I would like to respond to Szeto Ching Hang’s article titled “Guns and Freedom: How America Should Act”, which brings up the debate over gun control in the wake of the tragic mass shooting of young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The central claim of the author is found here: “the USA has contradicting views of freedom and rights. The allowance of unrestricted freedom has brought about a situation where citizens feel that the state should not intervene in their lives.” What the author suggested is that while the United States claims to believe in freedom, it at the same time also holds on to alleged incompatible beliefs of the right to bear arms and the legal sale and consumption of drugs, examples of which the author claims ultimately destroys freedom.
Such a claim could not be more mistaken. Unfortunately, I argue that the writer displayed a woeful lack of understanding of the nature of the American system of government and the reasons behind the ways in which individual liberty is protected by constitutional safeguards. A true and proper understanding of individual liberty is absent from this article; which I would attribute to the possible cultural bias of the author. Putting aside the practical arguments for the time being, I would like to focus on the issues of principle germane to this topic. Being in Singapore, it is indeed counter-intuitive for most to accept the basic premises behind most arguments in favour of the right to bear arms and the libertarian principles of freedom from which they stem. It is thus very easy to make straw-man arguments against the principles of freedom and totally misconstrue it like the author did, if one does not have an appreciation of the historical context behind the formation of the American Constitution and the original intent of the framers at that time. In fact, the author’s claims are like one of the many knee jerk reactions being pushed around, of which have been nicely refuted here by Reason Magazine.
First, let us understand that the entire American system of government is one founded upon the notion of individual liberty and freedom. Consequently, the intention of the framers was to limit government through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment was created with the intention to allow the citizens to retain their right to bear arms, deemed “necessary to the security of a free State”. This means that an armed citizenry can actually be a bulwark against the tyranny of the state; guns in this case are meant to be aimed at tyrants and other intruders. For many of us, it must seem like a very silly right to have, but that is because most of us do not realise the perennial struggle of liberty against state-tyranny, which is starting to be a very real possibility in the United States currently; considering the state’s encroachment into civil liberties by policies like the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorisation Act.
Many might argue that the Second Amendment is outdated, and that common sense demands we have a “living Constitution” that evolves with the times. Such a line of thinking cannot be more dangerous, and it also cannot be further from the attitudes of the American Founding Fathers when they formed the system. Consider that Jefferson warned: “On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed”. (He was also afraid that the government would interpret the Constitution so broadly that it would be akin to being governed by a blank paper: “Let us not make it a blank paper by construction”) Those that would give a “living” Constitution are actually giving a “dead” one, since such a thing would be unable to protect the people from the encroachments of government power. Today’s complex world actually demands the moral clarity that only a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution can offer. If we cannot grasp the intention to limit government power and protect against the tyranny of the state, then we will forever dismiss Americans and their system as woefully naive and irrelevant.
Legal theorist and TV personality Judge Andrew Napolitano explains the real relationship between guns and freedom here. He starts by reminding Americans that “The right of the people to keep and bear arms is an extension of the natural right to self-defense and a hallmark of personal sovereignty. It is specifically insulated from governmental interference by the Constitution and has historically been the linchpin of resistance to tyranny. And yet, the progressives in both political parties stand ready to use the coercive power of the government to interfere with the exercise of that right by law-abiding persons because of the gross abuse of that right by some crazies in our midst.” I’m pretty sure his is a case more sound than the one made by Szeto.
And what does “Freedom” mean in this case? It simply refers to the right to do as one pleases as long as no direct harm is done to others. This is accompanied by the belief that individuals have the right to their life, liberty and property, and that the proper role of government is mainly to protect these rights. This is the notion of liberty conceived by classical liberalism, further contributed to by the Lockean-Augustinian-Jeffersonian intellectual tradition of natural rights. Thus, in a general sense, freedom here is mainly “negative” and implies an absence of government coercion. The Founding Fathers never intended freedom in the “positive” sense of ability, well-being or power. Thus, the drug addict who has hurt his health because of his poor decisions is still actually considered free, because he had the autonomy to pursue his own self-chosen ends, though not in a very desirable way. Thus, what actually occurred here is that the writer failed to understand the distinction between “negative” and “positive” rights which apparently led to the erroneous belief that the principles of freedom being held are incompatible. The “contradiction” is totally due to the writer’s ignorance on this point. The founders understood that freedom should mainly be a “freedom from”, not a “freedom to”. What the author proposed is state and government action to potentially ban drug use and outlaw guns. The pursuit of various aims by the state to achieve a “freedom to”, or the well-being of individuals actually go against the absence of government coercion and principles of limited government, which are at the heart of what the American tradition is all about. The federal government had a job to protect against foreign aggression and domestic crimes (mostly delegated to the states), but not to ensure personal well-being, happiness or total security from threats. The founders believed that giving individuals the freedom to choose their own ends and pursue their own ideal of happiness might lead to mistakes or abuses of that freedom, but they knew very well that if an individual is not free to choose irressponsibly and wrongly (so long as he does not aggress on others), he is not free at all.
