What to Do About Gun Violence: Personal Freedoms v. The Common Good

Scot McKnight has an interesting blog post up at Jesus Creed talking about gun violence. In it McKnight reminded me that an important aspect of the argument about gun control, especially in light of the recent shootings, is the age old struggle between two competing yet essential ideals: freedom and the common good.

Freedom is a good thing. Liberty is a virtue and in the right context it is in harmony with the scriptures and the logic or narrative of the gospel itself. At the same time the common good is an essential thing. The common good is virtuous and is also a part of the logic or narrative of the gospel as well. Personal freedom and the common good: that is the constant struggle. You cannot solve the conundrum of escalating gun violence by choosing only one side of that tenuous balance.

Personal freedom only functions properly when it has the common good as its end in mind. Freedom without reference to the common good becomes law of the jungle (politically speaking, this leads to facism: might = right).

The common good without reference to personal freedom leads to something akin to communism and the devaluing of the person. Instead of a facist dictator you get something like a politburo.

Neither of the options here are a recipe for human flourishing.

A strong commitment to the common good is the necessary counter-weight to personal liberty and the gun rights argument. The common good forces personal freedoms to be held in tension with the values of community and justice. No one can enjoy absolute liberty without undermining the fabric of a just society. Liberty is not an absolute. It must always be held in balance with the common good and the pursuit of social justice because we are all part of the same human family. We are bound together.

In the coming months there may be a national debate on gun control. I think McKnight is correct that there need to be some common sense limits concerning what kind of guns belong in homes and available to the general public. But those who are pushing gun control laws must not approach the discussion in an unbalanced way. They have to advocate for personal freedom at the same time they advocate for limits on behalf of the common good.

At the same time the gun rights folks need to bring the common good back into their argument. They have to be willing to give a little on their side – even if it limits the right to bear arms in certain limited ways – if only for the sake of the common good. By elevating individual liberties so far above the common good – without reference to justice, especially for the vulnerable (our children!) – those who absolutize personal freedom are missing the idea that to self-limit some of our freedoms for the sake of the common good is the ultimate act of freedom! Only those who are truly free can die to themselves for the good of a community.

In order to talk about gun rights v. gun control, we can’t solve the tension. Both sides have to give a little. Personal freedom and the common good have to always remain front and center. We can do this as a society. I know we can!

Here’s an excerpt from McKnight’s blog:

We Americans value freedom, we value our freedoms, we value freedom — each one of us — to do what we want and to do what we think is right. We don’t want anyone confining us. What we earn is ours. What we do is our responsibility.

We err on the side of freedom. Even knowing it may come back to bite us. We side with freedom when it comes to abortion, an action I consider murderous; we side with freedom when it comes to money, a commitment to free enterprise that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. We side with freedom when it comes to guns, a freedom that emerges out of our Second Amendment and then developed in ways that many consider way too far. But we value our freedom.

I support substantial restriction of guns, expansion of gun laws, and I support a colossal shift in the kinds of guns Americans can buy and own and possess and have in homes. But gun laws would not end violence. Yet, they would curb violence and it would restrict the guns that some people could acquire or grab in a fit of rage or bitter resentment. But progressivism in laws, while a good, will not bring nirvana where freedom flourishes with only good acts.

We also value the freedoms of the mentally diseased, so far that we will not constrain or institutionalize someone until they are in imminent harm to themselves and others. I value that freedom myself. Who can decide who may or who will probably become dangerous? Freedom leads us to wait.

But these freedoms bite back. Greed motivates freedom in the market; irresponsibility and death shape the freedom of sex; violence and murder flow from the freedom of the Second Amendment.

To alter the course of history in America would mean to restrict the one preeminent value of our legal system: freedom. Are we willing to restrict freedoms? For the common good?Good laws can make a good society better. But laws cannot control humans or our will to freedom. With freedom comes the freedom for freedom to bite back. It does. It does daily. It has and it does and it will.

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  • scott stone

    How is it that a segment of our population equates freedom with gun ownership? It has baffled me for years that a large segment of the evangelical community, those who claim to know what freedom is via a relationship with Christ, can in an instant transition to a position that defines freedom with gun ownership.
    We as Americans really need to get past the myth that our identity as a nation is still wrapped around this notion of rugged individualism and the wild west frontier. This narrative, along with our tacit approval that violence in our culture and media are acceptable, needs to end. Gun control is needed but that does not explain the condition of the human heart that perpetrates theses evil acts. Violence in our American culture is a cancer that has metastasized through every corner. It’s going to take far more than a few laws to eradicate the disease.

    • Gun ownership in the U.S. is based in two ideas that are not mentioned. The citizenry can instantantly become an army, and this leading to one area of the balancing of power.

  • scott stone

    Did you happen to catch the NRA press conference? That could have been a skit on SNL. I’m starting to think these people are from another planet. 300,000 guns aren’t enough in the USA, maybe 400,000 is the magic number.

    • Tim Suttle

      Yeah I watched the whole thing and it did seem like a caricature. I think that NRA rhetoric represents an overly simplistic way of looking that the problem of gun violence. But I know that as someone committed to the gospel & to living in the way of Jesus I simply don’t subscribe to their narrative. I subscribe to the gospel. The gospel asks us to think not how we can stop the violent, but how the violence will be stopped. It’s always when we take up our cross. It’s always when we die to ourselves to allow Jesus to be born again in us.

  • Scott Stone

    Interesting distinction regarding our role in reacting to violence. Kind of like the distinction between Hauerwas and Moltmann; Peaceable Kingdom vs Peacemaking Kingdom.