Gun Rights are not God-Given

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.

Natural Lawyer

Natural Lawyer is the lead editor of Rightly Considered. He teaches philosophy somewhere in the southwestern United States.

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  1. The problem with “natural rights” is that there’s no end to them. It just depends on who’s making the list. Your list is a lot shorter than the one in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but it’s still too long. Rights arise from societal bargaining, by which I do not mean political bargaining, though political bargaining sometimes endorses the kinds of rights that arise from societal bargaining (e.g., the right not to be killed). I blame Locke, Jefferson, and “unalienable Rights” for the widely held but mistaken view that Americans have God-given rights.

    • “Rights arise from societal bargaining”

      So we only have the rights because we have decided, as a society, what rights we have?

  2. “The problem with “natural rights” is that there’s no end to them.”

    Couldn’t you say that about any rights? “The problem with x rights is that there is no end to them?”

    “Rights arise from societal bargaining”

    Perhaps. But how is that even possible if there hasn’t always been a society? In virtue of what did the first rights arise in society? And why think that rights arise from societal *bargaining* rather than in some other way?

  3. “The problem with “natural rights” is that there’s no end to them. It just depends on who’s making the list.”

    This is a bad objection, because it is so general it can be raised against virtually any criteria for determining rights, including the kind of social constructionist theory you gesture towards. Indeed, your preferred type of theory is, if anything, even more prone to multiply rights beyond necessity than is natural law theory. (Multiplying them while draining them of real moral or political significance at the meta-level, I should add.)

    So the fact that lists of rights can differ doesn’t matter. What matters is how the list is being assembled, what the underlying theory of the good and human nature is, what moral principles are being appealed to, etc.

  4. Yeah, more or less.

    The natural right to self-defense implies the right to defend one’s self through competent but proportionate means. The right to gun ownership and self-defence can be understood as a positive law produced specifically to accord and respect the natural right to self-defence within this day and age; hence, there is a social and cultural contingency for these rights.

    The denial of the positive law for these rights, within this day and age, could be well argued as a failure to respect the natural right to self-defence; and it is in this context-specific sense that the right to gun ownership can be understood as “God-given”.

  5. Our tradition pretty much begins with Locke’s formulation, who more or less used a cross-perspective method to elaborate on what people took rights to be in general—following from a Christian tradition (contra Straussians, Locke’s Christian grounding is inseparable from his personal theology). Locke indicated that we have the natural right to defend ourselves and our possessions, by punishing people who would claim them. Including punishing them by taking their life. Thus you would have a right to any evener by which you would surmount a possible difference in strength.

    Our right to bear arms is an expression of our natural right to self-defense and defense of property. Thus it is not so far removed from natural rights to have the same weaponry as is conceivably available to other parties, the government included. Contra to this, Locke did elaborate about surrendering rights to join a state, but you still have those rights you surrendered to the magistrate, as Locke refers to him. They still are yours proper. You comply , they do not become the state’s to tell you whether you have them.

    So you have a natural right to a weapon because you do not have to wait on the state to decide the extent to which you have a right to immediate self-defense. (Btw, I don’t have a weapon outside of a butcher’s knife in my home.)

    Now, in the tradition of Locke, this is not me telling you this. This is citing Locke, who has been pretty much an authority for conservatives. And one of the reasons that Locke has been a trustworthy authority, is because in my reading of him, this is not Locke telling you what is what, it is him distilling down what people in general take to be what.

    And let me illustrate what I mean on Locke’s distillation of “sweat equity”. Locke doesn’t simply tell you there’s “sweat equity” and that’s the basis of property. It’s funny to see conservatives more authoritarian on property than is the original source of that authority himself. There are conservatives that will simply loosely cite Locke and say they have “sweat equity” (dammit!) But they don’t know or are ignorant of Locke’s general sense of equity. We don’t just have sweat equity, Locke engages equitably in most considerations. Thus in his Letter(s) Concerning Tolerance, he frequently asks for reflection: “How would you take it?”. If the king–and whoever the king delegates–is to the be form of religious authority in England, if we are in France for a sojourn, do we need to heed whatever the authority in France says? Locke leverages our own skepticism of other people’s position, to clear away preconceptions.

    So when Locke considers how an apple becomes “yours”, he doesn’t just levy assumptions on you. He illustrates a general form of communal equity focused on the subject of whatever “property” is and comes to the reliable observation that–outside of bound servants–people take a man’s work to be his own (even though they may still accept slavery in part). That no man being your controller, you have a right to pick an apple from a tree to sustain yourself, and by the act of as little work as that, the apple is yours.

    Thus a bedrock of conservative theory: property and the formulation under Locke which is almost un-doubted “sweat equity” is simply part of a larger equity of people treating each other as they would want to be treated. Thus each person has the right to punish those who engage in a “state of war” with other people, and it would be hard to see the equitable case that they do not.

    Again, I cite Locke not because you better believe in Locke! As a procedural nominalist, I can’t believe in anything as definite as “A State of War”, but as a procedural nominalist, I have to make a bow to the idea that it describes something that is clear enough to merit a name, and I’m not against “A State of War” as an analogical metaphor. But on the same footing, I can’t believe as much in an absolute “sweat equity” except that I find it an equitable description of human effort, and much a process of “materialism” to wide abstraction and purism that Marx engages in.

    “Unlimited” needs to be seen with some analysis. The set of all squares is theoretically unlimited, but it does have a sort of “boundary” (partition really) among all the numbers that do not have an integral square root. In any set 1..N, the probability of landing on a square ever decreases with N. Thus we can have an ever expanding set of squares that does not eclipse the numbers that are not squares. Thus theoretically natural rights are unlimited, but they have a boundary at your neighbor’s nose and property. And we see this all the time in zoning laws, you do not have the right to determine what happens on your property so that it eliminates a neighbor’s enjoyment of their own property. By living in close proximity, you have agreed to keep the effect of your decisions to the confines of your own property.

    I couldn’t leave this here without confessing that I find natural numbers to actually be the potential expansion of a successor relationship, they don’t exist in actuality, they are leveragable in need and by extension to our need to quantify. So unlimited squares don’t “actually exist”, but in extensible theory do. But I think this well fits in with natural rights. Some rights are derived both from those rights we have in nature, but also by natural occurrence as logical elaborations of those rights. So if the process of nature makes a gun metal and gunpowder available in the form of a gun, and you can engage in self-defense by that development, you have a right to that tool, because nobody has the complete authority over you to say you do not. In equity, you must purchase it by means that society takes as proper assumption of property. I don’t have a right to your gun, or a gun right off the assembly line because I don’t have one.

    Of course, all this is in the tradition of Locke, who is simply recommendable to us as a humble observer, who wrote quite a bit of what he wrote anonymously because he could have been jailed for any of his disagreements with royally-commissioned authorities as a common caretaker of the sick, and not endowed with any authority by any accepted authority.

  6. “Natural or God-given rights are claims to basic goods that are absolutely essential for our flourishing as human beings.”

    If God gives natural rights, as you define them above, and there are rights derivative from these, then hasn’t God indirectly given you the derivative rights too? I guess that would mean that the status of God-given isn’t so special. What’s so bad about that?

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