Rights, humanity and the state

When national carry license reciprocity is being proposed, gun control advocates snicker about how the rights of states would be violated by such a federal law.  This, of course, presumes that people who support gun rights are automatically supporters of the existence of states’ rights, though that’s not necessarily the case.  And even if states’ rights have any proper meaning, that wouldn’t be relevant to this argument.

The claim that states have rights was tied to slavery in American history and later to segregation.  But what can rights mean with regard to states?

This will require some philosophy.  The founders of our nation believed in the principle that human beings are born with rights.  By consensus, we extend to our governments some measure of power to act on our behalf.  The extent of that power came to be defined in our Constitution.

But power isn’t the same thing as a right, and governments—the state, to use another word—only are the collection of the people who participate in them or accept their rule.  A right is something that can be exercised only by human beings, whether acting together or individually.

During the Enlightenment, social philosophers worked with a concept called the state of nature, the supposed condition of human beings before the formation of societies.  With no society, there were no laws and no duties.  Each person was supposed to exist in complete freedom.  We then joined in groups because we recognized a need to band together to protect as much individual liberty as we could preserve from the dangers in the world.  And thus was born government.  But in this system of thought, government’s power still and only derives from our willingness to accept it.

This view may not hold the same sway these days in the humanities or law departments of academia that it once did, but it is the basis for our American system.  And in this legal structure, the idea of states possessing rights doesn’t fit comfortably.

Consider the Ninth and Tenth Amendments:  “IX.  The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.  X.  The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  Note that the Tenth says “powers,” not “rights.”

But perhaps this is merely quibbling.  The states do have powers, and so we must consider whether those include the authority to regulate firearms in ways particular to each state.

And here the argument of gun control advocates falls apart.  Whatever the Ninth Amendment was supposed to have meant and however it’s actually applied today, the right to keep and bear arms is one of the enumerated rights identified as belonging to the people—not to the states, nor to the militia, but to the people.

Allow me to propose two definitions:  1)  Liberty:  a lack of constraint on action; 2)  Right:  the claim that liberty is deserved in a given context.  We limit the powers of government to protect the liberty that was the essence of the state of nature and that we still fundamentally possess when we restrain what governments are allowed to do.

The text of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments makes the case clear that gun rights are federally protected individual rights.  As a nation, we stand almost alone in preserving that measure of liberty for our people.  This is a cause for sneering by many who look in from the outside, but it’s integral to our understanding of what it means to be an American.  As we approach another election, it’s time for us to remind the people we select to represent us of this right that we value.

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