Is the Sec­ond Amend­ment ac­tu­ally mak­ing us freer?

Out­look’s El­iz­a­beth Bru­enig ar­gues that we no longer know what our lib­er­ties are for

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @ebru­enig El­iz­a­beth Bru­enig is an as­sis­tant ed­i­tor for Out­look and PostEvery­thing at the The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Af­ter the mass shoot­ing be­fore last, con­ser­va­tive pun­dit Bill O’Reilly ar­tic­u­lated what anti-gun-con­trol pol­i­tics seem to pre­sume but rarely ad­mit: that blood is the cost of the right to bear arms. “This is the price of free­dom,” O’Reilly wrote on his blog, re­fer­ring to the dozens killed in Las Ve­gas. “Vi­o­lent nuts are al­lowed to roam free un­til they do dam­age, no mat­ter how threat­en­ing they are.” He went on: “The Sec­ond Amend­ment is clear that Amer­i­cans have a right to arm them­selves for pro­tec­tion. Even the loons.”

This is a spe­cial, even rad­i­cal, type of free­dom — the kind that en­ti­tles a per­son to own the means of mass killing and the kind that com­pels so­ci­ety to grant that right. (Devin Kel­ley, the shooter in Suther­land Springs, Tex., last week­end, was legally for­bid­den to buy a gun be­cause of his his­tory of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, but var­i­ous polls from states ex­per­i­ment­ing with such bans show that some Amer­i­cans still feel am­biva­lent about keep­ing firearms from con­victed abusers.) How did the United States be­come a coun­try where half of gun own­ers feel in­tol­er­a­bly con­strained if they can’t own an as­sault-type weapon or a high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zine?

The an­swer is his­tor­i­cal. It’s the story of how West­ern thought moved from see­ing free­dom as a means to an end — what philoso­phers call “the good” — to see­ing free­dom as an end in it­self. Thanks to our lib­eral her­itage, we re­gard free­dom as an in­trin­sic good, per­haps the high­est one of all. The more of it we can get, the bet­ter off we are. Right?

Plato held that free­dom is the abil­ity to com­port with the good will­ingly and ra­tio­nally, un­in­hib­ited by un­ruly de­sires or ex­ter­nal force. For cen­turies, Chris­tian philoso­phers such as Au­gus­tine and Thomas Aquinas fol­lowed this prin­ci­ple, holding that true free­dom left peo­ple in an un­mo­lested state to grasp what is good and act ac­cord­ingly. (Thus in­ter­nal fet­ters, namely sin, were the main ob­sta­cles to free­dom.)

This un­der­stand­ing passed into church prac­tice: In the Mid­dle Ages, for in­stance, the Vat­i­can held elec­tions to ap­point ab­bots, bish­ops and other cler­i­cal of­fi­cers, and canon law en­shrined the right of el­i­gi­ble in­di­vid­u­als to cast their votes. But their choices were not un­lim­ited: If an elec­tor know­ingly cast a bal­lot for a can­di­date viewed as un­suit­able by higher au­thor­i­ties (usu­ally an arch­bishop), he risked hav­ing his right to vote re­voked and was thought to be in dan­ger of damna­tion. And if a ma­jor­ity of elec­tors voted for such an un­suit­able per­son, their de­ci­sion could sim­ply be over­turned. Free­dom mat­tered, in other words, but was al­ways sub­or­di­nate to the high­est good, which could some­times place lim­its on lib­erty.

But by the 17th cen­tury, a funny thing hap­pened: The pro­gen­i­tors of mod­ern lib­er­al­ism, in­clud­ing Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, de­cided that there sim­ply was no high­est good. Hobbes, in his opus “Le­viathan,” cited “the diver­sity of pas­sions in di­verse men” as well as “the dif­fer­ence of knowl­edge, or opin­ion each one has.” Locke said di­vin­ing the good was like ar­gu­ing over which is bet­ter, “ap­ples, plums, or nuts.” Since no sin­gle prin­ci­ple would make all peo­ple happy, it didn’t make sense to fa­vor one the­ory of the high­est good over oth­ers. Dif­fer­ent strokes for dif­fer­ent folks: This was a new un­der­stand­ing of free­dom.

The con­cept made some sense at the time. These thinkers were trans­lat­ing the idea of free­dom from per­sonal, moral terms to po­lit­i­cal ones in era of emerg­ing mass pol­i­tics. Ab­so­lute monar­chies were strug­gling in Eu­rope, and a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem was tak­ing hold in Eng­land. A re­assess­ment seemed a nec­es­sary step in building plu­ral­is­tic, demo­cratic so­ci­eties.

