“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” Benjamin Franklin once wrote.
In light of the horrific Newtown massacre, as well as other recent, high profile incidents of firearms violence, many in Congress and across the nation have called for increased restrictions on firearms. First, it must be acknowledged that everyone contributing to the national dialogue has one interest in mind: to protect people from violent crimes. The chief point of dissension is the means by which we achieve reduced firearms violence. Although admirable and well intentioned, the current fervor to enact new legislation is both dangerously misguided and an affront to the natural liberties of man.
The first folly of the firearms restriction movement is the lack of foresight for the actual effects of their intended legislation. If the goal is to reduce firearms violence, restricting the private ownership of firearms achieves the opposite effect. In 1764, Thomas Jefferson made a statement, which still rings true today. “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms … disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. … Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.” Legislation promoting arms restrictions only enables criminals at the expense of the common man. This phenomenon has been documented quite extensively. For example, since England’s 1997 ban on all handguns, the rate of both violent crime and handgun crime has more than doubled, according to Joyce Malcom’s research published by Harvard University Press. Indeed, places with tight restrictions like Chicago and Mexico have high instances of violent crime per capita. Conversely, a nation like Switzerland, where every male is issued a military rifle, has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. So, the oft-repeated mantra, “more guns, more crime,” is just simply wrong.
On constitutional grounds, new firearms regulations will likely be struck down by the Supreme Court. The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In the landmark 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court affirmed that the second clause of the amendment was the operative clause, with the first being a clarifying clause. As such, the private ownership of firearms without undue government intrusion was upheld as a codification of the natural right to self-defense. Thus, any new legislation that intends to limit the private ownership of firearms would have to persuasively and unequivocally show an argument for limiting the rights of the citizenry to self-defense. With that high bar, it’s unlikely that new legislation would endure a constitutional challenge.
Finally, on philosophical grounds, the unhindered right to bear arms should be recognized as a normative principle. Self-defense is a natural liberty, and thus inalienable, unable to either be taken or given away. With that said, there are obviously several limitations to legitimate arms ownership. First, the owner must be both in a rational state of mind and fully informed of the consequences of firearms ownership. This would prohibit minors and mentally deranged individuals from ownership. Secondly, those that have a record of using firearms for malicious reasons should not have access to firearms. This covers felons and other past offenders. Lastly, on the continuum of potential harm to others, those weapons that have a clear capacity for large-scale destruction; the extreme case of atomic bombs, for example, must be regulated. Other than those exceptions, citizens should have the right to own a firearm free of interference from the state. Private firearm ownership deters individuals from committing crimes, as seen in numerous incidents where mass shootings were stopped by an armed private citizen. But more importantly, private firearms ownership prevents tyrannical governance against free peoples. In the course of human history, the worst atrocities against humanity have been committed on peoples stripped of arms. Just in the last century alone, the countries that have banned private firearms such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China, played witness to some of the worst crimes in history. Even Gandhi, the archetypical pacifist wrote, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.” Thus firearms don’t solely protect the individual, but also the free society.
Tragedies are tragic, but the loss of freedom is more so.
Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Thursday.