A ‘Secular’ Argument for Gun Control

Technically speaking, there is no such thing as a “secular argument.”  All arguments are arguments until the reasons adduced in making them become religiously or theologically grounded.  Although rule or deontological arguments are sometimes used in ethics to bolster what are essentially situational or contextual (or functional)  arguments, a knock-down, “indefeasible” argument for gun control is probably not possible.  That is why discussion of the issue, especially in the American context, quickly becomes a discussion of morality, warrant, or Constitutional guarantees rather than an examination of premises.

A nonreligious person can argue for example that statistics show that countries with rigid control on weapons ownership have lower gun related murders and instances of mass killings than a country like the United States, which has both the highest rate of gun ownership (about 37%), the largest number of privately owned weapons (approximately 45,000,000) and the highest rate of death from shootings, both deliberate, criminal, and accidental (33,000 in 2012, 346,000 assaults involving guns).

Presumably, a secular argument would be based, as the word implies, on the good of the state.  It can be seen for example that in the history of civilizations, the state has always regarded it a cardinal good for persons  to be secure from harm and, thus, that it is an obligation of government (“lawful authority”) to protect persons from injury,  even when it is necessary to use force and violence to do this.  To protect a majority of persons from injury, the state may inflict injury on others:  Thus the state or lawful authority is empowered to punish criminals, send men to war, and sometimes ostracize, intrude upon or punish sub-populations thought to be dangerous to the common good.  This is possible because the “common good” is not a settled term but a political one that has been understood differently in different times of national histories.  Kings and politicians routinely appeal to this and equivalent terms (e.g., “God and country,”  “the American people”) which in fact are more metaphysical than real constructs.

As many writers have noted, the public good is a hypostasis of the wishes of the state in any given situation, and often also corresponds to the success of the state in securing or defending these wishes as commensurate with the needs and wishes of the people A recent example of the principle is the “security mentality” of America between 2001 and 2008, derived from the success of government in persuading citizens that their best interests were at stake in pursuing a war policy in the Middle East and returning a particular political party to power, even among growing doubts about its motives in prosecuting two wars and an invasive policy of domestic surveillance.

For the same reason, a state can argue that a segment of the population has become treacherous as was done in Nazi Germany, and to a less dramatic effect in 1950’s America or during the slave uprisings in the post-colonial southern American states.  Both a sovereign and a democratic government can say that citizens may not possess firearms because it encourages civil unrest and aggravates violent crime and assault, both of which are conditions hostile to the “common good.”

However, in other situations a constituted authority, especially a fledgling  state,  can argue that the role of government is limited to ensuring the personal liberty of citizens.  Indeed, it was the “limited government” argument that led to the framing of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which was inherently guarded about creating a permanent military force.  However, advocates of the individual liberty thesis often have a very limited understanding of the origin of the idea.  As Pauline Maier has noted in her study From Resistance to Revolution (1972), “private individuals were forbidden to take force against their rulers either for malice or because of private injuries….” Instead, “not just a few individuals, but the ‘Body of the People’ had to feel concerned” before the right of revolution was justified and with most writers speaking of a “whole people who are the Publick,’ or the body of the people acting in their ‘public  Authority,’ indicating a broad consensus involving all ranks of society (p. 73).  The discussion of the Constitutional “right to bear arms” stemmed almost exclusively from the 1689 provision in the English Bill of Rights, which in turn emerged from the fear of Protestants, in the reign of the last Catholic monarch, James II,  that the Crown was empowered to disarm them without consent of Parliament.

Against the European pattern of maintaining permanent armies and militias, the founding fathers of the United States understood armies as specifically and “occasionally” constituted by free men to protect the common good:  it is not that a free man has the right to bear arms because he is free but because he is a member of the “body of the people” whose freedom would be jeopardized without the right of defense against tyrannical and usurpatory powers. In other words, there is no individual right apart from the collective, public right of consensus; moreover, that right does not include the “right to bear arms” as an end: arms are the mechanism or means to achieve a public end, not the end in itself.

In the language of the time, the right of a citizen to bear arms was not universal: it excluded indentured farmers, men without property, and slaves.  The terror of armed non-citizens raising a rebellion against the landowners weighed heavily on the minds of men like Jefferson and a succession of presidents prior to the Civil war.  He was especially  unsettled by the slave revolt in Haiti (1793), fearing it would infect the slaves on the American plantations.   However, the debate of the 19th century was not about the right of “gun ownership” but rather the right of citizens in a nation unprotected by a standing army and an antiquated “sheriff and posse’” system of local law enforcement, to defend themselves by force and with firearms.  The debate in short teetered on the distinction between a protected state (the armied nations of Europe) and an unprotected state.

