Why ‘trust’ is not relevant to the exercise of rights

Debates over gun rights in this country often center on two values that contradict each other: safety and freedom. Advocates of gun control base their claims — whether accurately and honestly or not — on the idea that restrictions on who gets to own what guns in which places will keep us safe. One of the questions that they love to raise in connection to this is whether I trust my fellow Americans to be armed.

This is an important point, since it gets to the heart of the kind of society we have or want to have.  Let’s consider what we mean by the word, trust.

At my job, I spend a good deal of time considering the etymology of words.  Etymology is the history of the word — its origins and usages over time.  Trust derives from an Old Norse word, traust, meaning “help, confidence, protection, support.”   We can thank the Danes who took over a portion of the island of Britain for a couple of centuries for donating this word to our language.  In English, the word, trust, shows up in the thirteenth century — after Wilhelm and his Norman gang brought their French dialect to England.  At that time, it meant what it means today, “reliance on the veracity, integrity, or other virtues of someone or something.”

The nature and origins of trust relationships are the subject of much activity in the social sciences and philosophy.  The basic question is why do we ever rely on someone else or have confidence in that person’s motives and judgement, and there may be a genetic basis for the trust we experience in our fellow human beings.  After all, we are a social species, and social groups whose members get along with each other do better.

So how does this relate to gun rights?  Think about what a right is.  Contemporary discussion of the subject often wants to say that rights are something that derive from the trust relationships we form as a society, but is this an acceptable interpretation?  After all, what society giveth, society may take away; blessed be the name of society.  As I’ve said elsewhere, I celebrate the recent ruling on gay marriage, but if the social consensus model of rights is correct, on what grounds could a same-sex couple complain if society decided that their relationship isn’t worthy of the same recognition that a heterosexual couple gets?  That same difficulty applies to all rights.  If as a society we choose to deny a particular freedom, who can object in any meaningful way?

By contrast, the model of rights that formed our nation is the assertion that we’re born with basic rights, not given them by the people around us.  Read the text of the Bill of Rights as an illustration of this.  The key rights, discussed up front, are enumerated for protection, but the writing doesn’t use words like “give” or “create.”  The language recognizes the rights as something we already had.

This is the core of the claim I make here.  Do you trust me, and do I trust you?  Those are interesting questions, but they’re not relevant to the exercise of rights.  When I’m asked if I trust everyone in this country to own and carry firearms responsibly, it’s an unfair debating tactic.  How can I?  I don’t directly interact with 320,000,000 persons.  I can cite data about gun owners, or I bring up conviction rates on carry license holders such as what the State of Texas provides, but that doesn’t answer whether I ought to trust any particular individual.  And it’s not my place to say if we’re talking about what rights that person has.  In a free society, we must presume that each of us is good until proved otherwise.  My trust isn’t a prerequisite for your rights.  Your humanity is all that’s required.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.