The raging debate over gun control has caused a lot of silliness — both from gun control proponents and supporters of gun rights. But it is has also brought out some extremely dangerous and short-sighted arguments from some people, and I would like to highlight one especially dangerous one.
This post makes the following argument:
It is the rights culture—the relentless assumption, which liberals pioneered and conservatives have accepted, that the Bill of Rights isolates the individual from considerations of the common good decided upon by the representatives of deliberate majorities.
This particular argument is aimed at the “right to bear arms,” which the Constitution says shall not be infringed. But it is also aimed at the idea that these rights should remain inviolate even if the majority deems these rights can be taken away.
The Constitution makes it clear that rights are inviolate, and the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to highlight certain rights that are to be especially protected. The foundation of these rights is the assumption, outlined twice in the Constitution, that the rights of life, liberty and property shall not be infringed. The rights protected in the Bill of Rights all flow from these three foundational rights to life, liberty and property. So, you have the right to free speech because you have the right to liberty. You have the right to freedom of religion because of the right to liberty. You have the right to the protection from unreasonable searches and seizures because you have the right to liberty and also a right to property. Your home belongs to you, not the government.
The 2nd amendment is based on all three rights: you should be able to own a gun to protect your own life and to protect your liberty, but also you should able to own a gun because it is your property and it is a key element to allowing you to protect your own property. This right to own a weapon was established in the 17th century English Bill of Rights and clearly recognized by colonists as a fundamental right that was established by English common law.
We can see here that the “rights culture” is not some fantasy of right-wing fanatics. It is central to the foundation of the republic. But what is often ignored by critics of the “rights culture” is the fact that tyranny takes place when we, in moments of passion, abandon the “rights culture.” Reminding ourselves that we have certain rights — even if the majority opposes them — is what separates us from the savages.
One of the best examples of the abandonment of the “rights culture” in the interests of the “common good” was the imprisonment of Japanese immigrants during World War II simply because of their race. Of course, we recoil at this horrible event now. But we forget that the majority had no problem with rounding up people, and violating their rights, simply because these people had Japanese lineage. The Supreme Court even sided with the government!
Most of us can see clearly now that we violated the natural rights of liberty and property of these people. But during World War II, the “community” felt these people were spies or potential spies, and therefore it was necessary to protect the community by throwing them all in concentration camps.
A greater understanding that natural rights are inviolate would have prevented this travesty. Individual people of Japanese descent who were spies should have been tried (the right to trial by jury) and sentenced. All other Japanese people should have been presumed innocent until proven guilty. (We know now that the government invented and exaggerated much of the evidence of spying by Americans of Japanese descent).
Mormon history is replete with examples of our rights being violated to satisfy the needs of the greater community. All you have to do is read the Doctrines and Covenants to see the early Saints pleading with the government to protect their rights from the tyranny of the majority. Section 123 is a good place to start. Section 134 points out that good government protects the rights to life, liberty and property, just as the Constitution does.
It is important to understand that the early Saints suffered precisely because the democratically elected majority chose to ignore the natural rights of the Mormons. In Missouri, the Mormons had bought property and were living their lives (mostly) in peace, just as they had in Ohio and just as they would come to do in Illinois. The majority refused to recognize their rights to liberty and property, and ultimately even their rights to life. The majority in Missouri believed the Extermination Order (in which residents were allowed to kill Mormons at will) was justified, but we know now that such an order is unconstitutional. Joseph and Hyrum Smith would have a lot to say about what happens when the “common good” is preferred to natural rights (they were killed by a mob encouraged in part by local and state government officials).
The conflict between the “rights culture” and the “common good” continues today, and gun rights are only a small part of it. Times of extreme emotion are the times when rights are likely to be violated. The Patriot Act, approved in the emotional period after 9/11, clearly violates the Fourth Amendment, yet the president who ran against the Patriot Act renewed it by autopen. Fourth amendment rights are routinely violated every time travelers decide to get on a commercial airplane.
Tyrants exploit emotional events to take away individual rights. When things are going well, it is difficult to convince people to pass laws to oppress others. But when people are afraid — either in the post-Pearl Harbor U.S. or in Missouri in the 1830s — the majority can be convinced to infringe on the rights of the minority.
The same applies today. Elected officials want to “do something” about the Newtown shooting, so they feel passing new laws, whether they are effective or not, will show they are “doing something.” In these moments of passion, it is our reliance on natural rights, which have always existed and do not change, that prevent us from descending to complete chaos.