TAMPA, December 16, 2012 ― The right to keep and bear arms is not granted to Americans in the U.S. Constitution, nor in the “Bill of Rights.” The right to keep and bear arms is a natural right, inextricably linked to the right to life.
The Second Amendment recognizes this. It does not say that the right “shall be granted” to anyone. It assumes the right already exists and says it “shall not be infringed.”
All rights are negative. We do not have a positive right to anything. Rights merely prohibit other people from aggressing against us. If someone is struck by lightning and killed, we do not say that his right to life has been violated. Neither do we say so if he is eaten by a lion.
No, the right to life is very narrowly defined as the right not to be killed by another human being, other than in self-defense. Obviously, the only way to exercise this right is to defend oneself if attacked. There is no other circumstance in which the “right to life” has any meaning.
Given that an aggressor may have weapons or may simply be a more capable fighter, individuals must be able to arm themselves sufficiently to overcome these disadvantages. That is how they exercise their right to life.
These rights pre-exist government. They exist in what Enlightenment philosophers called “the state of nature,” which is the state without government. These thinkers had different ideas about nature and society, but all agreed on one thing. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.
John Locke’s “Essay Concerning the true origin, extent and end of Civil Government (1690)” inspired the entire American philosophy, according to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought it so important that posterity understand this that he had a resolution passed to proclaim it.
This was due to the important differences between Locke’s philosophy and others. Unlike Rousseau, who claimed that when joining society man had to agree to “the total alienation of all of his natural rights,” Locke said that man entered society to preserve those rights. That’s why the Declaration of Independence says that certain rights are inalienable.
The only rights that man gives up upon entering society are the right to judge his own case in a dispute and the right to enforce that judgment. These he gives up to the government in return for the superior protection of his life, liberty and property that the government supposedly provides.
However, these powers only pertain to crimes that occurred in the past. The government has no power over the future or the present. It cannot prosecute someone for a crime that he will commit tomorrow and it cannot protect the individual from a crime occurring right now.
Therefore, the individual retains the right to defend himself against aggression occurring in the present, even after giving up other powers to the government. Locke is very clear about this.
“Thus a thief, whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill, when he sets on me to rob me but of my horse or coat; because the law, which was made for my preservation, where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force, which, if lost, is capable of no reparation, permits me my own defence, and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge…” [emphasis added]
Reason inevitably leads one to this conclusion: The right to keep and bear arms exists in nature and is never given up in any social contract, because no government is able to defend its citizen in the present.
This also clears up a common misconception. Since the government is unable to defend you in the present, it is not true that by surrendering the right to bear arms you place care of your life in the hands of the government. You must be placing it elsewhere.
Since it no longer resides in you either, the care of your life must now reside in your attacker.
This is not some theoretical exercise that is only true in a classroom or lecture hall. This was the very real situation that defenseless teachers and children found themselves in on Friday. The school was a “gun-free zone,” meaning that all who entered it agreed to surrender their right to keep and bear arms.
The government didn’t defend them because it couldn’t. The government was only able to respond after the attack commenced.
Therefore, the only one who was able to make a decision whether they lived or died was Adam Lanza.
One would think that tragedies like this and in other gun-free zones like the City of Aurora, Colorado, Ft. Hood or Columbine High School would have taught Americans a very clear lesson. Do not put the lives of our children and their teachers into the hands of homicidal maniacs.
Instead, the hue and cry is for exactly the opposite. Not only should schoolchildren be deprived of their right to life, but all of society.
Locke called any social contract where the individual accepts even worse protection of his life and property than he had in the state of nature “too gross an absurdity for any man to own.” He would call most reactions to this latest school shooting downright insane.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.