Locke and unload: Why the NRA doesn’t understand rights

It’s the exact inability of guns to secure our freedom that establishes the foundation for our civil government.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) holds a news conference
The National Rifle Association's solution to the Newtown massacre is to place armed guards in every school [EPA]

When the NRA finally broke its silence one week after the massacre of children in Newtown, its searing screed blasting everyone else for the carnage, and blaming everything but guns should have surprised no one.

Its proposed “solution” – protecting schools with armed guards – is ludicrously misguided in multiple ways, not least by the simple fact that Columbine High School was protected by two armed guards, to no avail, not to mention the statistical record, highlighted in a report from the Children’s Defense Fund, which shows that “the 5,740 children and teens killed by guns in 2008 and 2009 would fill more than 229 public school classrooms of 25 students each” – a rate of more than two Newtown massacres a week.

But if we want get to the core of the NRA’s madness, it helps enormously to consider its warped worldview on the one hand – where “the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun” – and its complete misunderstanding of rights on the other hand. The Manichean good man/bad man view of things entirely ignores the fact that the Newtown killer had apparently been a “good man” up until the massacre day. In this, he is not alone.

As conservative commentator David Frum recently noted, there’s hard evidence that most defensive gun use – the NRA’s favourite justification for guns as a positive good – is probably not legal. People may very well feel justified in defending themselves with the threat of deadly force, when in the eyes of the law they are not. Are they “good men” or “bad men”? Or simply good men with bad judgment in the heat of the moment – who would have been just fine in the morning – if they hadn’t had a gun handy?

Adding further depth to Frum’s point is research into the role of cultural values, particularly the “honour culture” centred in the American South, but spread geographically via out-migration, particularly among urban blacks. In a brief survey of findings in this area at the Atlantic, Richard Florida quoted from a seminal 1993 paper by Richard Nisbett, “Violence and Regional Culture” [PDF], in which he wrote:

Southerners do not endorse violence in the abstract more than do Northerners, nor do they endorse violence in all specific forms of circumstances. Rather, they are more likely to endorse violence as an appropriate response to insults, as a means of self-protection, and as a socialisation tool in training children. This is the characteristic cultural pattern of herding societies the world over. Consistent with the culture-of-honour interpretation, it is argument-related and not felony-related homicide that is more common in the South.

Florida went on to discuss more recent findings, which among other things suggest that this orientation is only becoming more lethal as traditional male power becomes increasingly ineffectual in a rapidly-changing world.

Free-riders and comrades

Gun lobbying group says more guns are the answer

Believe it or not, argument-related homicide takes us to very root of the meaning of rights as understood in modern liberal democratic societies, all of which follow at least somewhat in the footsteps of the United Kingdom and the United States.

According to NRA theology, guns are synonymous with freedom, the very basis of our democracy. But according to John Locke – whose Second Treatise lays out the philosophical foundations for government by consent of the governed – this gets things exactly backwards: It’s the inability of guns – or any other private means – to secure our freedom that establishes the foundation for our civil government, and the freedoms it secures. The NRA is not alone in its misunderstanding, of course. But they are in the vanguard of getting the basis of American freedom utterly and totally wrong.

Before explaining this, I first want to offer some sense of the scope of craziness involved, which is well captured by Corey Robin – an occassional Al Jazeera contributor – in a post at his blog, “Rimbaud Conservatism“.

“In the wake of the Newtown killings, writers on the right have suggested we should teach children to turn on their assailants, rushing them en masse,” Robin writes, quoting Megan McArdle writing in The Daily Beast, saying that she’d “like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters”. He then notes that libertarians like McArdle suffer from a bizarrely schizoid vision of human nature: “When it comes to public goods, libertarians think we’re all free riders; in the face of crazed killers, we’re all comrades.”

It’s a point well worth dwelling on. Libertarians don’t like to think we owe each other anything, which is why their ideal is to do away with government entirely. But, of course, that simply will not work. It’s a walking recipe for disaster. So when disaster strikes, because libertarians have no practice in thinking through how people can solve problems together, they must swing wildly to the other extreme, since it’s far more preferable than the alternative, which is to admit how utterly wrong they’ve been.

Guns don’t kill people…

This brings us back to Locke, who libertarians used to pretend was their intellectual godfather. Because Locke wrote of a state of nature, in which people had complete freedom, unconstrained by human laws, libertarians have long mistaken this to be an ideal state, against which all others must be measured – and, found wanting. This, of course, was entirely mistaken.

Locke’s state of nature is indeed desireable in many respects – it’s certainly much better than the “war of each against all” that Hobbes gave the same name to. But it’s really only a philosophical way-station for Locke; it’s part of an argument for what constitutes legitimate government. It’s right there in the title – “Two Treatises of Government” and more specifically in the subtitle, which identifies the Second Treatise as “an Essay concerning The True Original, Extent, and End of Civil-Government” (the First Treatise was a refutation of the divine right of kinds, thus clearing the way for Locke’s account).

While Locke sees the state of nature as ideal in one sense – the only rules are those of reason and morality derived from God – it’s far from ideal in terms of its fragility. Without a common authority to adjudicate disputes (which can easily get out of hand, especially in an honour culture), it can collapse and drift towards becoming the much darker state of nature as envisioned by Hobbes – as already mentioned, the war of each against all. Thus, one way to think of it is that rights are unlimited in principle, but insecure in practice. Which is why you hear all this talk about securing our rights – or liberties – from America’s founding fathers.

