A day after the massacre in Newtown, the Southern Baptist pastor and blogger Wade Burleson posted an extended defense of gun rights that concludes:
Natural Law demands free citizens have the right to be armed.
As a Christian, I may choose not to bear arms, to turn the other cheek, and to live like Jesus Christ lived. But as an American, I will resist any effort by the state to take weapons from her citizens.
Natural Law demands this of me.
The post, from a thoughtful and serious man, makes it clear that gun control advocates are up against an understanding of American society profoundly different from their own.
Burleson derives his belief in gun possession as a demand of natural law from social contract theory, which recognizes the right of human beings to use whatever means necessary to defend themselves in a state of nature. And he contends that the country’s founders, as believers in natural law, incorporated “the right to keep and bear arms” into the Constitution as “absolutely necessary for a free society to exist.”
What Burleson does not seem to understand is that social contract theory, which guided the framers in their work, sees the social contract as resulting from the decision of individuals in the state of nature to surrender their autonomy. Why should they do so? As Locke answers in chapter nine of his Second Treatise of Government:
To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.
However legal scholars and the Supreme Court now understand the Second Amendment, it seems inarguable to me that its first phrase (“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”) shows that the ratifying state legislatures intended to ensure their liberty by being able to muster an armed citizenry to government-approved collective action.
Burleson and his kind–for it’s evident that he is not alone–do not share the robust understanding of the social contract that the rest of us, following the early Republic, do. Their America is akin to the state of nature–full of fears and continual dangers–but they don’t trust their fellow citizens sufficiently to be willing to place limits on the personal right to employ lethal force against those who would deprive them of life, liberty, and estate.
Albeit they can choose to do what Jesus did.