“What do you need a gun for?” It’s an honest question, coming from my Mom. She was aghast when I told her I’d bought one. She didn’t even want me to have toy guns as a kid. There were no such things in the house where I grew up. Both she and my Dad grew up with guns in their homes, but those weapons gathered dust. They weren’t even talked about. My parents raised me to be a pacifist, to stay away from trouble, and to trust the cops to show up in time. Yeah. It was like that . . .
Honestly, I really hope I don’t need a gun. I don’t ever want to shoot anybody. I don’t want to find myself in the position where I might have to. I could say that I need a gun for self-defense, but honestly, that answer doesn’t carry a lot of weight for me. Maybe it’s naive, but I don’t think of myself as a likely target for violence. If I were a woman, I’d probably feel differently, and I’d carry a skinny little Kahr on me all the time. I know lots of people take up guns after they get mugged or have their houses broken into, but that hasn’t happened to me.
As it is, carrying a gun seems like an awful lot of precaution for comparatively little danger. Spree killings are a statistical anomaly. Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades. More than 80% of all gun-related violence happens between drug-trafficking gangs. The math says that I’m in a lot more danger from things like heart disease, traffic accidents, medical malpractice, or swimming pools than I am from Bad Guys. If I’m really concerned about my life and safety, I should be more concerned with switching from pizza to salad than I am with my EDC. So really, this is not about “need” for me. It never was.
And that’s what’s wrong with the question, Mom. It presumes that carrying a gun is something weird or wrong that needs to be justified. That’s a pretty big assumption to make. I might as well ask why you need me not to have a gun. There is no reason that the people of the gun should start this conversation on the defensive side. None at all.
Here’s why: this is not about needs. It’s about rights. They are not the same thing, and neither one justifies or explains the other. I might “Need” a new kidney, but I have no “Right” to take one from anyone else. I may have the “Right” to convert to Islam, but I have no “Need” to do so. Whenever rights and needs align with each other, it’s coincidental, not structural.
I should not start out by trying to justify my gun ownership because rights are not the sort of thing which have to be justified. American law presumes that rights are not “granted” by the State, but that they simply come with being alive. We are “endowed by our creator” with rights that we regard as “inalienable.” The government is specifically prohibited from restricting a non-exclusive list of liberties recognized in the Bill of Rights. The Constitution is not supposed to be the source of our rights. It is supposed to protect the rights we have inherently. So it’s incorrect to say that rights exist “for (whatever) purposes,” because our rights are simply there. They pre-exist our individual lives, and whatever purposes we might have, as well as any kind of governing authority.
In fact, it’s very hard to justify any of our rights when we consider what we typically do with them. People are stupid and crazy wherever you look. When we hear what most kooks on the internet have to say, it’s hard to see the value of the freedom of speech. When we learn about institutional pedophilia and widespread domestic abuse, freedom of religion doesn’t look so hot, either. Given the way people might behave, it’s amazing we’re allowed to run around loose… but think what it would mean if we weren’t.
The antis are quick to say “my right to life is more important than your so-called gun rights,” and “if it saves even one life, we have to at least try real gun control.” Well, I’m sure it would save lots of lives if we preemptively imprisoned everyone in rubber rooms, re-educated them with approved propaganda, forcibly exercised them twice a day, and fed them a nutritionally-balanced gruel through a tube. If it saves even one life, shouldn’t we try that? Of course not. Our liberties are worth something. They are what make life worth living, beyond mere survival. This is what having rights is all about- our most fundamental principles say that everyone ought to manage their own lives and determine their own best interests. We do not need to provide justification for our rights to do so, and it’s wrong to even ask us to try.
Of course, all rights eventually run up against some natural limitations. They seem to stop at the point where some kind of harm is immanent or realized. For example, freedom of speech does not include making threats, or committing slander, or fraud. Freedom of religion does not include blowing up anything up that isn’t yours. And, the freedom to keep and bear arms does not include brandishing them, threatening anyone with them, using them to hurt or kill anyone… or even leaving them lying around where children can reach them.
Rights can legitimately be taken away from individuals when they prove by their actions that they’re dangerous to themselves or others, and get thrown in jail.
But none of that means the scope of everyone’s abilities should be subject to “prior restraint.” That’s exactly what spelling out certain rights is supposed to protect us against. There have been occasions when rights have been suspended because we’ve been worried about what people might do, but these are injustices, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, or the use of “Free speech zones” during the 2004 DNC in Boston, the RNC in New York, and the Occupy Wall Street actions in 2011. And of course, “prior restraint” is the entire idea behind gun control in the first place.
So here’s what I need with a gun, Mom: I need to be able to have one, or several. I need to be able to rise above willful ignorance about a fairly important topic. I need to be free from unjust prohibitions imposed by a well-intentioned but misguided policy. I need to be responsible for myself, and not be anyone else’s responsibility. I need to be included and empowered, rather than managed and regulated. The fact that I might be trusted with a gun still feels like flattery. It calls me to rise up into that role. It might say something about my place in society that I’m allowed to carry a gun, but it says EVERYthing about society’s relationship with me.