Despite the heroic efforts of Sen. Bob Smith to turn it back, the latest batch of irrational and servile restrictions on the Second Amendment continues to ooze its way through that allegedly deliberative institution, the Congress. Perhaps because the gun control debate is now so entirely drenched in the emotive sludge that is the principal intellectual food of our political establishment, this seems a good moment to recall the deep reasons, the fundamental context, that must inform any responsible deliberations on the question of an armed citizenry.
I believe that underlying all of the prominent issues of the day -- abortion, the breakdown of the family and of our educational institutions, the betrayal of our national sovereignty and military readiness, and the ongoing expansion of government's tyrannical claims to tax and regulate -- we can discern what is essentially one moral challenge which manifests itself in many areas. Simply stated, that challenge has to do with the corruption of our understanding of freedom, which leads to the abandonment of respect for law and individual responsibility, the twin pillars which ought to under-gird true freedom.
As a free people, our way of life depends upon certain moral ideas. As a matter of personal conscience, I believe that Christianity most perfectly embodies those ideas. But since Americans come from many different religious backgrounds, in dealing with issues of public policy, we must derive these ideas from sources that are open to support from all the people.
Nothing meets this purpose more completely than the principles and logic of our own Declaration of Independence, so American citizens and statesmen should make it the explicit basis for dealing with the moral crisis we now face.
The Declaration is fundamentally a statement of the principles of justice that define the moral identity of the American people. It presents a certain concept of our human nature and draws out the political consequences of that concept.
All human beings are created equal. They need no title or qualification beyond their simple humanity in order to command respect for their intrinsic human dignity, their "unalienable rights." The purpose of government is to secure these rights, and no government is just or legitimate if it systematically violates them.
But the Declaration is more than just an assertion of rights. It also makes a clear statement about the ultimate source of authority which commands respect for those rights. God, the Creator, the author of the laws of nature, is that source.
Thus the effective prerequisite for human rights is respect for God's authority and His eternal laws. This is also the prerequisite for the idea of government based upon consent, which includes free elections, representation, due process of law, etc. If we accept the logic of our Declaration of Independence, this reverence for God is not just a matter of religious faith. It is the foundation of justice and citizenship in our republic.
Therefore, our freedom is derived from our respect for law, especially the highest law as embodied in the will of the Creator. Thus freedom, rightly understood, cannot be confused with mere licentiousness. It first of all involves the duty to respect its own foundations in the laws of nature and nature's God. That's why our rights are "unalienable," which means that we do not have the right to surrender or destroy them by our choice or actions.
Indeed, if we make the judgment that our rights are being systematically violated, we have the duty to resist and overthrow the power responsible. This duty involves both the judgment and the moral and material capacity to resist tyranny. These principles constitute our character as a free people, which it is our duty to maintain.
It is in the context of these principles that we must understand the purpose of the Second Amendment, and the duties that it implies. The Founders added the Second Amendment to the Constitution so that when, after a long train of abuses, a government evinces a methodical design upon our natural rights, we will have the means to protect and recover those rights.
If we make the judgment that our rights are being systematically violated, we have not merely the right, but the duty, to resist and overthrow the power responsible. It is very hard to do this if the government has all the weapons, something that our Founders and the generations before and after them knew from repeated and first-hand experience, as well as from a study of history. A strong case can be made, therefore, that it is a fundamental DUTY of the free citizen to keep and bear arms.
The claim that the Second Amendment is principally concerned with the maintenance of state militias -- military bodies under the direction and control of state governments -- is not just historically false, it is also fundamentally incoherent. It would make no sense whatsoever to restrict the right to keep and bear arms to state governments, since the principle on which our polity is based, as stated in the Declaration, recognizes that any government, at any level, can become oppressive of our rights. And we must be prepared to defend ourselves against its abuses. The gun control movement is incompatible with the sovereignty of the people, because it aims to eliminate one of the key material supports of that sovereignty.
This is not the principal danger of the gun control movement, however. Perhaps more important than the physical disarmament the government is attempting is the moral disarmament that accompanies it. If we accept the view that the American people cannot be trusted with the material objects necessary to defend their liberty, we will surely accept as well the view that the American people cannot be trusted with liberty itself. Why should a man who can't be trusted to refrain from murder be trusted with the much more difficult and morally subtle task of choosing his leaders responsibly?
The advocates of gun control take as their first principle that the American people are morally incompetent creatures of passion. The America they envision for us is, accordingly, more like a national 24-hour day-care center than a self-governing republic of free men and women. If we agree to accept this apparently comfortable arrangement, we will have to check our citizenship at the door along with our guns.
If, on the other hand, we intend to exercise the duties of self-government and justice that are our patrimony as free and rational creatures, then we will need to think clearly and coherently about securing the means necessary to do so. We must defend the moral self-confidence of America by reasserting the capacity of our people to make the most important decisions and bear the most important responsibilities themselves. And we must retain the material means necessary to shoot the windows out of the national day-care center, if it comes to that.
