I want to defend a simple proposition: gun ownership is not a human right. Nations which severely restrict their citizens from owning firearms are not infringing upon a basic human right in the same way that nations which severely restrict freedom of speech or freedom of movement are. Gun ownership is, rather, a privilege, which people must demonstrate fitness and good reason to exercise. (SE Smith has made a similar argument in The Guardian.) This argument has its foundations in this simple distinction between rights and privileges.
What Are Human Rights?
Rights are fundamental to human freedom, essential to a dignified existence, only to be restricted, with great care and caution, if their exercise infringes on the rights of others. Rights are understood to be inalienable and inherent to the person: they are not conferred legally but recognized by and promoted through legal frameworks. Examples include the right to bodily autonomy, freedom of movement, and freedom of thought.
The restriction of rights is a serious business. If we are to restrict the exercise of a person’s rights, it must be only to protect the fundamental rights of others. For instance, if we wish to restrict someone’s freedom of movement by sending them to jail, we need to ensure they can avail themselves of a full and fair legal process in which they are provided with the means to defend themselves against any charges. If we are to limit the right to freedom of speech, through hate speech legislation for instance, we must do so with exquisite care, oversight, and for unimpeachable reasons (if at all).
We don’t have to prove anything to anyone to exercise our human rights: we just have them, and they cannot be taken away from us. The state should seek to recognize and promote the exercise of our rights, not limit and restrict them. Indeed, states exist in part to safeguard and promote the rights of their citizens. If a citizen does not enjoy a particular right, it is the state’s duty to empower them to enjoy it: the state has an active responsibility to foster the capability of its citizens to exercise their rights.
What is a Privilege?
Not all specific freedoms are “rights.” Some are better termed “privileges” – freedoms which people might gain after demonstrating their capability to exercise them safely and responsibility, and which can be revoked if those conditions change. The exercise of these specific freedoms is not essential to a dignified existence, even though they may significantly enhance a person’s quality of life. A state has no fundamental responsibility to enable all citizens to enjoy every privilege, although it may seek to do so.
A driving license, for instance, is generally considered a privilege. People do not have an inherent human right to drive a car legally on public roads. Even though the USA is a country to a great extent built around car ownership, and even though having one’s driving license removed genuinely restricts one’s freedom (broadly construed), it is generally accepted that it is in the public interest to prevent people from driving until they can demonstrate to a government agency that they can actually drive a car. This is for numerous reasons, chief among them the threat to the life and property of others if incompetent drivers are allowed to drive without any regulation at all. The threat to others of allowing unlicensed drivers to drive legitimates the government’s restriction of this particular freedom, and that restriction does not constitute human rights abuse.
Restricting Privileges Does Not Restrict Rights
A critic might object that if they are refused the opportunity to drive legally on public roads without a license, they are being denied their right to freedom of movement. This would be a mistake: the right to freedom of movement guarantees that in normal circumstances a person is not to be physically restrained or prevented from moving about their environment and exploring public spaces as they wish. The right to freedom of movement does not grant an unlimited right to go anywhere at all times (other people’s homes are off-limits, for instance). Nor does it grant a person the uninfringed right to use a potentially lethal mode of transportation without proper training or oversight.
Making the operation of an automobile a regulated privilege is perfectly consistent with respecting the right to freedom of movement, and no state which requires people to hold a license to drive is trampling on the human rights of its citizens. While the freedom to control the movement of one’s own body and to explore one’s environment are essential to human dignity, the freedom to do so in a large, dangerous vehicle is not.
This distinction is akin to one frequently made regarding freedom of speech and “no-platforming”: you have a right to say whatever you want, but not a right to expect a university to provide you with a platform to say what you want, and your basic right to freedom of speech is not infringed when a particular venue refuses to allow you to speak there. Likewise, your basic right to freedom of movement is not infringed when the government requires proof that you can safely operate a vehicle before allowing you to do so. Restricting privileges which are related to specific rights does not always mean restricting the exercise of the right itself.
Gun Ownership is as a Privilege, Not a Right
How should gun ownership be viewed, then? As a basic human right like freedom of speech, or as a privilege like driving a car?
Gun ownership should be viewed as a privilege which must be earned, and which can be restricted or revoked under certain circumstances without limiting the fundamental freedoms of a person. Owning a gun is not essential to the fundamental dignity of a person. One can experience full human flourishing, exercising all our basic freedoms, without ever touching, let alone owning a gun. Our capacity for freedom of thought, movement, conscience, religion, legal recognition, due process, social security, and leisure are all intact if gun ownership is viewed as a privilege. There is no fundamental freedom which is traduced if gun ownership is legally restricted.
Gun ownership also has clear public health implications, as does driving a car. The available evidence demonstrates very clearly that the more guns present in a city, state, or nation, the more gun violence there is likely to be in that city, state, or nation. This is an astoundingly robust finding, supported by reams of research. While there are data points which individually undercut this general trend, the trend is remarkably secure: allowing people to buy and own guns makes everyone in society at greater risk of gun violence.
