There is No Right to Murder in the Second Amendment

In the new issue of Harper's, Rebecca Solnit has an interesting piece on the contradictory tenets of modern conservative ideology called "The Ideology of Isolation." She deftly notes that the rugged individualism and appeal to personal freedom among Republicans these days are not really liberating ideas for most people.

But she also weaves into her takedown one of the most common - and disingenuous - attacks on gun rights and the Second Amendment:

That there is a constitutional right for individuals to own guns is a gift of Antonin Scalia's radically revisionist interpretation of the Second Amendment, and it's propped up on the cowboy ethos in which guns are incredibly useful for defending oneself from bad guys, and one's right to send out bullets trumps the right of others not to receive them.

If you read carefully, you'll notice that Solnit is actually griping about two very distinct rights, only one of which Americans actually have.

There is still much scholarly debate about whether the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller (that "gift" to which Solnit refers) was "revisionist" at all, let alone "radical." But it is true that because of it, Americans do, at the very minimum, have a federal right to keep handguns in their homes.

Put aside for a moment that in most states, the recognition of gun rights doesn't require interpretation (radical or otherwise) because those rights are explicitly spelled out in state constitutions using very clear language. Even if the federal constitution doesn't really convey an individual right to self defense despite what the Supreme Court says, that right is nevertheless prolifically protected in American law. I make no argument whether that's a bad thing or a good thing. It simply is.

Solnit obviously thinks it is a bad thing. But the problem with her line of attack is that she conflates one right - a right to own guns - with another right - the right to murder other people.

Americans only have one of those rights. And even though there is an obvious correlation between lots of owned guns and lots of gun murders, being free to possess a weapon does not mean one is also free to use it against other people, nor does it mean that possessing a weapon will inevitably lead to its violent use.

One thing almost universally overlooked in our debate about gun rights is not how many guns Americans own (something around 300 million), but the fact that almost none of the guns in America will ever be used to kill or injure other people, statistically speaking. If it were otherwise, almost all of us would be dead. Though American gun deaths are frequent and many (roughly 30,000 per year, more than two thirds are suicides) they are caused by a relatively tiny portion of the national private gun collection and by a relatively tiny portion of the national population. 

Nearly none of the millions of gun owners in this country will ever hurt anyone with their guns, and their guns are incapable of hurting anyone else without their owners' intentional or reckless actions. Simply owning a gun is not, by itself, an inherently violent act.

It is perfectly valid to oppose personal gun ownership from a political standpoint, and similarly valid to try to convince others to repeal the Second Amendment. Our rights are conveyed and protected by consensus, after all, and our constitutions may be changed through changing that consensus. Someday most Americans may actually want to disarm themselves, and they have that power.

But if you're trying to win people over to the idea that Americans should not be allowed by the government to privately own guns (the truly radical position, historically speaking), disingenuously arguing that a right to own a gun is the same as a right to use a gun aggressively may backfire. You will find that millions of peaceful gun owners don't much appreciate being lumped in with murderers simply because they exercise a right you dislike.

I'm as frustrated by the inconsistencies and hateful undercurrents of conservative politics as Rebecca Solnit. I, too, think "cowboy culture" and appeals to rugged masculinity are exclusive, dangerous, and cannot make our country better if widely embraced. But I also am not won over by bad arguments. So please, if you oppose gun rights, find a better way to argue your position than conflating the right to own a gun with the right to murder. We have never had a right to murder and the Second Amendment, even under the most radical of revisionist interpretations, will never convey one.