In studying the issue of gun control, I’ve frequently encountered people who say that one reason they don’t support gun control measures is because gun ownership is a “god-given” right. The divine origins of gun ownership, the argument goes, demand that gun ownership be shielded from any form of regulation. It’s a bold claim, and one that I wholeheartedly disagree with. The right of gun ownership is not “god-given,” and even if it were, it is ludicrous to assert this would somehow preclude it from regulation.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of explaining the reasoning behind my position on this, I want to establish that I’m not pulling this argument out of the air, and that I’m not misrepresenting it either. A quick internet search using the terms “guns” and “god given right” resulted in me quickly finding a plethora of examples of exactly what I’m referring to, some of which I’ve included for the benefit of anyone reading this:
Now, it would be totally reasonable to posit that the people who think gun ownership is a god-given right are in the minority, and that the examples I’ve provided thus far are simply people on the fringe who don’t have any real influence. Why then bother dealing with this? One, I honestly don’t know how “fringe” this belief really is. Two, if this is a fringe belief, I’d like to see it nipped in the bud as quickly as possible. Three, it’s not an argument made only by those without influence.
For instance, there are people like Joe Walsh, Rod Eccles, Alana Mastrangelo, Wayne LaPierre, and Jeanine Pirro, all of whom have explicitly stated that they believe the right to gun ownership is “God-given.” Joe Walsh and Rod Eccles are both nationally syndicated radio talk-show hosts; Alana Mastrangelo is a regional manager for Turning Point USA, frequently speaks on college campuses, and has over a 100 thousand twitter followers; Wayne LaPierre is the Executive Vice President of the NRA, an organization that has over 5 million members and is one of America’s most influential lobbying groups; Jeanine Pirro has over 1 million personal twitter followers, and is a commentator on Fox News, the country’s most watched cable news station.
These people have influence, as do our elected representatives, some of whom also seem to think that gun ownership is a God-given right. A state legislator in Arkansas who represents some 85,000 people once told a local news organization that he voted against a gun control measure because “Man has no right to infringe upon a God-given right.” A state legislator from Oklahoma offered the following when asked why he supported a bill allowing people to carry guns into the state’s capitol building: “It’s our God-given right and our constitutional right.” He represents nearly 40,000 people. Another Oklahoma legislator has said that “Carrying a firearm is a fundamental, God-given right.” Thomas Massie, a U.S. Representative from Kentucky argued less than a year ago that “the right to keep and bear arms is not a privilege, it is a God-given right protected by our Constitution.” Massie represents more than 700,000 people. In 2016, the official platform of the Texas Republican Party, argued for “constitutional-carry” legislation so that “citizens that possess firearms can legally exercise their God-given right to carry that firearm as well.” The Texas State Legislature is firmly under the control of the Republican party. More than two thirds of the state’s representatives in the U.S. House are republicans. Both of its current senators are republicans. It’s governor is republican. Texas has a population of more than 28 million people.
That the people and organizations listed here believe the right to gun ownership is god-given isn’t something that can be brushed aside as inconsequential. Again, these people have influence.
Defining “God-Given” Rights
So let’s get back to my arguments. I’ve stated that the right to own a gun isn’t god-given, and that a right being god-given doesn’t preclude it from regulation. Let me walk you through my reasoning.
A right given by god must be given either directly or indirectly.
If given directly, a record of such a right being bestowed would be necessary to prove both its existence to the world, and its availability to the whole of humanity. Nowhere in any of the religious text used by any of the world’s major religions have I been able to find a single reference to a gun, let alone a divinely appointed right to own one.
If given indirectly, god-given rights can only be identified by examining the laws of nature and those things inherent to humanity. The result of such an examination is “natural rights,” a term related to but distinct from “human rights.” While human rights are often based upon natural rights, they are rights specifically recognized and canonized by governments. They can be changed. Natural rights, on the other hand are inherent in nature, and as such, they are unchanging and universal. That a right is universal is to say that it is and has been available to every member of the human race. If a right is not universal, then it cannot be a natural right, and so cannot be claimed as god-given right. As firearms were not invented in any form before the tenth century, no person living before this time could have possibly had a right to own one. The only logical conclusion then is that the right to own a gun is not universal, not natural, and not god-given.