Convincing consequentialist arguments can therefore be created based on the need to suppress and the need to possess weapons.  An unprotected state will lack the required stability to ensure prosperity and peace: it will be at the mercy of stronger powers, enemies without and destructive forces within.   Yet a state where the right to possess firearms is interpreted as an unrestricted constitutional guarantee, stripped of context, may lose control over civil order, cede to individual persons the duties normally entrusted to law enforcement agencies, encourage the dissemination of weapons among untrained and dangerous (including criminal and psychologically unstable) individuals, and therefore encourage the very violence and instability that a well governed state is supposed to prevent.  Even in consequentialist terms, the argument cannot be based on an abstract right, whether it is thought to derive from the Constitution or from divine writ; rather the nature of the right must be assessed in relation to a prior assessment of the essential nature of the state and its motives for permitting or suppressing the individual “right to bear arms.”  It is further important to distinguish the right to bear arms from the imprecise phrase “gun ownership’: the former is a phrase grounded in political, legal and constitutional history. The latter refers simply to the practice of purchasing and keeping firearms without reference to purpose or necessity.

Thus a secular argument for gun control in relation to the right to bear arms must include the distinction between a protected and an unprotected or vulnerable state. In 1775 America was a fragmented collection of thirteen disparate colonies working under the general protection of Great Britain.  The existence of state militias loyal to the crown through the governor of the colony (the precursor of today’s National Guard) was nonetheless a worrying aspect of this relationship.  The concept of a national army did not exist until the time of the revolution and even then depended on the cooperation of state militias under the general authority of a “supreme commander in chief.” As in the case of most revolutionary movements however, the liberty and freedom movement that brought the United States into existence had become by 1787, the year the national constitution was adopted, evolved painfully: after the revolution, the continental army quickly disbursed; soldiers were given land grants for their time, and republican suspicion of “standing armies” prevailed.  The United States Army was not formally construed until 1796 and grew in fits and starts between the War of 1812, its first humiliating defeat, and the Civil War.  Citizen soldiery disappeared from the scene before the end of the nineteenth century; the national military academy was founded at West Point in 1802 to ensure a professional army command and the national naval academy at Annapolis in 1845.

Following the model of the powerful European states the United States moved from being an unprotected state reliant on the collective, occasional and fragmented efforts of an armed citizenry to a protected state, secured by a standing army and (though these developed more sporadically) municipal law enforcement agencies in the 19th century.

If it is granted that the basis for any argument in favour of unrestricted possession of firearms has to depend on a discussion of the nature of the state, then it is problematical to hold that the right of individual citizens to possess firearms for the protection of the state in a state already duly protected is consistent. It is also problematical, absent any indication that the state is operating contrary to the public good or will of the majority, to maintain that such weapons are necessary to maintain a ‘right of revolution’ against despotic or tyrannical government.  The right (or in Locke’s view “obligation”)  of revolution in any event is a theoretical rather than a constitutional one, since presumably any such rebellion would be directed against constitutional authority, as any examination of the history of revolutions makes plain.

 This leaves aside the question of whether it may, at some point, be desirable for citizens to possess arms in exigent circumstances, e.g., to foment rebellion against an unjust or abusive state; indeed, that is the right claimed in 1776 and is being claimed by some  conservative and libertarian groups in 2014.  For that logic to prevail however, there would need to be overwhelming evidence that the protections granted to citizens through the state (or whatever “rights” the state at its creation was assumed to offer its citizens ) have been systematically violated and that the protections granted following a rebellion would substantially alter their condition.  It is not clear for example that the political history of America would have been very different had it followed the natural path of devolution rather than armed revolt. But that point is merely academic.  The Declaration of Independence was not a declaration of war; it was a carefully written bill of grievances based on the Lockean principles of natural social rights.  However, Locke’s arguments as well as those of the founders did not extend to the mechanism of revolution—the possession of weapons as a right—but only to the conditions under which a state can be considered badly governed, unprotected and thus entitled to self-defense against tyranny.  The right to bear arms is always framed collectively and socially, never as an individual right for disgruntled persons intent on defending personal rights or settling private grievances by force.

Absent that evidence, it can be concluded that there is no basis for the individual possession of weapons by the citizens of a protected state.   It can also be argued that there is a sound argument for the possession of weapons for individual protection in the case of an unprotected state, where government has become abusive or incompetent with regard to the safety or tranquility of society.  The latter case is not representative of modern American society and has not been representative since the nineteenth century.

Most European states regard their elected governments as broadly representative of their interests and their armies and law enforcement agencies as mechanisms for social harmony and domestic tranquility. In the protected state, the “right to bear arms” as an individual right contradicts the overarching right of citizens to be free of fear from an armed or dangerous minority.

In a protected state such as the United States where government is broadly representative of the interests of its citizens and where professional armies and law enforcement agencies exist to serve their interests, there is a strong ‘secular’ argument for the abolition of the absolute right of individual citizens to possess firearms.  The individual citizen is not sovereign over the duty of the state to protect the totality of its population nor over the way in which the state exercises its responsibility.  The protected state however has a clear obligation to prevent the individual from  creating instability within the “general body politic.” The provision of laws that guarantee gun ownership, especially guns for which there is no purpose except as weapons of war, creates a situation which positively injurious to the majority because it leads to the perpetuation of conditions that characterize an unprotected and insecure state and thus operate against public good.