Second Amendment rights are sacred because of their connection to higher rights and higher duties, which are the very substance of liberty and justice, and to the God that America has always acknowledged as the source of both. We cannot surrender our guns without surrendering the vision of human dignity under God which is our national soul. The slow erosion of our national understanding of this fact is continuing in the Congress. Only a citizenry armed with a clear understanding of what is at stake can ultimately save us from the civic imbecility to which the gun control movement leads. By disarming, we will confess to our government that we no longer aspire to sovereignty, and wish our rulers to take up this burden in our stead. We will be signaling with great clarity that we wish to be comfortable slaves -- and slaves, at least, we will soon become.
The terrible history of the 20th century should make clear enough that subjection to unlimited government is not desirable. But a clear and thoughtful examination of our national principles teaches us also that it is our duty to shun such servitude. It is our right, and it is our duty, to remain free.
Mr. Keyes has also stated: "If we accept the view that the American people cannot be trusted with the material objects [firearms] necessary to defend their liberty, we will surely accept as well the view that the American people cannot be trusted with liberty itself."
This was an article in the LA Times for Sunday, November 7, 1999
The Last Line of
The right to bear arms is a matter of individual safety and,
ultimately, freedom. The issue goes far beyond gun nuts.
By ROBERT J. COTTROL
The central premise of the gun control movement is that society becomes more civilized when the citizen surrenders the means of self-defense, leaving the state a monopoly of force.
That this premise goes largely unchallenged is the most remarkable feature of our gun control debate. We are ending a century that has repeatedly witnessed the consequences of unchecked state monopolies of force. University of Hawaii political scientist Rudolph J. Rummel, one of the leading students of democide (mass murder of civilian populations by governments), has estimated that nearly 170 million people have been murdered by their own governments in our century. The familiar list of mass murderers--Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot--only scratches the surface. The mass slaughter of helpless, unarmed civilian populations continues in Sudan, Rwanda, parts of the former Yugoslavia and East Timor.
The reluctance of outside forces to intervene is well documented. And yet the obvious question is strangely absent: Would arms in the hands of average citizens have made a difference? Could the overstretched Nazi war machine have murdered 11 million armed and resisting Europeans while also taking on the Soviet and Anglo-American armies? Could 50,000 to 70,000 Khmer Rouge have butchered 2 million to 3 million armed Cambodians? The answers are by no means clear, but it is unconscionable that they are not being asked.
Need Americans have such concerns? We have been spared rule by dictators, but state tyranny can come in other forms. It can come when government refuses to protect unpopular groups--people who are disfavored because of their political or religious beliefs, their ancestry or the color of their skin. Our past has certainly not been free of this brand of state tyranny. In the Jim Crow South, for example, government failed to protect blacks from extra-legal violence. Given our history, it's stunning that we fail to question those who would force us to rely totally on the state for defense.
Nor should our discussion be limited to foreign or historical examples. The lives and freedoms of decent, law-abiding citizens throughout our nation, especially in our dangerous inner cities, are constantly threatened by criminal predators. This has devastated minority communities. And yet the effort to limit the right to armed self-defense has been most intense in such communities. Bans on firearm ownership in public housing, the constant effort to ban pistols poor people can afford--scornfully labeled "Saturday night specials" and "junk guns"--are denying the means of self-defense to entire communities in a failed attempt to disarm criminal predators. In many under-protected minority communities, citizens have been disarmed and left to the mercy of well-armed criminals.
This has led to further curtailment of freedom. Consider initiatives in recent years to require tenants in public housing to allow their apartments to be searched. First, police failed for decades to protect citizens in many of our most dangerous public housing projects. Next, as the situation became sufficiently desperate, tenants were prohibited from owning firearms for their own defense. Finally the demand came, "Surrender your right to privacy in your home." The message could not be clearer: A people incapable of protecting themselves will lose their rights as a free people, becoming either servile dependents of the state or of the criminal predators who are their de facto masters.
All of this should force us to reconsider our debate over arms and rights. For too long, it has been framed as a question of the rights of sportsmen. It is far more serious: The 2nd Amendment has something critical to say about the relationship between the citizen and the state. For most of human history, in most of the nations in the world, the individual has all too often been a helpless dependent of the state, beholden to the state's benevolence and indeed competence for his physical survival.
The notion of a right to arms bespeaks a very different relationship. It says the individual is not simply a helpless bystander in the difficult and dangerous task of ensuring his or her safety. Instead, the citizen is an active participant, an equal partner with the state in ensuring not only his own safety but also that of his community.
This is a serious right that takes the individual from servile dependency on the state to the status of participating citizen, capable of making intelligent choices in defense of life and ultimately of freedom. This conception of citizenship recognizes that the ultimate civil right is the right to defend one's own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless and that without the means, the right to self-defense is but an empty promise.
Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The 2nd Amendment is too important to leave to the gun nuts.
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Robert J. Cottrol is a professor of law and history at George Washington University. His most recent book is "From African to Yankee: Narratives of Slavery and Freedom in Antebellum New England" (M.E.Sharpe, 1998).