Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The right to bear arms

I’m not going to discuss the legalities of gun ownership or gun control. Instead, I’m going to make a point about their underlying philosophies.

For conservatives, the right to bear arms is grounded in the right of self-defense. And they view that right as an individual right. For conservatives, the police are a supplement to self-defense, not a substitute for self-defense.

Liberals, by contrast, believe in social control. They distrust the hoi polloi to act responsibility. Citizens are like underage children who require the adult supervision of the State. Bureaucrats are the official grown-ups who keep the rest of us in check. Give us an allowance. Set the curfew. Ground us for coming home too late.

For liberals, the police are a substitute for self-defense, not a supplement to self-defense.

Because the hoi polloi can’t be trusted, the State needs to impose a degree of uniformity on social conduct. An individual cannot be allowed to own a gun because that would introduce an unstable element into the social order. That would represent a loss of control. You can’t predict what an individual will do. An individual is a free variable. And that’s intolerable.

Individual conduct must be strictly regulated so that everyone does the same thing. So that everyone is answerable to the same handlers and minders. Order trumps freedom because freedom is a destabilizing force, and individuals can’t be trusted to act responsibly. The State must impose a large measure of social conformity on the populace. To think alike, speak alike, dress alike, eat alike, live alike.

From a conservative viewpoint, this represents the worst of all possible worlds. It doesn’t eliminate criminality since, by definition, criminals refuse to play by the rules.

The practical effect is twofold: (i) It leaves law-abiding citizens defenseless in the face of the criminal element; (ii) it’s a recipe for abuse of power since there’s no check on the ruling class. Bureaucrats are no wiser or more virtuous than the citizens they govern, and power goes to their head.

Government is just a bunch of people. It empowers one bunch of people at the expense of another. Unless accountability is a two-way street, the State becomes tyrannical.

Liberalism is a half-truth. It’s true that many private citizens can’t be trusted. But it’s equally true that many public officials can’t be trusted. The political class is just as sinful as the governed.

No mechanism will save us from ourselves. There’s no substitute for virtue. That’s why secular ideologies careen between the equally dysfunctional options of anarchy and totalitarianism. Right now, liberalism is going through a totalitarian phase.

If you arm civilians, some individuals will abuse the right to bear arms. Liberals will point to isolated atrocities as proof that we need to confiscate guns. Of course, they don’t start with confiscation. Their policy is more incremental than that.

But if you disarm the citizenry, then the average citizen is literally defenseless against the criminal element. It all depends on whether the police can arrive in time. A minute too late and you’re dead.

For liberals, it’s better to have the occasional massacre of unarmed civilians by a well-armed sniper because that’s the price you pay for social control. The innocent must die for the common good. That’s the unfortunate, but necessary cost of preserving the social order. Don’t take it personally.

Of course, even if you accept that calculus in theory, it doesn’t work out that way in practice. Criminals soon outnumber policemen. Soon the police are outgunned. Organized crime takes over.

The right to bear arms goes back to the fundamental principle that I have the right and responsibility to defend myself and my family. The State doesn’t have the right to abrogate my individual right of self-defense. The State exists to protect my rights, not abrogate my rights by transferring them to the State.


  1. Steve,

    Given what you said about the state not having the right to take away your freedom of self-defense, in the event that the government does take away our right to bear arms, do you think it would be wrong to keep your guns secretly in case there is a time you might need them to protect you or your family?

  2. I think it would be appropriate to hide them from the authorities.

  3. That's interesting. Steve, I would be very interested in getting your thoughts on the Christian's obligation to submit to government authorities. I have a real struggle with this issue because, on the one hand, I can see in Scripture where we are commanded to honor our leaders and submit to authority. But on the other hand, the way most Christians I know present the case, it's almost as though the government has the right to make whatever laws they want and Christians are under obligation to submit themselves to those laws (with the one exception being in the case that the government orders us to disobey God). I mean, if the government were to pass a law that required all men to wear pink dresses at all times, would I really be sinning if I refused to wear the dress???