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. (Article 2, 1791)

It is clear that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution does not envisage an indefinite or unlimited right to bear arms apart from the heuristic need for a protected state through a standing military force, the existence of which in a protected state renders any individual right null.

9 thoughts on “A ‘Secular’ Argument for Gun Control

  1. Interesting argument. The problem with there having to be evidence that citizens rights are being broadly violated as a pretext for arming is that it’s not practical in the least.

    Deadly as a plan.

    As to the proposal, NO. Under any circumstances

    I think also you are greatly underestimating private firearm ownership at 45 million.

    Merry Christmas!

    • No brainer really. Guns are deadly. I am glad to live in an evolved part of the world where guns are no longer legal as the reasons for having them in the past, no longer exist. It is not a ‘human’ right to own things capable of killing people. It is an inhumane desire to ‘have’ perpetuating a climate of fear and paranoia.

      The pohutukawa are blooming brilliantly red and beautiful and the sea is warm. It’s that time of year here. Very best wishes and peace to the world for a new year.

      • Well happy New Year as well.

        Wherever you are, you are guarded by force. Evolution I assure you is not your friend.

        Happy New Year.

      • The good Joe Segor, comments below to the author the regrettable truth that the essay ‘won’t convince the gun nuts’. They are incapable of self criticism, controlled by their selfish convictions. I assure you that progress and happiness are achieved with evolution and education – and we in the non gun swinging world, are free from ‘force’ (maybe you watch too many science fiction star wars – the force is with you CVXXXXVC)

  2. An excellent essay. Unfortunately, it won’t convince the gun nuts. Not even those who can understand the argument. The people at the top of the NRA are there to protect the arms industry. Most of the rest have a fanatical belief in the right to own firearms. A friend of mine is rational on every subject except guns. He is beyond persuasion.

    • I doubt any gun nut would make it through the first paragraph, or even stumble on the site unless they think New Oxonian is a super-beer.

      There is only one good analogy for the cowardice and lack of moral resolve the national government shows in the stare-down with the gun lobby. It’s is a scene we all know from watching too many Hollywood Westerns: A collage –The good but morally conflicted tenderfoot sheriff from back East who takes the place of the former sheriff (who was last seen galloping out of town while the gittin’ wax good) is trying to restore law and order to Hadleyville. But the town is held hostage by a gang of roustabouts who shoot first and ask questions later. And prefer not to ask questions. The sheriff asks them politely to put their guns away. They spit, take a slug of whisky and knock his hat off. Then they go upstairs to visit Miss Kitty, rob the bank (again) and ride out of town to terrorize some stage coaches hauling cash from Joplin to San Francisco. The sheriff [strains of “Do Not Forsake Me My Darling”) wags his head and wonders why some men are just plain ornery. His glance becomes steely. He reaches to his side and remembers, he’s got a gun to–a gift from Aunt Emma in St Louis when she hard he was going to Injun country. By gum, he says, I’ll do it. “Somebody’s got to! I’m tired of being pushed. I think I ought to stay,” says Will.

      In the movie, there will be a showdown between the sheriff and the cowboy in the black hat and matching whiskers named Jesse, the smartest in a gang of eight whose next-smartest member can only count to five but can shoot a rattlesnake through the eye from half a mile away.

      In Washington, there won’t be–a showdown I mean–even though that sad city is just as surely being held hostage by a gun totin’ mob as Hadleyville. And just like in High Noon, they own the law, the lawmakers and a few judges. Hell, what kind of American are you effn you don’t carry a Bible in your right hand and a gun to defend it wif in your left.

      It’s even worse than i just painted it, because the guys with guns probably love High Noon and they think they’re the sheriff.

      So pardner, whaddya reckon? It isn’t the gun owners we need to go after: a lot of them can’t count to five either. It’s the gang. It’s the NRA with their belief that they own the law and the lawmakers and ain’t no sheriff strong enough to do nothin’ about it nohow. They seem to be right. Where is Grace Kelly when you need her. Know what i think, that the best line if that paradigmatic film belongs to Martin Howe: “The public doesn’t give a damn about integrity. A town that won’t defend itself deserves no help.”

      • In the movie the sheriff was torn between love and duty. In typical Hollywood style he did his duty and got the gal. The Quaker gal helped out by picking up a gun. A good flick for the NRA, but I loved it anyway. Sanity won’t prevail anytime soon, but circumstances may one day occur that will change the political dynamics. In the meantime, let’s buy us a couple of machine guns.

  3. Pingback: High Noon and Gun Control | The New Oxonian

  4. The current argument in favor of gun ownership is basically a Cold War argument: A hostile individual might have a gun, so I’d better have a gun too. Nothing makes me feel more “free” than reliving the Cold War… the active shooter drills I have at work eerily remind me of the hide under your desk just in case a nuke explodes drills I had in elementary school.

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