There is no evidence that a right to own a gun has been granted either directly by god, or indirectly by way of nature, his creation. Accordingly, no one can credibly claim that gun ownership is a god-given right, and nobody should.
A Counter Argument
But what about the right to self-defense? Isn’t that god-given? Well, the right to self-defense isn’t the right to own a gun. To suggest that a gun is necessary to fulfill the right to self-defense is in all ways unreasonable. Given that we live in a world where guns exist, it may be reasonable to argue that citizens should be able to use guns to defend themselves, but this argument is further evidence that the right to gun ownership is not god-given. A god-given right cannot owe its existence to the possibility that another human owns a very particular man-made weapon.
But perhaps owning a gun makes it easier for people to fulfill their right to self defense? This line of reasoning concedes my previous point, but let’s address it anyway.
The argument that guns make it easier to fulfill the right to self-defense isn’t an argument about rights at all. It’s an argument about the relative ease with which one can be exercised. For instance, I have a god-given right to move freely. This means I have a right to travel where I like. If I wanted to travel from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale, this action would be protected by a god-given right. It would be significantly easier for me to travel via plane, car, or even by bicycle than to walk. But if I don’t have the means by which to travel by plane, car, or bicycle, my right to move freely has not been reduced. Similarly, I have a god-given right to own property. If I wanted to buy a house, it would be significantly easier for me to buy a one bedroom house in Oklahoma than a beachfront mansion in Hawaii. I don’t think anyone would argue that my current lack of ability to afford a mansion somehow infringes on my right to property, and if I argued as much, I think people would laugh at me.
I want to be clear here that I’m not arguing that gun ownership isn’t a constitutional right, or even that people shouldn’t own guns. I’m saying that conflating the right to self-defense with gun ownership is fallacious, and does nothing to confound the points made previously concerning gun-ownership not being a right with divine origins.
Regulating God-Given Rights
Maybe I’m wrong and gun-ownership is a god-given right. I don’t think that is the case, but even if it were, it’s still not a reason to think gun ownership shouldn’t be subject to regulation. All sorts of god-given rights are subject to regulation, and rightly so:
- People have a god-given right to life; but they are not free to live however they want.
- People have a god-given right to property; but it’s illegal for them to possess illicit drugs, or fake IDs.
- People have a god-given right to marry; but it’s typically illegal (at least in this country) for them to marry as children or to marry immediate family members.
- People have a god-given right to travel where they want to; but it is illegal in most cases to cross national borders without a passport.
- People have a god-given right to self-expression; but it’s typically illegal for them to walk around naked in public.
- People have a god-given right to free speech; but they can’t yell “fire!” in public places.
- People have a god-given right to liberty; but it’s illegal for them to work in certain professions (e.g. medicine and law) without licensure, or to pretend to be government officials when they are not.
- People have a god-given right to privacy; but they can’t legally refuse to tell the government how much money they earn each year, or how they’ve earned it.
- People have a god-given right to assemble peacefully, but not in the middle of a freeway.
- People have a god-given right to pursue happiness; but all the restrictions previously listed apply.
Barring the god-given right to think and believe as one chooses, I can’t think of a single god-given right that isn’t regulated to some degree, and for good reason. Absolute freedom, without limit or consequence, is not freedom; it is anarchy. And under anarchy, no one’s rights are safe and the result is simply chaos.
It is, of course, necessary to find the proper balance of regulation versus freedom. So it’s likely that debates over how gun ownership should be regulated will continue until a solution is reached. What should not continue is the brazen and disrespectful way people erroneously cite God to bolster their position.
Gun ownership is not a god-given right, and even if it were, it would still be subject to regulation.