As Locke explains (in Chapter IX, Section 123), people will quit the state of nature, even though they are sovereigns beholden to no one, because their unlimited right is so fragile and insecure:

though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. [emphasis added]

It’s worth pausing to take note of the bolded passage above. It is no accident that gun fanatics invoke the cry of freedom, but speak a language that “is full of fears and continual dangers”. They are, in fact, psychologically living in the state of nature, strikingly oblivious to the fact that we, as a country, do not live in that state, but rather in a civil and political society established precisely to curb those fears and dangers, in order to secure the most precious and fundamental of our rights.

 NRA defends response to Newtown massacre

Guns are but a means to the end of security (setting aside their non-controversial use in hunting), and a clearly deficient one at that, which is why Locke argues that we have governments, as he then goes on immediately to say, in the first sentence of the next section, “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

…or maybe they do

The question then, so far as the NRA’s arguments are concerned, is whether guns of any or all sorts qualify as property (which they certainly do for purposes of hunting, say), or if they (guns not used for hunting) are but an imperfect means to a greater end, rendered obsolete by entering into political society. 

Indeed, the peaceful settlement of disputes, without resort to violence, is one of the principle reasons for forming the social contract. Thus, in Section 134 Locke identifies, “The great end of men’s entering into society” as “being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety, and the great instrument and means of that being the laws established in that society”.

Thus, it should be clear that not only are guns in general inadequate to secure our freedom, but also that, to the extent they pose a threat to peace and safety, they undermine, rather than furthering, the secure enjoyment of all the other rights people hold dear. That is precisely the threat that, according to Locke, government is created to curtail. This is, then, not a question of theology (what one believes are “God-given rights”) or even of ideology (what one thinks specific rights should be), but of empirical science: What makes us more secure? Security – not gun ownership – is the root right at stake, and the answer to that question is precisely what one might expect in America today: More guns make us less safe.

A graph of state-level data from Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium (here) makes this abundantly clear. There is a clear linear relationship between the percentage of gunowners and the number of gun deaths per 100,000 people. Wang writes, “The three states with the highest rate of gun ownership (Montana, Arkansas, Wyoming) have a gun death rate of 17.8 per 100,000, over 4 times that of the three lowest-ownership states (Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts); 4.0 gun deaths per 100,000).”

Of course correlation doesn’t prove causation. One or more underlying factors could be driving both. But there’s a lot less wiggle room in the results of a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009, “Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault“. The researchers compared 677 gun assault victims to 684 individuals from the population at large in Philadelphia, 2003 to 2006. They found that “individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 (P < .05) times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession." It was even worse where there was "at least some chance to resist", which upped the ratio to 5.45.

This data is entirely unsurprising. It simply confirms common sense. The NRA “logic” to the contrary is every bit as absurd as it seems – the answer to gun violence most assuredly is not more guns, not least because the world is not neatly divided between good men and bad men who always perform good and bad acts respectively. Alas, the world is full of men who may think they’re good – and for the most part are – but whose actions in the heat of the moment can fatally betray them. They – no, we – could use a bit more self-doubt, and a bit less encouragement to start shooting – encouragement the NRA is happy to provide. That confusion over who is really good and who just thinks they are – that confusion is precisely why the state of nature is so dangerous, as Locke has warned us. Knowingly or not, what the NRA encourages is a return to the state of nature, with all peril that portends, when the whole point of civilisation is to protect us from that peril on an ongoing basis.

Locke and key

The NRA sees and speaks of the shiny object of total freedom, but the rest of, as onlookers, instead see the other side of what the state of nature holds: We see the peril, the danger, the blood. What protects us from the bad man with the gun is keeping it out of his hands in the first place. Or better yet, preventing him from becoming a “bad man” in the first place. There’s an app for that. It’s called civilisation.

There is, of course, one other purpose arms can serve in the Lockean scheme: They can support the right of revolution, if people no longer consent to the existing government, and the government ignores their wishes. But this is also at least partially an empirical question.

At the time Locke wrote, there was not an enormous technological gap between the arms of ordinary citizens and that the professional army. In fact, the Locke-era British Bill of Rights forbade a standing army without the consent of parliament, a provision which partly inspired the even more complicated set of restraints adopted by America, of which the Second Amendment – protecting state-level militias – was actually one part. Today, however, it is simply inconceivable that a civil revolt could be militarily successful in either Britain or the US.

As Alaskan gun-owner and hunter Shannon Moore recently observed, “At this point in time, you’re going to need more than a few guns and monster clips. You’ll need weapons-grade uranium, a few tanks, a submarine and an army of your own to go up against our 3 million strong military.” Clearly, what was once a living possibility is no longer the case. The rationale dies, because the underlying facts do not support it.

But that doesn’t mean that Locke’s underlying logic has died. To the contrary, the issue of the consent of the governed has never been more alive than it has been in the last few decades. But what’s most interesting is that it’s taken such a strong turn toward non-violent, unarmed revolution, seen most recently in the peaceful successes of the Arab Spring. Of course these did not succeed everywhere, and violent struggle emerged in several countries, yet it should be remembered that nothing remotely like this was even conceivable at the time that Locke wrote. And yet, the underlying thrust of his logic has been supremely vindicated by the non-violent lineage of Thoreau, Gandhi, King and Mandela – a lineage that stands directly opposite to the gun-crazed vision of the NRA.

So, ask yourself, who better understands the nature of rights and the nature of freedom? The NRA or Dr Martin Luther King? Who better reflects Locke’s understanding? And lastly, whose world do you want to live in, anyway? Whose world do you want for your children?

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.