Dangerous rights

In debates with advocates of gun control, I often hear the claim that gun rights are distinct from other rights because of the danger of guns—presuming the advocates of control will admit that gun ownership and carry are, in fact, rights.  The presumption that mostly goes unstated is that if something is dangerous, it must be controlled.  I’ve considered the tension between freedom and safety before, arguing that all rights are dangerous precisely to the degree that they involve the individual exercise of power and choice.  But it can seem too easy to say that all rights are dangerous.  I’m frequently presented with the claim that words don’t kill, for example.  This assertion deserves analysis.

Consider as an example of this a right that we have debated with furor over the last several decades.  Through the exercise of this right, one in three women and one in four men are the victims of violence, while one in five women and one in seven men suffer extreme physical assaults.  This right is connected to 15% of all violent crime to a cost of $8.3 billion a year.  Am I talking about gun rights?  No.  The right in question here is that of choosing our intimate partners, since those numbers are figures of domestic violence.  And yet, more and more, we are accepting the idea that people have the right to enter into relationships and to have their status recognized by our government.

All right, but we’ve long known that getting involved with another person that closely is a risky thing.  The vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience that is marriage is a surprise only to those who are innocents.  Let’s move to another right, one that is defended as an essential element of a free society.  Many will tolerate no tests of skills to exercise this right, nor will they accept a review of documents to confirm a person’s eligibility.  And yet, this right has resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand human beings in this century.  What right is this?  The right to vote.  The figures I cited are deaths that come from the war in Iraq.  If some small number of votes in Florida had gone another way—less than one percent of the total cast, whether we include the rejected votes or not—Gore would have been president.  Our fight in Afghanistan was going to happen, regardless of which candidate won, but I have a hard time imagining a President Gore taking us to combat in Iraq.  But to exercise your right to participate in how we will be governed requires basically that you refrain from committing felonies and are capable of filling out a form.  And before someone accuses me of supporting stringent laws on voting, I see the current state of affairs as being pretty much as they should be.

By now the game I’m playing is obvious, so I’ll state at the start of the paragraph the last right I’m going to consider here:  expression—speech or the press.  Lincoln may or may not have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the book that made the Civil War, but we can’t escape the fact that the book was influential in the movement to end slavery.  A student of mine was the other day reading Mein Kampf out of historical interest, and as hateful as that book is, as destructive as it was, I cannot argue in favor of the approach taken in Germany to control the dissemination of that text today.

My premise here is that all rights are inherently dangerous.  But denial of rights means that we concentrate danger—the ability to do things that have consequences—in the hands of the few.  The better answer, as I have said many times, is that we spend time and money spreading education as widely as possible and promote the creation of wealth through means that prove themselves to be effective.  A smarter population with abundant opportunities can retain the danger, the power of rights while exercising them for good.

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