Natural Rights, Self-Defense, and the Right to Own Firearms

We have a moral right to own guns.

Do we have a moral right to own firearms? While the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution certainly protects a legal right to own firearms, there is, I think, a stronger and more fundamental natural law case to be made for a moral right to gun ownership. If the Second Amendment never existed or were one day repealed, governments would still be obligated to allow individual gun ownership for purely moral reasons.

The natural law case for a moral right to own a gun is simple: we all possess a basic right to life, which entails the right to self-defense, which in turn entails the right to a reasonable means of self-defense. Since firearms are a reasonable means of self-defense, there is a strong moral presumption in favor of allowing private gun ownership.

Let’s unpack this argument in more detail.

The Right to Life and Its Derivatives

A right is a claim or entitlement to do something or to have something provided to you. We can think of rights as “moral shields” that protect us as we pursue our fulfillment. Rights provide us with protection by carving out a moral space that others are obligated to respect, whether that be through non-interference or by positively providing us with something.

Let’s take as our starting point the right to life. To say that I have the right to life is to say that I am entitled to my own existence, and that my life may not be taken away from me—at least not without a morally sufficient reason. Now the right to life is arguably our most fundamental right. It is the foundation on which all other rights stand, in the sense that our other rights protect the various components necessary to a life well-lived. For example, bodily autonomy, property ownership, and freedom of expression are all worthy of respect because they are integral elements of a good life. In that sense, all of our ancillary rights presuppose the right to life. If we don’t have the right to life, then arguably we don’t have any rights at all.

Now since the purpose of a right is to protect my well-being, the possession of a right entitles me to protect that which I have a right to. Thus, if I possess the right to life, then I must also possess the corresponding right to secure or protect my life. I must, in other words, possess the right to self-defense. The right to self-defense follows immediately from the right to life—in fact, the right to self-defense is an integral part of the right to life itself. It is what gives substance to the right to life.

Now the right to self-defense is the right to use force to protect life. But I cannot use force without using some means of force, whether it be a stick, a knife, or even just my arms and legs. Exercising self-defense requires that I do something, but in order to do something I must first possess some means of doing so. So if I possess the right to self-defense, I must also possess the right to a reasonable means of my defense.

This is just another way of saying that I must possess the right to bear arms as a necessary component of the right to self-defense, where “arms” refers broadly to any means of reasonably initiating a self-protective action. What this all implies is that the right to bear arms is ultimately a natural extension of the right to life. The natural rights to life, self-defense, and arms are a package deal.

From Self-Defense to Gun Ownership

It is important that we focus on reasonable self-defense, for although self-protection is possible with a wide range of everyday objects, self-protective actions frequently occur in the context of physical disparities.

Think about it: if you’re a criminal bent on violently victimizing an individual, then you would want to select a target whom you are capable of overpowering and exploiting. So in delineating the scope of the right to bear arms, we must pay special attention to tools that are specifically well-suited towards equalizing disparities that are commonly exploited in violent crimes. Since the point of the right to self-defense is to protect one’s life, and since one cannot protect one’s life without a reliable, effective, and proportionate means of doing so, the right to self-defense must guarantee the right to a reasonable means of self-defense.

What’s more, the right to self-defense must guarantee us the right to a reasonable means of lethal self-defense, for many criminal attacks involve the threat of grievous bodily harm or death. There would be no point in having the right to self-defense if it didn’t guarantee us a fighting chance at protecting our life.

Now a reasonable means of self-defense is one that is able to reliably, effectively, and practically deliver a proportionate amount of force in response to a threat of harm. Guns seem to clearly satisfy this description. They do not require great skill to handle and can be effectively used by all sorts of individuals to equalize physical disparities with ease. This isn’t just armchair theorizing either: there is overwhelming agreement within the empirical literature that guns are extremely effective in self-defense and are used frequently for this purpose.

A 1993 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology found that out of eight different forms of robbery resistance, “victim gun use was the resistance strategy most strongly and consistently associated with successful outcomes for robbery victims.”

A 2000 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that men and women who resisted with a gun were less likely to be injured or lose property than those who resisted using some other means or who did not resist at all. In the case of women, “having a gun really does result in equalizing a woman with a man.”

A 2004 study published in the journal Criminology found that out of sixteen different forms of victim self-protection, “a variety of mostly forceful tactics, including resistance with a gun, appeared to have the strongest effects in reducing the risk of injury.”

Finally, a 2010 study published in Crime and Delinquency found that resistance with a gun decreased the odds of robbery and rape completion by ninety-three percent and ninety-two percent, respectively.

Taking stock of these points, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council concluded in a 2013 review of the literature that “studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

It should therefore be no surprise that guns are frequently used in self-defense. The findings of over nineteen surveys confirm the thesis that defensive gun uses are vastly more common than criminal uses.

