Many conservatives refer to the right to own a gun as “God-given.” The idea is supposed to be that gun rights are not just political inventions, but natural rights that any society must recognize and respect. I think there is some truth to this, but I don’t think it makes sense to refer to gun rights as “God-given.”
Natural or God-given rights are claims to basic goods that are absolutely essential for our flourishing as human beings. There are a variety of means through which these basic goods can be attained, so whatever value we accord to a specific means to realizing a basic good is contingent, derivative, and instrumental. For example, I have a God-given right to life, but I don’t have a God-given right to own an oxygen tank, since an oxygen tank is not absolutely essential for my flourishing as a human being. Now if an oxygen tank does become necessary for my continued existence, then I would gain a moral right to use the oxygen tank that’s derivative from my God-given right to life. But that is a contingent matter. Having the right to life is part of what it means to be a human being, but the right to own an oxygen tank isn’t something that I have in virtue of being human. I am inherently worse off if I’m denied life, but I’m not inherently worse off if I’m denied an oxygen tank.
The same is true with guns: they are very useful instruments that can be used to effectively protect ourselves, but their value consists in the fact that they are just but one of many means to protecting our lives. Gun rights are derivative from the right of self-defense (which derives from the right to life). Now it’s plausible to say that there is a natural right to bear arms (in that the right to life and self-defense entails the natural right to reasonable means of self-defense), but it doesn’t make sense to say that there is a natural right to guns specifically. Otherwise, every single right that can be traced back to a natural right would count as “God-given,” meaning that right to own a gun would lose the special value that it’s supposed to have in referring to it as God-given.
None of this implies that guns aren’t important or that they don’t have special value. On the contrary, guns are an extremely effective means of self-defense, and governments should allow citizens to own and carry arms for their individual defense. I myself own several guns, and I carry my Smith and Wesson handgun whenever possible. But we shouldn’t exaggerate their importance.
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