Bushmaster rifle used in the Newtown massacreA 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.

Categories: Politics

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

2 Comments

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Mark, what legal scholars and historians have found, and the US Supreme Court has affirmed, is that the Second Amendment was enacted with an explicit understanding that the right being protected was a right of “the people” to bear arms, not a right of the states. The authors of the Bill of Rights were well aware of how to state that they were preserving the power of the states against the Federal government, as they did in the Tenth Amendment, but when they wrote of rights held by “the people”, it was the same “people” who ratified the Constitution (in the Preamble) and whose rights to free religion, speech, press, assembly, freedom from unreasonable search, and a right to have government pay them for any private property it takes, are all guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Enhancing the ability to raise a militia is a benefit of the right of “the people” to bear arms, but not the only benefit, and it does not in any way expressly state that the right is limited to arms owned by the state militia.

    Consider this: Unless the Fourth Amendment is repealed, it is impossible for the government to locate and take all of the firearms in the US. Gun laws that have flatly prohibited gun ownership, let alone concealed carry, in cities like Washington, DC, and Chicago, have been notoriously useless and ineffective in preventing use of guns in crime. The broad expansion of concealed carry laws in many states has failed to cause any increase in crimes involving firearms. Ownership of a gun does not predict criminal behavior.

    There is a simple answer to create real “gun free zones”: Do for schools and other public venues what we already do for aircraft, the White House, Congress, and courthouses: Post armed guards with metal detectors and x-ray machines. Those measures work! They are simple and do NOT intrude on the constitutional liberties of anyone. The PTA criticism of the idea demonstrates the hypocrisy of those who want to avoid this simple answer: They say it costs too much! How can the PTA put a price on the lives of our children and grandchildren? I have 13 grandchildren, and two more due in a couple of months.

    I propose a simple measure to help cover the cost: IMpose an excise tax on ammunition of a dollar a box that will fund metal detectors and x-ray machinies for any school district who is willing to use its own money to hire guards to use them. Then the school districts will have to take direct responsibility for demonstrating whether they care enough to PAY to protect school children. And hypcritical politicians and judges who work in guarded buildings will be seen to value their own lives MORE than they value the lives of American children.

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