Individual Sovereignty and the Case Against Gun Control
Katherine Revello (Classical Liberalism)
Property might be considered the cornerstone of human liberty. Indeed, the very concept of freedom requires that some entity—namely the individual—is capable of possessing rights. Absent personal sovereignty, then, freedom is not possible.
It is with the principle of sovereignty in mind that the issue of gun control must be considered.
There are two ways in which sovereignty operates in free societies. The first of these involves the Lockean social contract rationale: namely that government can provide security for the individual against the aggression of his fellow man. According to Locke, while certain laws of nature, such as reason, preternaturally teach “all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (1952, p. 4) only an overarching body with the force of law behind it can coerce this principle of respect for others that nature erects.
But sovereignty, at least within the tradition of Western democratic thought, adds another entity from whom the individual must be protected: the government. When, for instance, the individual has the implicit freedom to security of his person and property against unreasonable searches and seizures, government codifies the idea that it is not just one’s brethren against whose aggression the individual is protected, but the government’s as well. Implicit in this idea is another crucial component of individual sovereignty: if the government is so severely limited in its ability to control the property of citizens, the individual must be free to use his property—which includes his life—in whatever manner he deems appropriate. Unless some action of his infringes the rights of another, he is not compelled by the moral opprobrium of any politician who fancies himself a philosopher-king to order society in accordance with arbitrary judgment.
Gun control initiatives violate this principle. They seek to impose uniform morality upon citizens, in a way that exceeds the mandate of government to secure personal freedom and take away from individuals their sovereign right to make decisions for themselves.
For gun rights defenders and advocates of common-sense firearms regulations alike, guns are primarily one thing. These individuals generally perceive guns as a tool with an overwhelmingly positive potential that speaks to that powerful and most fundamental of human instincts: survival. Not only do they allow people to feed themselves (thus ameliorating the need that is a threat to one’s continued existence) but they also can be powerful protection against anyone who brushes aside reason and regard for the law and attempts to infringe upon another’s right to life.
Conversely, gun control activists primarily tend to see the evil guns can potentially do: the harm done to innocents who run afoul of those with bad motives. They too are concerned with preserving individual sovereignty and seek to insulate people from the damage to rights (such as life) done by armed and aggressive actors.
But the fact that such contradictory views can arise from the same position—a desire to preserve the ability of individuals to be secure from actions that infringe upon their rights—suggests that guns are only axiomatic to the gun control debate.
A gun is a tool and as such is morally neutral. Its utility is determined by the context in which it is being used. One cannot make any sort of empiric judgment about guns, or even the person who uses a gun. Consider a hypothetical home invasion in which the intruder and the homeowner both wield a firearm. Though both are part of the same interaction, one is used in the defence of freedom and security while the other is used to destroy those very principles. One must not look to the object, nor to the person who wields the object, but their end.
The end at issue here is the relationship between guns and personal sovereignty. Does the ability of individuals to purchase and use firearms affect the security of rights? The answer to that question, however, is not straightforward. And that is where gun control initiatives start to unravel.
Law, if at least considered in its abstract sense fair, must treat all citizens equally. Since justice is to be blind, the good of one citizen must be assumed to be approximately the good of all. And that view, in itself, is not a problem, particularly if one takes the Aristotelian view that political arrangements are at their heart a partnership, and all partnerships are entered into with the aim of bringing about good (1984, p. 35). Freedom is, after all, not particularly useful if one does not have the security in which to exercise it. In a certain sense then, one might consider that government has a mandate to enact laws that help better secure rights; gun control might seemingly fall under this category.
Practically though, the uniformity of the law does not necessarily translate into equal treatment. Disparate impacts arise in the way law affects individuals because the context in which they run up against it matters. Consider how death by firearms is treated differently depending upon whether the actor at issue is an aggressor or conversely kills in self-defence of his life. In the former case, the law holds the actor responsible, for he has clearly violated the right to life of another. But in the latter case, more nuance is involved. Some legal systems do not admit self-defence as a valid excuse against killing an aggressor unless all other options, such as the ability to flee the scene, have been eliminated. This has the potential to affect women differently than men (Carpenter, 2003, p. 657). And others use a broad interpretation of the Castle Doctrine—a legal principle evolved from English common law stating that every man’s home is his castle and he has the right to defend it as such—to give a great deal of latitude to those who claim self-defence in the killing an intruder.
A gun is a tool and as such is morally neutral. Its utility is determined by the context in which it is being used. Firearms are not a universal bad or a universal good; nor do judiciaries make a prima facie determination about the individuals who use them.
The virtue of each act is determined by the context which led to it being taken, a practice that is very much in keeping with the Aristotelian conception of virtue ethics. For Aristotle, virtue is a state of character, that involves an active decision to pursue an end at the right time, in reference to the right object, in the right way and with the right motive (2009. p. 30). It is a product of context.
Virtue cannot really be the basis for law, not in the least because it requires an individual using reason to discern the course of action that is in keeping with the conditions relative to him. Guns are tools and their utility is determined by the context in which they are used, as is their impact upon the free exercise of rights; a sweeping moral statement about guns and gun owners cannot be made.
And herein lies the problem with gun control: it tends to ignore the context in which guns are used and instead project the judgment of the individuals drafting policy upon the rest of the citizenry. Personal judgments are disguised as empiric facts. And this runs afoul of individual sovereignty. government, or, perhaps more accurately, the individuals whose decisions enervate the organs of government, become the moral arbiters of the citizenry. By using the law as a conduit through which they can impose their views on others, they take away from individuals their ability to live a life in keeping with the ideas and practices they have deemed most meritorious.
There are perfectly reasonable arguments for certain gun control regulations like universal background checks, or waiting periods. In certain cases, they may prevent an individual with nefarious intent from committing murder. But these have the unfortunate tendency to project guilt upon anyone desirous of purchasing a firearm. It implicitly holds that all would-be gun owners—even those who have demonstrated nothing that remotely resembles criminal desire—should be treated with suspicion and requires they prove their innocence to the state by jumping through a number of hurdles. But this impresses upon individuals conditions that are not compatible with the respect for sovereignty that is crucial to a liberal order.
Individuals are not secure in their person against unreasonable searches by the government when they must subject themselves to procedures like background checks. This is an end-run around due process, which exists specifically to ensure individuals are sovereign in all matters of morality and answerable to the judgments of another. Nor are they masters of their own affairs when they must answer for the impulses of those who choose to utilize guns in a manner that infringes upon the rights of others. In this way, gun control does harm to the sovereignty of the individual, an outcome that is ironic given a desire to “preserve rights” spurs such measures.
To watch Bill Watkin’s rebuttal to this article click here.
To read Evan Klim’s rebuttal to this article click here.
Author Bio & Links
Katherine Revello holds a BA in political science and another in journalism from the University of Maine. She is a freelance writer and the founder of The Politics of Discretion, a political commentary website dedicated to promoting an individualist epistemology.