Now, as a matter of law in the United States we have the Second Amendment. So I should be clear that I'm talking about moral rights, the pre-legal rights that we think justify the legal rights we uphold. Though legal structures might exist to protect a certain legal right, this right might not be supported by a solid moral justification.
Nevertheless, I think there is ground for questioning the legal right. I'll begin with my argument against the legal right. I'll conclude by arguing against the moral right, where I take my case to be stronger. If correct, this argument would justify our removal of the Second Amendment from US law.
Against the Legal Right
For reference, consider the Second Amendment:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.The first thing that strikes me about this amendment is that it is not a well-written sentence. Because of that, it's not exceptionally clear. But what is important to notice is that regulation is mentioned by the third word. Since the need for "a well regulated militia" appears to be the justification for the right to keep and bear arms, we should take it that the founders took this right to be justified only insofar as it was regulated(indeed, "well" regulated, which implies substantial regulation is expected).
Given this context, "infringed" should not be taken to mean "limited," since regulations are a form of limitations. It seems more plausible to read "infringed" as meaning "prohibited." There is a lot of room for regulation to occupy before entering the realm of prohibition, so this very basic reading of the law gets us quite a lot further than many gun advocates would like.
Further, it is interesting to find the justification for the law within the law itself. Though I'm not an expert on law, I take this to be uncommon. This is particularly interesting because the justification, which was probably quite reasonable when it was written, no longer holds. A well regulated militia is not necessary for the security of a free state when you have the world's most powerful army, the national guard, state law enforcement, and local law enforcement. It is not a stretch to argue that this law invalidates itself given that its own explicit justification no longer applies.
So that's my take at the legal argument. I'm much more comfortable in the realm of moral argument, where my thoughts here have been greatly influenced by Jeff McMahan's writing on the subject.
Against the Moral Right
The basic argument goes as follows. Though it may be rational for an individual to own a gun for their own protection, the greater the number of people who act on this fact, the less safe we become. The potential for misfiring, misplacment, and misuse all rise with increased gun ownership, lowering overall security. This is true despite that fact that gun ownership might make a gun owner safer, given an increasingly well-armed society. This is a classic prisoner's dilemma.
There are two ways to solve a prisoner's dilemma. The first option is for everyone to adopt a moral principle and act against their own self-interest in this case. The second option is for a governing body to change the rational choice by providing negative consequences attached to the problematic option (i.e., opting for gun ownership.) Since it seems undeniable that we would all be safer from gun violence with zero, or dramatically reduced private gun ownership, this is the direction that our laws should push us in. We cannot always rely on citizens to act against self-interest.
Some people believe that they need guns to protect themselves against the government. But this is ridiculous in a democracy such as the US. Although our democratic procedures are far from perfect, they are obviously superior to the constant threat of violent revolt. A decent democracy should always have mechanisms through which minority voices are heard, but it need not legally provide the means to its own destruction. Gun advocates who take this view should remember that they are not the only ones who might welcome a violent overthrow of the government. If we make the government easy to overthrow, you can't be sure who will be the ones to over throw it. The tools of democracy are almost necessarily the best ones for influencing the shape of government.
To believe this argument for gun ownership, you have to take it to be desirable that the government make itself weak enough to be overthrown by the private gun owners. Few actually desire such a government; you might as well desire violent anarchy. For the fact remains that the army will always be a superior force to whatever private militia you seek to cobble together, and to imagine it to be otherwise is to endeavor for a country too weak to defend itself. Either that, or an unending arms race between the country's citizens and its government, which truly makes none better off.
Some think that the practice of hunting animals justifies gun ownership. Any frequent reader of this blog will know I reject this outright. It suffices to say that the desire to maim and kill other sentient beings does not justify making our society less safe. Indeed, I think this just bolsters my basic argument. If the only reason we have for allowing private gun ownership is satisfyingg a desire to inflict violence on others, it is shocking that we have not banned guns already.
Perhaps, you might think, this all sounds nice in theory, but the country we have is filled with guns, and they aren't going anywhere. True. But this hardly requires us to just accept their legality.
I'm sure there are many reasonable suggestions as to how we could reduce the amount of guns in the country. We could offer financial incentives for turning in firearms to the proper authorities. We could have severe fines on having guns in public, and perhaps harsher punishments for any criminal found possessing guns (although I am always very hesitant to increase jail time.) Guns would not disappear overnight, but the number would slowly get reduced, and their use would be greatly stigmatized. These and similar proposals could greatly reduce the number of available firearms to the public, and that would almost certainly make us all safer.
Image from Steve Horder / Freedigitalphotos.net