Since the Parkland shooting, America has gone through a sort of genesis – a new wave of gun control advocacy – that has simultaneously emboldened young people and made the National Rifle Association shake in its boots. And I wouldn’t blame the NRA for feeling this way; to any outside observer, it appears that the murder of children in schools has finally reached a boiling point, and the water is boiling over and spilling on their heads.
The gauntlet has been laid down by a new generation of Americans, like Emma Gonzalez, who is known to many as the brave young woman who is carrying the weight of a nation on her shoulders as she strongly advocates for common sense gun control measures, and known to a few (specifically former Republican candidate for the Maine State House of Representatives Leslie Gibson) as a “skinhead lesbian.”
Yet, the talking points haven’t changed. As far as either side of the debate is concerned, the same drivel that led to no reform will be the drivel that we continue to inundate ourselves with while peering helplessly into our television and phone screens, watching snippets from Fox News and MSNBC, who report on identical news with wildly dichotomous rhetoric. There is, however, one argument that will exist in perpetuity, but rightfully so. It embodies the complexity and confusion of the issue of gun control with its very existence. What should be our nation’s priority when it comes to gun control: freedom or safety? Or better yet, must we sacrifice freedom for the sake of safety?
Freedom is an abstract concept, having been interpreted and analyzed by political and historical scholars for centuries. From that scholarly review emerges two foundational branches of freedom, known as negative and positive freedom.
Negative freedom is essentially the type of freedom that gives the middle finger to government. It dictates that an individual is responsible for securing and protecting his or her own freedom, independent from pesky governmental interference, like restrictive regulations and expensive, ineffective social programs.
Positive freedom is, as one is probably able to surmise, the total opposite of this position. The proverbial middle finger is substituted for more or less open arms that wish to embrace government in all its benevolence and mercy. This type of freedom stipulates that in order for citizens to access the fullest capacity of their freedom, the government must intervene in order to provide them with certain rights, protected and maintained by applicable programs and regulations.
Gun rights advocates understand freedom through the philosophical dealings that surround negative freedom. They constantly thump the Constitution, reiterating again and again that to use congressional power to regulate their Second Amendment rights is not only unconstitutional, but the ultimate insult to the principles of freedom that they have come to comprehend and dearly covet.
And this strong feeling of resentment – and if not resentment, ambivalence – toward the big hand of government also serves as a bully pulpit for the under-informed. They care very minimally, if not at all, about the nuances and detailed minutia of the gun control debate, whether it be from a philosophical or technical standpoint, and more about the broad strokes of individual determination.
To Hell with the cries of children or parents, or politicians not on the NRA’s payroll; for the rights of gun owners endowed to them by the Constitution – specifically their Second Amendment right to own firearms – shall not be tainted by the governmental system which endowed them with such rights.
This notion of freedom is understandable. Cute, even. But it is also flawed. It is idealistically naïve to be under the impression that freedom operates exclusively outside the control of governmental authority, especially in the context of the United States. Sure, we have the works of John Locke, who was the primary inspiration behind Thomas Jefferson’s overarching ideological message of the Declaration of Independence. Locke states that all “men” have natural rights that are given to them simply by the fact that they exist on this earth. These rights include life, liberty, and property, or as Thomas Jefferson would later put it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Proponents of gun rights, whether they realize it or not, subscribe to the idea that the government cannot, and should not attempt to, interfere in the provision of these rights, as it is inherently left to the individual to ensure.
However, the government currently does ensure those rights to its citizens and has since the country’s birth. The Bill of Rights, arguably the most fundamental piece of our government’s founding documents, ensures all citizens the right to liberty, in the many facets that liberty presents itself in. It even says so in the Constitution’s preamble that one of the purposes of the government is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”, meaning it is the prerogative of the government to, in addition to other things, make sure that its citizens, present and future, have liberty.
If anything, the federal government has operated for over two centuries under principles of positive freedom. Just look at any of the Bill of Rights that provides American citizens with a long laundry list of freedoms, many of which they may not be privy to but for this document’s existence and ratification.
Things like freedoms of expression, freedom of speech, freedom from quartering soldiers in private homes, the right to due process under the law, freedom from unlawful search and seizure, just to name a few. No individual can secure all those freedoms by their own means, and even if they could, to maintain them without codified, ratified law is an unreasonable burden to place on any person.
Positive freedom is also brought into play when one revisits the issue of civil rights, from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments in the 1860s all the way through to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. African-Americans were not able to access the full potential of their freedom if not for governmental intervention, and these statutes made the long road of freedom and equality easier for that minority population to navigate. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which lifted our country out of the worst economic conditions in its history, was birthed from the ideological preceding of positive freedom. And positive freedom is what is being advocated for by proponents of common sense gun control.
Gun control activists subscribe to this idea of positive freedom, and they apply it to the debate. Freedom, to them, means that the government is ensuring that their rights – rights which have been endowed to them by the very act of their being and by the Bill of Rights – are not infringed upon by adversarial actors. Similar to how liberty is ensured in the Constitution, proponents of gun control believe that the government should take an active role in securing our rights to life and safety; ones that have been infringed upon by unnecessary gun violence.
The ensuring of this natural right to life, to them, should be done through enacting gun control reform, such as running universal background checks on all persons interested in owning a firearm prior to their purchase, closing the gun show loophole, raising the age at which you are able to legally purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, and outlawing the sale of semiautomatic assault rifles to regular citizens; weapons that have been used in mass shootings across the nation, from San Bernardino to Sutherland Springs, to Parkland, like the AR-15. They believe that these laws will promote safety in schools and safety in society at-large, while hopefully protecting some individual rights to life along the way.
Their aim is not to do away with the Second Amendment wholesale, nor has it ever been. People who believe that have either not been reading hard news, not been paying any sincere attention to the issue of gun control, or both. Their aim also is not to throw away the Constitution, especially considering they are using rights given to them by the Constitution in order to advocate for these issues.
And to those who are under the impression that a right to safety does not exist, as it is not specifically stated in the Constitution, whereas our right to own firearms is, I direct you to some men who helped found this country, the Georgia delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, who postulated “If we list a set of rights, some fools in the future are going to claim that people are entitled only to those rights enumerated and no others.”
So should safety be prioritized over freedom? It seems to me that we can have both in equal measure. It seems to me that they are symbiotic organisms in the governmental ecosystem. Must we sacrifice freedom for the sake of safety? Not if we look at freedom through a different, positive lens. Not if we look at freedom as something the government has an intervening, ongoing affair with. But this affair is not, nor has it ever been, aimed toward restricting the rights of all citizens or abolishing major constitutional provisions. Both our history and our politics have shown us that the government’s goal, by and large, is to maximize our attainment of that freedom.
It is the great irony of modern politics for gun rights activists to bite their thumbs at government when government is the very entity that allows them to have gun rights.