Why conservatives lost the gun control debate
TAMPA, March 18, 2013 – Conservatives believe they’ve won the gun control debate because they expect any new restrictions on gun ownership to be relatively minor. That doesn’t really jibe with their position that gun ownership was already too restricted before the Sandy Hook shootings, but that is the way things go in America. Both sides declare victory, the government gets a little bigger and more intrusive, and the next debate starts from there.
The underlying problem is that neither conservatives nor liberals truly believe in inherent, inalienable rights. Americans think conservatives do, but that doesn’t jibe with any of their arguments on gun control (or anything else). Conservatives believe that rights come from the government or long tradition, not from nature.
No one who believes that the right to defend one’s own life is inherent and inalienable would rely so heavily on the existence of the 2nd Amendment. The right to keep and bear arms exists regardless of whether there ever was a 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It exists regardless of the American Revolution or the 800 or so years of British tradition that preceded it.
The only reason to obsess over what the 2nd Amendment means, why it refers to the militia or how it came to be passed is if one believes that the right to bear arms results from the 2nd Amendment. That it is something granted by the government in recognition of the long tradition of a previous government allowing people to own weapons. This is what conservatives believe. Listen carefully and you’ll hear them say so.
Conservatives generally accept the liberal premise that the actions of one person can affect the rights of another. This is the basis of the attack on gun ownership after every sensationalized shooting incident. Because one person has killed a few dozen other people with a gun, something must be done to the rights of 300 million people who had nothing to do with the crime.
Nowhere do conservatives refute this preposterous idea. Instead, they merely argue that the liberal “solutions” are the wrong ones. Rather than limiting the number of bullets in magazines available to the public, perhaps there should be “better screening for mental illness,” or “better background checks.” Perhaps the right to watch movies or play video games should be restricted!
Conservatives everywhere cheered Ben Shapiro’s debate with Piers Morgan over gun control, but Shapiro never really refutes any of the premises of the liberal argument. He says that he believes in background checks, a national database of gun owners as long as it is not made public, and even laws that force anyone who lives in the same house with a person previously convicted of a crime or who is mentally ill to keep their guns “locked up and safe” (i.e. “useless”).
People who believe that rights are inherent and inalienable don’t make these arguments. If the right to defend one’s own life is inherent, then one does not need to prove to anyone else that one is mentally capable of the responsibility. It is up to the person looking to infringe that right to prove that the gun owner is mentally ill, with all of the same burdens upon the accuser and presumptions about the accused as in a criminal matter.
If conservatives believed in inalienable rights, they would argue that not only does the actions of one man have no bearing upon the rights of 300 million others, but that even if 299 million Americans were to kill each other with guns, the remaining 1 million would still possess the same rights. That’s what inalienable means – can’t be taken away. Certainly not in response to the actions of other people.
Notice also that conservatives consistently qualify any statement of the right to keep and bear arms as belonging to “law abiding citizens.” This does not mean obeying the law at the time one is carrying the gun. It means never having been convicted of a felony in the past. Conservatives accept that breaking any law, no matter how unjust the law or innocuous the conduct, carries a life sentence. Once convicted, the offender surrenders his right to defend his life forever.
Conservatives don’t believe in inherent, inalienable rights and they never have. Conservative intellectuals like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Edmund Burke opposed the idea from the very start, as did their political counterparts like Alexander Hamilton. Instead, they believe that any rights the individual possesses in society are those which the government allows him, sometimes based upon long tradition, but ultimately because those granted rights will result in a more orderly society and a strong and prosperous empire. It is ultimately as collectivist a view of the world as modern liberalism.
If Americans want to arrest the rampaging growth of government and regain any of the relative freedom that people in this country once had, they need to adopt a different philosophical perspective than that shared by conservatives and liberals. They have to understand and truly believe that rights are inherent and inalienable and remake society accordingly.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. He writes weekly columns on his blog and his weekly column in the Washington Times has been featured on The Daily Caller, The Huffington Post, Daily Paul, LewRockwell.com, 321 Gold! and Peter Schiff’s EuroPac.net. Tom has been a guest on Fox’s Freedom Watch with Judge Andrew Napolitano, Adam Vs. the Man, Free Talk Live, and numerous other programs.