Also, the notion of “freedom” in the American tradition of government was never meant to be “unrestricted”. Government has the right to protect against aggression, fraud, theft and mainly protect the natural rights of the people, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. But the key to note is not so much the restriction on the individual’s freedom. but the restrictions on the state’s legimate sphere of action. Government was meant to be restricted by the system because of its propensity for mischief. This was the insight of the Founding Fathers. George Washington admonished Americans to not “place confidence in men”, but rather, “to bind their hands from mischief by the chains of the Constitution”. What most gun control advocates fail to recognise is that more laws and legislation will not necessarily solve the problem. It will merely give further power to the federal government at a time when its unconstitutional overreaches are the chief contributing factor to most of America’s problems. Besides, it is government violence that has also contributed to the decline in morality and rise in gun violence. (See note 1 below)
What the author fails to take into account also is that the current American administration and its predecessor has almost no moral authority to legislate against violence. This is symptomatic of any state that has breached its constitutional limits. We must be aware that the state itself is a problem; the American government has policies that have undermined civil society, cheapened life, and encouraged immorality. The president and other government officials denounce school violence, yet still advocate for endless undeclared wars abroad and easy abortion at home. U.S. drone strikes kill thousands, but nobody in America holds vigils or devotes much news coverage to those victims, many of which are children, albeit, of a different color. So many of the current problems America faces might have been averted if Congress and the President strictly followed the Constitution (Note 3).
Also, what is needed here is also an understanding of the tension between safety and liberty, and the way in which the American tradition has always erred on the side of the latter. Patrick Henry did not exclaim: Give me total security or give me death. He instead expressed: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
In the same vein of thought, the prominent libertarian icon Former Congressman Ron Paul explained in the wake of the tragedy:
“Do we really believe government can provide total security? Do we want to involuntarily commit every disaffected, disturbed, or alienated person who fantasizes about violence? Or can we accept that liberty is more important than the illusion of state-provided security? Government cannot create a world without risks, nor would we really wish to live in such a fictional place. Only a totalitarian society would even claim absolute safety as a worthy ideal, because it would require total state control over its citizens’ lives. We shouldn’t settle for substituting one type of violence for another. Government role is to protect liberty, not to pursue unobtainable safety. Our freedoms as Americans preceded gun control laws, the TSA, or the Department of Homeland Security. Freedom is defined by the ability of citizens to live without government interference, not by safety. It is easy to clamor for government security when terrible things happen; but liberty is given true meaning when we support it without exception, and we will be safer for it.”
The point here I am making is not that the American system of government is superior to others, including the one here in Singapore (comparative assessments are always tricky and is not within the intended scope of this article); but that we should not fail to appreciate the deeper historical contexts and meanings associated with the principles of freedom and liberty found in the American tradition when discussing this issue of gun legislation. We should not be so quick to brush off these ideas as quaint aspirations of a time gone by. What initially seems counter-intuitive becomes reasonable when one appreciates the timeless danger and very real potential of state tyranny.
1) John Whitehead at The Rutherford Institute: “If President Obama, Congress and the American people really want the country to reconsider their relationship with guns and violence, then it needs to start with a serious discussion about the ro…le our government has played and continues to play in contributing to the culture of violence. If the American people are being called on to scale back on their weapons, then the government and its cohorts—the military, the defense industry, the special interest groups, etc.—need to do the same.”
2) The above article does not seek to defend the irresponsible and dangerous use of guns. There have been many effective proposals suggested to curb gun violence without the unconstitutional gun control legislation and the knee jerk reactions. This is an excellent 5 point plan that will go a long way to reducing gun violence.
3) America faces serious problems like that of the fiscal cliff and poor economic growth, as well as anti-American sentiment abroad. The Constitution’s insistence on a sound currency and the Founder’s disdain of fiat money vitiates against the Fed’s money creation, highly responsible for the economic problems in the US. The Constitution’s limit on the President’s war and military powers can constitute a non-interventionist foreign policy that can reduce foreign blowback arising from military adventurism.