Rights, Responsibilities, and Guns

With rights come responsibilities.

Posted Aug 29, 2018

Microsoft Clip Art Photos
Source: Microsoft Clip Art Photos

With rights come responsibilities. This is true of many of the significant moral rights recognized as legal rights by the U.S. Constitution. The rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion are conditional rights. One must meet certain conditions to exercise these rights, and they can be forfeited if one fails to do so.

This is also true of the right to own and use a gun. Both our understanding of the moral right to own and use a gun as well as how the law codifies this right should reflect this fact.

There are limits on all of our Constitutional rights. It is illegal (and immoral) to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. The resulting chaos could harm people in and around the theater, potentially leading to injury or even death. Even something as central as the freedom to practice one’s religion has limits. It is both illegal and immoral to practice human sacrifice, even if it is central to your religion. The same applies to the right to own a gun. It is limited in several ways (and more limits should be adopted). These limits are justified by potential harm to others. The aim of these limits is to allow those who are competent and responsible to exercise their right to own and use a firearm for self-defense and sport, while making it less likely that those who should not own and use firearms will be able to do so.

Here, as part of the justification for having such limits, it is important to emphasize the notion that with rights come responsibilities. Often these responsibilities are connected to the rights that other people have. As some like to say, “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins." Your rights, your liberties, are limited when they begin to impinge on my own in a significant manner. Similarly, then, the right to own a gun is limited when that liberty threatens the rights of others.

There are at least two moral rights that all human beings possess which are relevant here. We have the right to live in security, and the right to live in freedom. These rights are relevant to those who choose to own a gun, and those who do not. How so?

Those who want to own a gun have the right to do so. The right to live in security is often given as a justification for this, as well as the right to freely choose to do so. This makes sense, and is important. However, it does not necessarily justifiy the status quo. This is because other members of society also have these same rights. These rights limit both who has the right to own a gun and how those who own a gun use it.

For example, the right to live in security means that students have the right to go to school without fear of being shot. People have a right to go to work, the movies, or for a walk without that same fear. They should be free to do such things without being shot. People who are suicidal have a right to security as well, and it should be more difficult for them to gain access to a firearm in order to protect them from making a rash and irreversible decision.

Limits on gun ownership are justified by the rights to freedom and security that all of us possess. This means that we should do what we can to keep dangerous, immoral, and incompetent people from getting guns, because this endangers the rights of others to security and freedom. Unfettered access to guns, or lax laws, endanger these rights to security and freedom. This means that we need to balance the right to own a gun with the other rights that are in play. And we can do this without banning all firearms from all people, and without continuing to accept the status quo.

We hear a lot about the right to own a gun, but we need to craft laws and foster a culture that emphasizes the responsibilities that come with that right. Those who cannot fulfill the responsibilities should not have the right.