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    Understanding Guns in America: Natural Rights and Legal Rights

    January 19, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Declaration of Independence came after the start of the war, when it became evident that our differences with England — or, more accurately, King George — were irreconcilable. The text of the Declaration, then, gives us many clues as to the cultural, philosophical, and historical context — a context which eventually informed the Constitution and Bill of Rights, including our beloved Second Amendment.

    In the Introduction, the Declaration says:

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    So we see that the Founders start right off by referring to natural rights. The next sentence {the beginning of the Preamble} affirms this:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    We often focus on the end of this sentence, but I’ve highlighted some other words above because this is what I’m focusing on today: the concept of natural rights.

    Natural rights are fundamentally different from legal rights. Legal rights are particular to a certain time and place. They flow from the government to the citizen {of course, in a Republic, the government derives its power from the citizen in the first place, but we’ll get into that another day}. Natural rights are different; they are universal, fundamental to the accepted ideal conditions of mankind.

    Now, the philosophical history of natural rights varies. Some, like Hobbes, believed they came from man himself, from man’s ability to use reason. The Declaration, however, claims that they come from the Creator.

    So, you see, the traditional American view is that there are some rights that are universal {they are the birthright of all men}, that are normative {they are prescribed for man by Nature, but obviously can be ignored by men in power}, and that are not to be infringed by an ideal government.

    The question, then, becomes whether gun ownership is a natural right. I wish that this was the actual discussion we were having, because then we would be discussing what is normative and prescriptive. We would be having a discussion about some of the most important ideas out there, about things which transcend our own time.

    The acknowledged natural rights were life, liberty, and property {Locke called them life, liberty, and estate}. Keeping and bearing arms was attendant to these three; the ability to defend the three natural rights was considered the fourth natural right. It could even be said that keeping and bearing arms was the foundation of the natural rights.

    A man in full possession of his natural rights was said to be free. Bearing arms was the distinction of a free man, according to James Burgh {from Political Disquisitions, 1774}:

    The possession of arms is the distinction between a freeman and a slave. He, who has nothing, and who himself belongs to another, must be defended by him, whose property he is, and needs no arms.

    The purpose of this series, if you recall, is to try and understand gun ownership in America. Why do Americans own guns? Why do we like owning guns? {Why does no one complain that the Swiss own guns? But I digress…}

    Today’s lesson is simple. We believe that gun ownership is a natural right — not a legal one. Because of this, any infringement upon it is immoral. Natural rights do not change over time — they are a right of all men at all times.

    When we debate the Second Amendment, then, we need to talk about natural rights. Natural rights do not change, so is weapon ownership not a natural right? What other natural rights were the Founders wrong about? Is there also no natural right to life? To liberty? To property? If the Founders were correct about life, liberty, and property, why should we think they were wrong about weapons? Are we aware that natural rights were considered to be among the Permanent Things? Why do we think our forbears were wrong? What evidence can someone give that natural rights do not exist, or that the right to bear arms is not among them?

    These are, I believe, good questions to think through.


    Read the Understanding Guns in America Series:
    Introduction
    The Noise that Made the Redcoats Run
    Our Inherited Rights as Free Englishmen
    Natural Rights and Legal Rights ⇦ you are here
    James Madison’s Angel Problem
    On Amendments and Ratification
    Res Publica, the Nature of a Republic

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    12 Comments

  • Reply Freedom, by the way January 23, 2013 at 1:19 am

    Enjoyed this series, tremendously. What has happened to us, as a nation, is that personal responsiblity and self-reliance have become outdated notions. It takes hard work and failure will occur somewhere along the way. Too many Americans are happy to let someone else make decisions for them and take care of them. They don’t want to be free! My biggest pet peeve is when the president or just your average joe citizen says that the governments #1 job is to keep us safe. NOT IT’S NOT. The government’s #1 job is to protect our liberties. There is a BIG difference.

