What Is the Purpose of Gun Rights?

Published January 20, 2013

Here is a rundown of President Obama’s gun control proposals. They are a combination of pointless letters of reminder, orders for bureaucratic assessments, counselor hires, and training offerings. But on the phone yesterday with reporters, according to @ZekeJMiller, “Senior admin officials couldn’t say whether Obama’s proposals would have prevented Sandy Hook/other shootings.” I can: they wouldn’t have.

And this gets us back to the real question, which is: what is the purpose of guns? Why does America take the position it does on guns, largely unique in today’s world among modernized nations? Is it, as Piers Morgan and others argue, merely a vestige of our Wild West past, an anachronism to be discarded along with corsets and ten gallon hats? Or does it have a deeper and more meaningful purpose?

A Frenchman has the answer. There is an important distinction Alexis de Tocqueville returned to several times within his writings about the difference between citizens and subjects. The latter “are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.” They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved.

The effect of this is to make their response to calamity very different – a citizen who seeks first to meet a challenge themselves, as a family or with their neighbors, and a subject, who instead appeals to the external faceless authorities they rely on as the source for most things in life. For those friends who have had a criminal or stalker show up at their door, they called the police, but universally, they got their gun first – a line of defense against those who would do them harm, not a representative of authority to clean up after.

Viewed through this lens, gun rights in the United States are essentially a reiteration of our belief in self-government. They are not incidental, though they may be old-fashioned. They are instead an acknowledgement of where the authority for government begins: with the citizen, not with power granted from on high.

As such, removing them fundamentally alters the nature of our American understanding of human beings’ capacity for protecting themselves from harm. And beyond the effect of increasing crime, as a prosecutor from Washington D.C. details today, such steps may in short order transform the psychological makeup of a nation that has for so long invested much belief in law and policy in the power of individuals to live the life they make for themselves.

We do not live on the prairie, and your house is not a half-day’s ride from the sheriff. But it is still your house, and your family inside, and the right to protect those things with deadly force is yours, and should not be bartered. 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

[First published at RealClearPolitics.]