An example: in the UK (my home country), the ownership of firearms is viewed in just such a way. In the UK to buy any type of gun you need a permit from a police officer and a legitimate use for the weapon. “Self defense” is not considered a legitimate reason to carry a firearm (more on this below), and even with a permit you cannot buy most guns: a very limited number of guns are available for sale. Partly because of these restrictions, the UK enjoys one of the lowest rates of gun homicide in the entire world. This regime is in no way a restriction of the fundamental rights of the citizens of the United Kingdom.
Since human rights are freedoms genuinely fundamental to living a full and flourishing life, and since gun ownership is not one of these, and since owning a gun has clear public health implications, gun ownership should be viewed as a privilege, not as a right.
Gun Rights Are Not a General Component of Liberty
Some gun rights advocates argue that the right to own a firearm is merely a component of one’s freedom, broadly-conceived. Writers like Prof. Jenna Ellis in The Federalist claim that the government simply cannot restrict firearms ownership until an individual has been shown to be a danger to others, because to do so is to infringe upon the basic freedoms of the individual.
Some parts of this argument are undoubtedly correct: human rights are “pre-political,” as Ellis puts it. The government doesn’t “give us” our rights, but exists to promote and defend them. Governments need very good reasons to infringe upon the fundamental freedoms of the citizenry, and we should be wary whenever those freedoms are limited. Sometimes, governments do restrict liberty in illegitimate ways, and have done so in the past.
But Ellis does not offer, in her article, any reason why we should specifically consider gun ownership to be a fundamental right, like freedom of speech, rather than a limited privilege, like driving a car. Once this distinction is made, however, Ellis’ argument is revealed as fallacious.
Ellis suggests that “Once the government can shift the burden and make me prove my fitness and competency, then my government is treating me like a presumptive criminal.” Let us apply this reasoning to cars: if it is true that a government should not regulate private behavior before an individual demonstrates untrustworthiness, then all limitations on driving cars should be removed until someone has their first accident or traffic infraction. The governmental requirement to get a licence to drive, under this framework, is an illegitimate restriction on the human rights of an individual, a presumption that the would-be driver is a criminal. The fact that there would be profound negative consequences for others in society were this approach to be taken is irrelevant to her: all that matters is the relationship between the government and the individual freedom to drive.
Very few people accept this reasoning vis-à-vis cars, and they are correct to resist it. Gun ownership is simply not a human right, because it is not central to human dignity. Rather, it is a privilege, and can be legitimately limited to those who can demonstrate competency and reasons for owning a firearm.
Gun Rights Are Not a Component of the Right to Self Defense
Some gun rights advocates argue that the right to own a firearm is simply a component of the right to self defense. This is also mistaken. We do have aright to defend ourselves: the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights recognizes a right to “life, liberty and security of person,” and I think the right to self defense lives within that statement. It is clearly essential to the dignity of a person that they have the right to resist attack: to require people to submit to assault without fighting back is to demean them.
But the right to self defense is very specific and limited. Our right to self defense means that we have the right, if attacked, to respond with reasonable force to deter or prevent further violence being done to us. That right pays out, in the legal system, to mean that we can avoid legal consequences for violence that would otherwise be illegal if we can demonstrate that it was conducted in our self defense. The right to self defense is reactionary, contingent on others first infringing on our right to bodily security, or credibly threatening to do so.
Understood this way, it is clear that our right to self defense does not obviously include the “right” to preemptively arm ourselves with deadly weaponry in case of attack. My right to self defense might legitimate the use of available weaponry to respond once an attack or threat has been made against me, but it does not by itself legitimate a freedom to own whatever sort of weaponry I wish. If there is such a “right,” it needs its own prior justification.
If we add in the public health component of gun ownership, the argument for gun rights from self defense becomes even more confused. We know from the research that owning a gun does not in fact make an individual or their family safer, but in fact is linked to a higher risk of being a victim of gun violence. Gun rights advocates are essentially saying that individuals have the “right” to increase the risk of gun violence to themselves, their families, and their community, in order to preempt a potential attack, the nature of which is made massively more deadly by the fact that the potential attacker is themselves allowed to carry a firearm. The argument makes no sense from neither a philosophical nor a public health standpoint.
Indeed, legal unrestricted gun ownership in society makes it much more difficult for all citizens to enjoy their right to self defense, because it makes it much less likely that they will be able to deter an attacker (because their attacker is more likely to be armed with a deadly weapon), or that they will be able to act successfully in their self defense (because if you are attacked by someone with a gun you are less likely to be able to make any defensive response). A society in which every person can own a gun for “self defense” is a society in which every potential attacker can have a gun, and that is not a society which respects people’s right to self defense.
Private gun ownership can legitimately be regulated by the government because it is best understood as a privilege, not a right. Gun ownership is not a fundamental component of human dignity, nor is it essential to the enjoyment of any other fundamental freedom. Arguments which assert a “right to bear arms” fail philosophically, and are unsupported by evidence.
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