PEOPLE’S ideas often don’t make any sense when you try to hold them together in your head simultaneously, as Richard Rorty, Daniel Kahneman or Desiderius Erasmus will be happy to tell you. One of the areas in which people tend to have ideas that don’t make sense, when you hold them together in your head simultaneously, is that of rights. For example, many Americans believe that our rights derive from God or from the very nature of being human. As Paul Ryan put it in a discussion of Obamacare this month, folks of his political persuasion don’t believe that the people have the power to make up new rights; rights come from God and nature. These same Americans also generally believe that our rights are those delineated in the Declaration of Independence and the constitution, including a non-infringeable individual right to bear arms. And yet, clearly, people in most law-governed democracies other than the United States, countries like Britain, Canada, France, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan, do not have an individual right to bear arms. How, then, can the right to bear arms as enshrined in the constitution derive from God, or from the very nature of being human? Is this a special sort of right, one that can be created by the people via government if they so choose? If so, then what stops the people, through their government, from creating other sorts of new rights, like a right to education, or a right to health insurance?
Take this essay by Cliff Stearns, the Republican congressman and (to be reductionist) gun-rights advocate. “Not only is the right to be armed a Constitutional right, it is also a fundamental natural right,” Mr Stearns writes. And then, in the very next paragraph: “Once again we can trace the right to be armed to legal and political events in 17th century English history, this time pertaining to hunting and gaming laws.” How does a fundamental natural right lie sleeping throughout the first 6,000 years of recorded history, only to wake to full flower due to conflicts over gaming laws in
Regency Restoration England? And what of the benighted 95% of humanity who still do not enjoy the fruits of this natural right, including, rather confusingly, the actual English who supposedly roused it from its primeval slumber?
Perhaps American supporters of gun rights would say that in fact people in every country do have a natural right to bear arms, but their enjoyment of that natural right is denied them by oppressive governments in countries like Britain, France, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan. Meanwhile, the so-called “right” to health insurance enjoyed by citizens of those countries is presumably only a fake right which they do not in fact possess. This just doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation. Is the problem that we use the word “right” in two ways, meaning in one sense an inalienable moral consideration which we believe all humans possess regardless of the context of government in which they live, and in another sense an enforceable claim within a country’s legal system which commands government and other persons to guarantee certain kinds of treatment to every citizen? Which kind of right would the right to health insurance be? Which kind is the right to bear arms?
The right to bear arms isn’t the only right that faces this paradox. They all do, really. In the mid-1980s, the idea that people have a right to have consensual sex with partners of any gender, in whatever position they like, was pronounced “facetious” by the Supreme Court; 25 years later it feels like an obvious, natural outgrowth of the Bill of Rights. If rights evolve this way through the dialectics of culture and history, just how “natural” can they be?
Such are the idle thoughts that occur in the aftermath of America’s latest episode of horrifying, meaningless mass slaughter. At least, such are the idle thoughts that occur to me. A large segment of the American public these days apparently finds it offensive, not just misguided but actually offensive, to talk about gun control after these sorts of atrocities occur. As economist Justin Wolfers tweeted this morning: “Let’s not talk about gun control. It’s too early, right? It’s always too early. Except when it’s too late.”
Mr Wolfers is right: the “too early” construction is ridiculous. He’s also right that it’s too late. It is too late for gun control in America. It’s never going to happen. There are too many guns out there, and an individual right to bear arms is now entrenched in constitutional law. Gun control in America is as quaint a proposition, at this point, as marijuana prohibition, with two important differences: first, that the government is still for some reason pursuing the absurd project of marijuana prohibition; and second, that guns are actually a significant threat to public health. In this sense, gun control is on a long list of things that could have saved many people’s lives and made the world a better place, but for which it is now probably too late: a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, EU action to avert economic catastrophe, stopping global warming. So this is just what one of America’s many faces is going to be: a bitterly divided, hatefully cynical country where insane people have easy access to semi-automatic weapons, and occasionally use them to commit senseless atrocities. We will continue to see more and more of this sort of thing, and there’s nothing we can realistically do about it.