But free­dom un­chained from the good comes with cer­tain haz­ards. To­day, it seems like de­vis­ing a vi­sion of the good means cur­tail­ing peo­ple’s lib­erty; af­ter all, it does re­quire that we de­fine some choices (bes­tial­ity, for in­stance) as in­her­ently wrong and per­haps limit them, even if they make a per­son happy. Yet this also means that the greater the swell of pub­lic sen­ti­ment against gun own­er­ship, the more jus­ti­fied its ar­dent de­fend­ers seem in claim­ing that their free­dom is un­der attack. The way they see it, not only is their free­dom to do as they please threat­ened, so is their free­dom to be pleased by what they’re pleased by. By im­pos­ing a pref­er­ence, the gov­ern­ment would be ab­ro­gat­ing their lib­erty. This is O’Reilly’s point. We can ban peo­ple from killing and pun­ish them for it, but we can’t in­sist that they ought not own the im­ple­ments of killing, as long as they’re still fol­low­ing the laws.

To see how far we’ve come from un­der­stand­ing free­dom as closely tied to the good, con­sider the text of the Sec­ond Amend­ment vs. the way we de­bate it now: “A well reg­u­lated mili­tia, be­ing nec­es­sary to the se­cu­rity of a free state, the right of the peo­ple to keep and bear arms, shall not be in­fringed.” The free­dom to bear arms has a pur­pose: to al­low for the func­tion­ing of a well-reg­u­lated mili­tia, which it­self has a pur­pose — to pro­tect the se­cu­rity of a free state. These are mod­est and con­tin­gent re­la­tion­ships be­tween lib­erty and good­ness, but they do fa­vor some good over the in­di­vid­ual free­dom to bear arms.

Still, in our mod­ern read­ing, the Na­tional Ri­fle Association and its many devo­tees imag­ine the right in the stark­est terms: as a guar­an­tee to bear arms, for any rea­son, for any pur­pose, or for none at all. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll, for in­stance, about three-quar­ters of gun own­ers said their right to own guns is es­sen­tial to their per­sonal free­dom. Some gun de­bates con­cern who ought to have a gun (in light of the Suther­land Springs shoot­ing, ef­forts to stop do­mes­tic abusers from ac­quir­ing firearms have re­dou­bled) or what kinds of weapons or ac­ces­sories one can buy (bump stocks are on trial, for ex­am­ple, in the wake of the re­cent shoot­ing in Las Ve­gas). But we largely lack the frame­work to ask what gun own­er­ship is for or to de­cide as a so­ci­ety whether it truly aligns with the good. Such ques­tions have been lost to ap­ples, plums and nuts.

Older read­ings of free­dom may feel dark and alien to us now. And we prob­a­bly wouldn’t trade our world for theirs. But it’s help­ful to ask of our free­doms the same ques­tions our for­bear­ers asked of theirs: What are they re­ally for? It’s hard for us now to see how the right to pur­chase a lethal ob­ject might dam­age our free­dom in the clas­si­cal sense, by serv­ing as a temp­ta­tion eas­ily ag­gra­vated by fear or anger. But per­haps it’s eas­ier to see how we seem less free oper­at­ing on the mod­ern view of the Sec­ond Amend­ment: Par­ents are buy­ing bul­let­proof pan­els for chil­dren’s back­packs, and peo­ple are vis­it­ing psy­chi­a­trists com­plain­ing of fear, anx­i­ety and dread sparked by ran­dom mass killings. The free­dom ad­vo­cated by peo­ple like O’Reilly cer­tainly isn’t sub­or­di­nate to the good, and it no longer even ap­pears to re­li­ably add to our over­all free­dom.

If we’re try­ing to build a free so­ci­ety for the sake of be­ing free, or so each per­son can pur­sue their own tastes, no mat­ter how evil, then we’re do­ing an ex­cel­lent job where firearms are con­cerned — and reap­ing the re­sults in ghastly head­lines. But if we’re try­ing to build a so­ci­ety in which peo­ple are free specif­i­cally to flour­ish and live long and well, to be vir­tu­ous and ed­u­cated cit­i­zens en­gaged in the task of cre­at­ing last­ing peace and greater un­der­stand­ing, then we’re stum­bling, and we’ll keep trip­ping along a bloody path un­til we can de­cide what our free­dom is for.


Twenty-six crosses stand in Suther­land Springs, Tex., one for each per­son killed in the First Bap­tist Church last week­end. Bill O’Reilly has writ­ten that such mass shoot­ings are “the price of free­dom.”

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