As the number of violent crimes involving guns climbs the issue of who can have one and why becomes increasingly important in a civil society. There are strong arguments for and against legal ownership of personal firearms for good reason – the philosophical foundations of both sides have merit.
At the end of the day the debate comes down to the relationship between liberty of the individual and order in society. The two do not always have an easy coexistence, and earnest gun debates struggle to resolve conflict between these values. It’s worth thinking about.
Individual Rights and Freedoms
In Western society people are understood to have the right to their being. The body, mind, spirit are “owned” by the individual. This is the philosophical foundation of our legal system – you own the property rights to you. The notion was advocated by John Locke nearly 300 years ago and remains foundational today. This is the bedrock of liberty.
Extending this basic principle, our society treats products of the individual as personal property as well. Labor, speech, spiritual worship, physical property, copyrights, patents, trademarks – all of these things are products of body, mind and spirit and are the property of the individual in Western legal systems. And so they should be.
But these rights are not unconstrained. While a person has the right to property of their own creation they do not have the right to use or take possession of another person’s property without their express consent. That’s what puts the “civil” in civil society.
The challenge is how to protect the rights of the individual, when people have unequal capabilities to defend their rights. Inevitably someone will violate the rights of someone else. There are two ways to approach this problem: 1) leave it to individuals to sort out (anarchy) or 2) delegate authority for arbitration to someone else (government). Modern societies have chosen government, to reduce the likelihood of injustice and violence that accompanies anarchistic dispute settlement. This is the foundation of the social contract between the government and the governed.
Law, Order and Good Government
The social contract requires people to surrender some of their personal freedoms to a governing body to enable us to enjoy the benefits of an orderly civil society instead of an anarchistic “might is right” society. We give up the personal right of action, including force, to protect our individual rights. In exchange, our government is obliged to enforce our rights on our behalf. This is the foundation of the rule of law.
Good government should protect our rights from violations and cause amends to be made when violations occur. Laws defining the rights of citizens, a system of law enforcement and a judiciary system are the mechanism we have constructed to enable good government. If these systems worked perfectly, there would be no reason whatsoever to individuals to resort to violence to resolve disputes. In theory we would have no need for arms of any kind, as long as the government lives up to it’s end of the social contract. And therein lies the problem.
Who governs the government? For the social contract to be valid people must believe in the government will protect their personal rights and freedoms. This is true regardless of the form of government: monarchy, dictatorship and democracy all require the consent of the people to govern. Unless they can replace consent with enforcement. And that is where this governing thing gets sticky.
Since governments are run by people, they are not perfect. Whether through incompetence or corruption, injustices will happen. Error and omission is acceptable to most people up to a point. Beyond that point the social contract breaks, and people will no longer accept the validity of the rule of law, and the the social contract is broken. If the social contract is broken it must be restored or we descend into anarchy – citizens enforcing what they think the law should be as individuals. Citizens taking up arms because they believe policing is ineffective is one example of a breakdown in the social contract.
The only way for the government to retain control when the social contract breaks is with force. The exercise of force can be effected through laws, law enforcement and judicial decisions – all of which are controlled by the government. Restoring the social contract can only be achieved by changing the government. How do we do that?
When political processes enable effective change to government, all is well. But that’s not always going to be the case. If there is a lack of viable competing alternatives, political change can be blocked. A self-serving “political class” that is unresponsive to the citizenry can perpetuate control by suppressing change just as effectively as a dictator maintains control with force. When the political system fails to respond to a broken social contract, the right to defend one’s liberty transcends the rights of government. And this is where guns come in.
When the social contact is broken and political means are not available to restore integrity to it, the justification for surrendering power to government is no longer valid. The freedom of the individual to protect their rights and liberty devolves back to the individual. And that means individual should reclaim power from the government – temporarily – in order to effect change outside the political process. This does not mean the individual should enforce the law themselves in the absence of good government, it means citizens have to act together to replace their leaders. This is revolution – an extreme response to an extreme situation.
Revolution does not have to be violent. Wise leaders will respond to the outcry of their citizens and respect their obligations to fulfill their end of the social contract. The outcry may be heard through protests, the press, petitions – there are lots of non-violent means of achieving change, and they often work effectively to achieve social change. Unwise leaders pose a different problem.
Since government has control of the law, law enforcement and the judiciary, there is a risk that these tools – designed to protect citizen rights – can be abused as means to perpetuate a corrupt or incompetent government. If the government uses violence to control the citizenry then – and only then – the people are quite right to respond in kind. This is the case many make for an armed citizenry. But aren’t the Police and Judiciary citizens?
If the government is so corrupt or incompetent that it has to resort to force in lieu of fulfilling it’s obligations under the social contract we have to ask -why wouldn’t the police (and other armed) forces join the citizenry in revolt? Our sense is they would in most cases, negating the justification for individuals to take up arms.
This is one of the keys to maintaining a free and functioning society – excellent relationships between citizens, law enforcement and the military. Law enforcement and military people are our neighbors, friends, families and fellow citizens. They’re also the employees of the citizenry, and their first loyalty should be to the people, not the government. Keeping a sense of community and humanity strong in these relationships is essential to the protection of civil society.
The argument that guns and other means of violence belong in the hands of the citizenry to protect against government oppression has some merit, but in our view does not carry the day.
An armed citizenry violates the fundamental principles of the social contract. As long as the government fulfills it’s end of the social contract by protecting individual rights effectively there is no justification for citizens to arm themselves.
In the event government oppression reaches an intolerable state, there are means to reclaim power and effect change – politically, socially and ultimately through collaboration with law enforcement and the military, who are accountable to their fellow citizens.