Human Rights and Gun Control

The U.S. Constitution includes a Bill of Rights, and among those enumerated rights is the right to keep and bear arms. But this article is not about the legal and constitutional issues of gun ownership and gun control; it is about the ethics of the same. So we cannot begin with the Second Amendment, nor with any law or proposed law. Instead, we must ask: What are the fundamental questions in morality on gun ownership versus gun control? And this brings us to the topic of human rights.

First, every human person has the right to life, and this right is fundamental.

Fundamental human rights are based on human nature; they are based on the gifts given by God to us poor fallen sinners, made in His image. Fundamental human rights are inalienable; they should never be taken away for any reason or purpose. Fundamental human rights are limited only by the very nature of the right. For example, the right to freedom of speech does not include making false accusations or making threats of violence against the innocent or promoting terrorism.

Derived human rights are based on fundamental rights, but they depend in part on circumstances or intentions. Derived rights allow for some restrictions and, for a proportionate reason, some denial of the use of those rights precisely because they are not fundamental.

We are given life by God, and therefore we have a fundamental right to life. The sins opposed to life include murder and various specific types of murder: abortion, abortifacient contraception, euthanasia, genocide. And then there are related sins, such as maiming, torture, assault, threats of violence, etc. These latter sins are opposed to life, even though they do not necessarily result in death, because they harm life gravely.

The right to self-defense is also fundamental because it is essential to the preservation of the gift of life.

Suppose that a man is convicted of a double homicide and has admitted his guilt; he is serving a long sentence in prison. But in prison, he is attacked by a fellow inmate with deadly force. Does he have the right to use force to defense himself, even lethal force if necessary? Yes, he does. If even a convicted felon serving a prison sentence retains the right to self-defense, then that right must be fundamental.

Does the same man have a right to a firearm? Certainly not. The right to own a gun is not a fundamental right. But is it a right at all?

The rights to life and to self-defense necessarily include the right to some means to preserve that life and to accomplish that self-defense. We cannot say that a person has a right to life, but not also a right to food, shelter, medicine, and whatever else is needed for life. So the same can be said for self-defense. The right to self-defense would be effectively denied if the person had no means to achieve that end. Therefore, in so far as a person needs some type of firearm (or other weapons) to effectively exercise his right to self-defense, the right to own and use a firearm is a type of right. But since it is based on the right to self-defense, it is a derived right, not a fundamental one. And derived rights allow for greater regulation and restriction than fundamental rights.

A man convicted of a violent crime, who has completed his sentence and rejoined society, may be reasonably denied a firearm, since it is a derived right. But he may not be reasonably denied any fundamental right, including free speech, food, medicine, shelter, education, etc. Fundamental rights should only be restricted or regulated based on limits inherent to the very nature of the right, whereas derived rights allow for restriction and regulation for reasons proportionate to the circumstances, as long as the individual is not thereby deprived of a fundamental right as a result.

Human persons have a derived right to own and use weapons for self-defense. I would say that ownership of guns is also a right derived from the fundamental rights to freedom of choice and the pursuit of happiness, in so far as guns are used for recreational purposes. But greater limits on the right to own a gun would apply if the ownership were only for recreation, not for self-defense. The higher the purpose of a derived right, the greater the weight of that derived right. Self-defense is a high purpose, and so the right to own the types of weapons needed for self-defense is one of the weightier derived rights.

Society can reasonably impose a number of restrictions on gun ownership and use. But law-abiding citizens should not be deprived of the means they need to defend their lives as a result of those restrictions. Excessive restrictions on gun ownership threatens the fundamental right to self-defense, which is inalienable.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to Human Rights and Gun Control

  1. Dan says:

    Greetings Ron, this “right to life” certainly has its ground zero genesis ~ in the womb.
    Why would an unborn human fetus have the same right to
    life “natural rights” as a person outside the womb?

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