In light of what has been argued, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a strong moral presumption in favor of private gun ownership.

One might object that this same argument could be extended to artillery pieces, missiles, and nuclear weapons. Not so. Self-defense should be proportionate to the nature of the threat. So whether a weapon qualifies as a reasonable means of self-defense will depend on the kind of threats that one may reasonably expect to encounter. In contemporary America, individuals do not need Patriot Missiles and the like in order to successfully defend themselves against aggression by other individuals.

That being said, this observation is contingent on one’s environment. For example, Christians in the Middle East who live under the constant threat of attack by ISIS fighters are arguably entitled to the use of machine guns and RPGs, whereas ordinary Americans may not be.

The Empirical Evidence

I have argued that there is a moral right to own firearms that is grounded in the rights to life and self-defense. But how strong is this right? Many proponents of gun control cite studies purporting to show that gun ownership leads to more crime. The implication is supposed to be that the right to own guns is either overridden or defeated by empirical considerations. In response, critics of gun control cite studies showing that gun ownership does not increase crime, and that it may even decrease it. As a result, both sides constantly squabble over the findings of this-or-that empirical study in this-or-that country.

Even though it is not supported by the best evidence, I’ll grant for the sake of the argument the claim that gun ownership leads to more overall crime. I want to suggest that even if widespread gun ownership led to more crime, the right to own a gun would still not be defeated or outweighed.

How could this be? Begin by observing that your right to life isn’t dependent on whether respecting your life would yield the best set of consequences. It is absolute and unrelenting, even if it would be more beneficial that it be violated. For example, it would be wrong for a surgeon to override your right to life in order to harvest your organs to save five people, even if in doing so he produces a more beneficial outcome overall. It would be wrong for me to deliberately push an innocent fat man in front of a speeding train, even if that fat man’s death resulted in ten lives being saved.

The right to life has fundamental weight that is not dependent on the outcome of a simple cost-benefit analysis. The same goes for other rights that are derived from the right to life, such as the right to bodily integrity: it would be wrong to rape someone even if doing so would save ten lives. Our moral rights function as “trump cards” that resist appeals to utility.

We can think of the right of self-defense in similar terms. Since our right to life cannot be ordinarily overridden in the name of social utility, and since the goal of self-defense is to protect one’s life, it stands to reason that our right of self-defense also cannot be ordinarily overridden in the name of social utility. For the right of self-defense to be meaningful at all, it must fully extend to all cases in which our lives are worth protecting. Our right of self-defense must therefore have equivalent strength and scope to the right to life. Like the right to life, the right to defend ourselves also has fundamental weight that can’t be defeated just because it would produce a net benefit. We don’t run a cost-benefit analysis before we allow individuals to defend themselves.

Now since the right to a reasonable means of self-defense is an essential component of the right of self-defense, it must also have equivalent strength to the right to life, meaning that it isn’t subject to an ordinary cost-benefit analysis. Since the right to own a gun is an instance of this right, it follows that the right to own a gun cannot be overridden by a mere cost-benefit analysis. If the organ donation, rape, and fat man examples work, then the harms would have to be at least many more times greater than the benefits for us to consider restrictive gun control. But this scenario does not hold, even if we make the most generous empirical assumptions in favor of the pro-control side.

One might object that determining whether something counts as a reasonable means of self-defense requires taking into account its larger ecological effects, not just its immediate effects in warding off an attack. Thus, if guns do in fact increase crime, then guns are not a reasonable means of self-defense. But this objection confuses the odds of being the subject of a victimization attempt with the odds of successfully defending against a victimization attempt. Self-defense is about resisting an attack, so whether something is a reasonable means of self-defense depends chiefly on whether it is an effective, reliable, and proportionate means of fending off a criminal attack. That something may increase one’s chances of being the subject of a victimization attempt in general does not mean that it is not a reasonable means of fending off an attempt should one occur.

Thus, permissive gun laws may still be socially beneficial even if they increase crime. Suppose that a permissive gun law increased the odds of firearm victimization attempts but also dramatically increased one’s chances of successfully resisting these and other kinds of victimization attempts. In that case, we could reasonably judge such a law to be overall beneficial on account that one’s increased risk of firearm victimization is outweighed by the dramatically increased likelihood of successful resistance across all categories of crime.

None of this is to say that empirical studies aren’t relevant at all. Rather, the kinds of empirical studies we should be looking at are those pertaining to the effects of guns in resisting crime and their frequency, not those pertaining to their deterrent effect. And on that subject, there is a clear scholarly consensus that guns are extremely good at self-protection.

There is, then, a strong case to be made for a non-utilitarian moral right to own firearms.

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