutional scholar William Winslow Crosskey, of whom most of you have never heard, but whose 1953 book, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States, is the most intensely researched, scholarly, comprehensive, consistent, and quite a few other things . . . and it was left incomplete at Crosskey’s death. Even today scholars stand in awe of Crosskey’s achievement, while most Academics and virtually all politicians are either completely ignorant of Crosskey’s work or run away from it as fast as they can.)
Because of the different theories of constitutional interpretation, even members of groups who agree on whether or not there should be gun control cannot agree on why they hold their positions, even as they agree or disagree. After some consideration, we have decided that the underlying problem on this and a number of other issues is that few people today — even lawyers and politicians — are truly cognizant of what a right is, especially a natural right, and how it fits into the lives of individuals and the whole of the common good. That is why we must go back to a couple of fundamental principles of natural law, and see how they would apply in the question of gun control or lack thereof.
To begin, for every right there are two “parts.” There is having a right, and there is exercising a right. These are called “access” and “use,” respectively. It is a fundamental principle of law that “use” may never (legitimately) be defined in any way that nullifies the underling “access.”
For example, if you have the right to have a driver’s license, but there are laws in place that prohibit someone of your race or sex from operating a motor vehicle on a public road, then your underlying right to have a driver’s license that permits you to operate a motor vehicle on a public road has been nullified.
On the other hand, simply because you have a driver’s license that permits you to operate a motor vehicle on a public road does not mean that you can drive anywhere or any way you like. You cannot drive on the wrong side of the road or go a hundred and fifty miles per hour in a twenty-five mile per hour zone.
Using the driver’s license analogy segues us into applying those same principles to gun control. While there are positions all along the spectrum, the most extreme positions are that no one should be allowed to privately own a gun or do anything with a gun, regardless (we said this is the extreme position, remember?), and that anyone may own a gun or weapon of any type and do anything he or she likes with it (again, extreme example).
To these extreme positions correspond two different views of what is a right. Here, too, we have extreme positions. One is that because the exercise of a right can (and must) be limited the right itself is subject to abridgement or outright abolition. Thus, because clearly it is nonsensical that anyone can own any type of weapon he or she desires and do whatever one pleases with it, extremists argue that the right itself is not absolute and can be taken away.
This, in fact, is the way President Biden’s comments on Monday, May 30, were interpreted by many people: “President Joe Biden said Monday that the ‘Second Amendment was never absolute’.” Judging from his subsequent comments, Biden’s statement clearly referred to limiting the types of weapons that could be privately owned, but that is not how it was taken by those who failed to read past the original headline, “knew” what the president really meant, or are familiar with the unfortunate practice a number of groups, both liberal and conservative, have of saying they “only” want a limited thing, and then impose draconian measures as soon as they have the power to do so.
At the other extreme are the people who view any limitation of a right, especially a constitutional right, as a violation of their basic freedoms and an attempt to impose slavery of one kind or another. To such people, “infringement” and “limitation” are synonyms. Give the gun controllers a micron, and they’ll take a parsec . . . and there have been too many instances of it in the past to assuage their concerns.
Given the two extremes on this issue, it seems evident that there will have to be a much better understanding of constitutional law before any real progress can be made that one side or the other does not view as an attack or a surrender. And that can take a while.
Of course, there should also be a program to address what we feel is the real cause of the problem, at least in general. Over the past century and a half as more and more people were shut out from capital ownership, the feeling of powerlessness and alienation has spread throughout society. People have become not antisocial, but un-social. It has consequently become increasingly difficult to view your fellow man as your fellow man instead of enemies, competitors, or just annoyances to be ignored or eliminated.
Since, as Daniel Webster noted more than two centuries ago, “Power naturally and necessarily follows property,” it would seem obvious that a national or even international program to make everyone a capital owner, such as the Economic Democracy Act, should be implemented immediately.