The issue of gun control is one of a plethora of hot button political issues in American culture, and recent events in New Zealand have brought it back to the forefront. Many people today wish to see tough laws banning the sale of certain if not all firearms in order to combat acts of criminal violence involving firearms. Many, however, see such gun control as a violation of one’s natural rights as codified in the Second Amendment of the Constitution and something that is illegal if not immoral. I shall argue that the latter argument has both rational and theological merit based on the right to life.
To begin, we need to define what natural rights are and why they are important. Natural (i.e. inalienable or unalienable) rights are those that are not dependent on any culture or legal system in order to exist. People have these rights at all times. Even though they can be violated, they cannot be taken away or modified. This is because such rights are based in the way reality is structured (i.e. nature). Natural rights have a close affinity with the notion of natural law. This theory proposes to identify universal principles of function and conduct in human nature which indicates how humans flourish. As a result, one gets a basic methodology that provides a set of general and universal moral standards. Out of these principles come various rights. Traditionally, natural law and natural rights are derived from a transcendent source typically identified with God.
One of the most important of these natural rights is the right to life. One can see this right established in the Ten Commandments where God declares that one shall not commit murder. As Gen 9:5 states, God requires a justification for the death of a human being. No one can take away another person’s life on unjustified grounds. Philosopher John Locke famously established the right to life as the core natural right from which other rights flow, and he based the existence of that right on humanity’s creation by God. Locke’s philosophy would later be borrowed by the Founding Fathers, and the right to life was enshrined within the Declaration of Independence as part of the justification for rebellion against Great Britain.
How, therefore, does the right to life affect the gun control debate? As stated previously, the right to life implies other rights. For example, if one has a right to live, then one has a right to property to facilitate living as well as a right to the liberty to acquire that property. The same can be argued when it comes to the right to possess firearms. Consider the following argument:
(1) If people have a right to life, then people have a right to protect and preserve that life.
(2) If people have a right to protect and preserve that life, then people have a right to the weapons necessary to protect and preserve that life.
(3) If people have a right to the weapons necessary to protect and preserve that life, then people have a right to possess those firearms necessary to protect and preserve that life.
(4) Consequently, if people have a right to life, then people have a right to possess those firearms necessary to protect and preserve that life.
Like with the rights to property and liberty, the right to possess all manner of firearms can be derived from the right to life. As a result, gun control violates the right to life by preventing people from acquiring the tools necessary for the preservation of their lives. Firearms are certainly a necessary kind of weapon for defense in today’s technological world. Further, if it is immoral to deny people their right to life unjustly, then it is immoral to deny people their right to acquire the firearms necessary to protect that life.
Some may counter this argument by claiming that while people do have a right to firearms certain kinds of firearms are not necessary to the protection of the right to life. For example, many have claimed that military style firearms like the AR-15 are not necessary to protect and preserve one’s life; therefore, these weapons may be banned without violating one’s rights. This suggestion, however, is false. While one may not need military style firearms to protect one’s life from a fellow civilian, such tools are necessary to protect and preserve one’s life from abusive government forces. If the 20thcentury demonstrated anything, it is that governments can and have ruthlessly oppressed and mass murdered their civilians. From the gas chambers of Germany, the gulags of the Soviet Union, and the killing fields of Cambodia, it has been aptly demonstrated that people’s lives need protection from abusive government forces. Given that governments have access to the latest military style firearms, it is necessary that civilians have access to similar tools to protect and preserve that life from an oppressive government.
As a result, the argument against military style firearms does not work. It is not evident that certain kinds of firearms are unnecessary and off limits to civilians. Will people abuse their right to these firearms? Yes, for humanity is sinful. This fact, however, does not imply that the right to firearms should be rescinded any more than people’s right to own a car or right to liberty should be rescinded due to potential abuse. People may drive their car recklessly and cause a fatality, but that does not mean that cars should be banned for everyone. People can abuse their liberty by harming others, but that does not mean everyone should become a slave.
It seems then, from both a rational and theological perspective, that gun control is illegal and immoral as it denies one the right to life enshrined by God and preserved in the Constitution. The only thing the critic has left is to deny the right to life or to deny the right to protect and preserve that life, and neither of these positions is rationally, morally, or theologically promising. As a result, it seems that Christians should stand against gun control on the grounds of preserving one’s right to life.
By gun control, I do not wish to imply anything more than the stated claim that certain kinds or all firearms should be kept out of the possession of civilians. Some regulations on the proper sale of firearms may be both moral and necessary.
John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 18, 23; Mark Murphy, Natural Law and Practical Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 21-30, 32, 40.
Jean Porter, Natural and Divine Law (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 32, 49-51, 90-91, 97, 176; J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downer Grove, IL: Intervaristy Press, 1997), 180-81; Craig Boyd, A Shared Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 48-51.
As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
This kind of argument is cited by Congress when they adopted the Bill of Rights in 1789, which was ultimately ratified by the states in 1791. See https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript; accessed March 2, 2019.