Rights, Regulation and Human Dignity

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September 14, 2012

By Paul Brink

This article was originally published as a part of the Gordon College Faith + Ideas conversation, and an earlier version appeared as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project, hosted by Harold Heie and cosponsored by the Center for Public Justice.  For additional perspectives or to join the conversation, go to www.respectfulconversation.net.

In July, Colorado movie fans thought they were getting a jump on the new Batman film. Instead, they faced a gunman who calmly took aim and began firing. In the barrage, 50 people were wounded; 12 were killed. Less than three weeks later, Sikh families attending a worship service were attacked by a gunman who suddenly opened fire, killing six worshipers. And two weeks ago, as commuters went to work near the Empire State building, a disgruntled colleague shot and killed a co-worker, and then was killed himself as police opened fire, wounding nine people in the process.

Shocking as these incidents have been, most gun deaths don’t make the headlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year over 30,000 people are killed in gun-related incidents—an average of over 80 each day. Not surprisingly, these high numbers lead many to conclude that greater state oversight is required. But again and again, calls for new and increased regulations of gun ownership are met by principled defenses of the right to bear arms.

In this debate over gun regulation, I sometimes wonder if we realize how strange the arguments appear from the outside. The idea that an “unrestricted right to gun ownership” must be maintained as a protection against government power sounds just a little over the top to contemporary ears, especially when most of America’s closest allies place significant restrictions on gun ownership and so far have managed to avoid the descent into tyranny. Were the consequences of this American peculiarity to be benign, we might actually smile at this historical quirk, as we do for the British who believe they aren’t really part of Europe, or for Canadians who believe that they really won the War of 1812.

But as this summer makes clear, this American peculiarity is not benign. There can be little doubt that contemporary interpretations of the Second Amendment have been the cause of considerable human suffering. Thousands of deaths could have been prevented were even relatively non-controversial proposed regulations put into place: trigger locks, comprehensive background checks, waiting periods and a ban on assault weapons. 

Even on these less controversial proposals, however, progress remains elusive. Despite this summer’s horrifying shootings, I don’t expect any new regulations to gain traction in this election cycle. A large part of the reason, in my view, can be placed on the American preoccupation with (and misunderstanding of) individual rights.

Let me be explicit: an “unrestricted right to gun ownership” is not a right. In fact, any “unrestricted right” is not a right. For rights to be genuine, for rights to be effective, for rights to be humane, for rights to be rights, they must be placed into social and political contexts—and that means regulation.

This view of rights emphasizes that they are one of the most important ways that we as a society have sought to honor and protect human dignity—in fact, the protection of human dignity is precisely what rights are for. A high view of dignity will pair rights with responsibilities, individual freedoms with the obligation to ensure that freedoms of others will be respected. If we believe that human dignity requires the right to bear arms, that same foundation of human dignity requires regulations to ensure that this right is appropriately related to all the other rights and responsibilities we bear. Our debate should not be whether regulation, but only which regulation.

Once we grant this point, the position of the National Rifle Association and others in the gun lobby against regulation in principle falls apart. Many of these arguments are slippery-slope arguments anyway, suggesting that waiting periods and trigger locks will somehow lead inexorably to government agents seizing hunting rifles. These arguments aren’t helpful—what we need instead are solid arguments that suggest how to move from high moral principle to effective policy and principled regulation. 

This fall, as we engage each other—and our candidates—on the controversies surrounding gun rights and gun control, let’s dare to dig a little deeper, to go beyond a mere defense of our own catalogue of rights, to a consideration of why we have these rights at all.

—Paul Brink is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.