    • Reply Lady M January 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm

      Freedom, by the way: I agree with you. Amen, Amen.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 24, 2013 at 4:16 am

      I am glad you have enjoyed the series, Freedom! You are welcome around Afterthoughts anytime, of course. Tomorrow is the final installment, if all goes as planned. 🙂

  • Reply Rahime January 21, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    I remember reading Marx in a certain great books program in college and in the class of 20 only one other student and I thought that it didn’t sound like a good plan for government. I can’t remember ever being so depressed about the direction of our country as after that discussion.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 22, 2013 at 12:11 am

      Well, that’s frightening, but I can’t really say I’m surprised. I think many people have an aversion to *words* like “Marx” or “communism” or whatever, but if you just talk about the ideas, they agree. What is frightening to me is that those things are based in a distinctly NON-Christian worldview, and yet I’m talking about people who believe…

  • Reply Rebekah January 20, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Lady M’s comment reminded me of something. Several years ago I read the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels. In part it talks about using various forms of socialism as a path to full out communism. But the main thing I wish to point out is it sets out ten points or signs of success for communism being established in “the most advanced countries”. When my book club read it in 2011 our group decided we all agreed at least seven points were fulfilled in whole or part. Now, as I read it again, I can see all but a part of one point in fruition. Sadly, our country reflects the ideals of Marx much more than those of our founders.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 20, 2013 at 11:29 pm

      You remind me that I need to read Marx again.

      I remember reading the action points for the Communist party from years ago and noticing that many of those had been achieved as well. Surely they are similar!

  • Reply Lady M January 20, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Property rights are under attack as well. People are very excited about paying off their mortgages, but if they fail to pay the taxes after that, the local government will take away the ownership of the house/land from them in order to satisfy the debt of taxes. Or how about “right of way” – yes, they will purchase your property from you, but if you don’t like the deal, then they can condemn your property and take it from you (and give you even less than they offered you in the first place). My favorite is (and this has been a problem recently in my state and others as well): “We the city/county/state think that your personal house/property would do better rezoned as a commercial property and you have to go away because we will get more tax dollars from said business. We will do whatever we can to make your continued residence as much of a hassle as we can – even if you are a 92 year old man with cancer who wants to live out the rest of your days on the family farm of 4-5 generations.” And they do. Filing for property neglect (ie, not kept up to pristine standards that no one else has to live by). Our liberty and right to life is just as much at risk (don’t go into a coma or acquire a disability that might or might not affect your quality of life – and we have already allowed with our pre-born citizens). Sigh.

    Before I forget, because I will – I often hear that the 2nd Amendment only referred to muskets. Do people honestly think that our forefathers thought we would be stuck in time, never to upgrade or invent ever again and that muskets would be our only form of a gun? So, if the guns go, who has the right to protect us from harm? Police won’t. They do not have to protect you. That gun is to protect themselves. The whole sound bite of “when seconds count, police are minutes away”. I think of 2 separate incidents in the USA where people had a home invasion and we can only imagine had those people not had their gone to fight off the attacker. One invader died because of the wounds (or was it the pole that he hit with his vehicle that did him in) and the other lived. If people would rather their 12 year old daughter get accosted (and perhaps worse), then lets get rid of the option to protect ourselves with a weapon that will absolutely stop those who want to do us harm.

    Okay, wandering thoughts over. Sorry, Brandy!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      I am so glad you tied these things together, Lady M!

      I think the fact that these things are declining together–multiple amendments from the Bill of Rights being attacked at once–is more a sign of cultural decay. Fewer people than ever believe in absolutes–and natural rights are absolutes in the sense that they are universal {though our understanding of them can be imperfect}.

      I had a relative whose property was stolen that way–they wanted a business on the property that would produce more taxes for the city. And there was a home invasion a block away from us last week! There has been a lot of target practice around here since…The children built a fortification in the backyard and are becoming good aims with their BB guns. 🙂

  • Reply amy in peru January 19, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    i love that you are posting all this. 🙂 it’s so fun to agree.
    my boys and i have just been thinking through some of these very things with: whatever happened to justice, scheduled in AOy8!

  • Reply Jeanne January 19, 2013 at 12:39 am

    We discuss Switzerland’s gun laws too. The difference, though is that Switzerland has a population less than New York City’s. I believe that gun control there is becoming an issue as well. The recent referendum is evidence of this.

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