Written for Prospect Magazine:
When President Obama stood behind his familiar podium at the White House following the recent mass shooting at a college in Oregon, he made one of the most telling, angry and moving speeches he has ever given. The speech is worth watching for all kinds of reasons—not least because it is both oddly restorative in that it demonstrates that politics can still produce enlightened, humane and decent leaders and yet utterly disheartening in that it demonstrates that such leaders on this issue in America seem powerless.
It was the 15th time Obama had made such an address after a mass shooting. According to Shootingtracker.com, this was the 994th mass gun attack since he began his second term in November 2012. Meanwhile, the US Centre for Disease Control has robust figures to show that firearms caused the death of around 33,000 people in the USA in 2013 as opposed to 21 American deaths from terrorism worldwide (including Afghanistan). This was the contrast to which Obama himself drew attention.
The part of the speech that I want to highlight here, though, is a less obviously persuasive passage containing what might best be called moral philosophy. Obama often gets labelled professorial—as if this were an insult—but the question of what rights we have, what duties we owe one another and from where these rights and duties are derived is the central enquiry and pre-occupation of all the greatest thinkers from Socrates to Foucault via Kant.
The issue of gun ownership, Obama says, “…is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic … This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” Hold those thoughts for a second—especially that final sentence. There is a deep (liberal) democratic principle at work here and one that bears unpacking since it resonates beyond this particular tragedy and seems to me to categorically defeat any of the arguments run by the pro-gun lobby—lead by the National Rifle Association and traditionally supported by the Republicans.
In passing, it’s worth noting the responses of some of the Republican Presidential candidates. Jeb Bush argued against gun-control: “I don’t think more government is necessarily the answer to this. It’s very sad to see, and I resist this notion because we had this challenge as governor—stuff happens.” Donald Trump said: “It sounds like another mental health problem.” And Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, another Republican candidate, commented: “This is a complex issue that may not have a federal solution.” The general theme being resistance and hostility to government intervention.
Let’s turn now to the “right to bear arms.” The (in)famous 1791 second amendment to the American constitution states that: “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.” I want to leave aside all the other (interesting) issues to do with the historical context of the American war of Independence (1775-1782) and the semantic confusion over the words “state” and “militia,” and just focus here on “the right of people to keep and bear arms.” The issue of rights.
In essence, the pro-gun people are contending that the Government is depriving their citizens of a means of self-defence by restricting gun ownership. Forget hunting and all the minor points, when it comes down to it, the right to bear arms is really a right to self-defence. Take away my gun, they say, and you take away my best weapon of self-protection. More than this, you tacitly allow me to be hurt and maybe even killed because in the moment I needed my weapon, you forbade me to have it. Before he dropped out of the race, the Republican candidate Rick Perry explicitly made the argument of self-defence: “I believe that, with all my heart, that if you have the citizens who are well trained, and particularly in these places that are considered to be gun-free zones, that we can stop that type of activity, or stop it before there’s as many people that are impacted.” Such a provision “makes a lot of sense” under the Second Amendment, he said. He was talking about the mass shootings in Lafayette, Louisiana, which happened in a cinema that killed two people and injured nine.
For a moment, this looks like an argument that might plausibly be mounted. However, the thing all moral philosophers agree upon about rights is that they necessarily exist in a relationship to one another. Right “a” might be contained within larger right “b.” Or right “c” might depend on right “d.” To assert any right at all is to accede to this truth. By insisting on your right to bear arms, for example, you not only insist on the validity of your right but also the fact that rights exist in the world and that there are other rights and that these must have a relationship to one another. Otherwise you would have to say that the only right is the right to bear arms and who cares about freedom of speech, the right to own property and the other 26 amendments etc. And this, of course, the United States Constitution very definitely does not do.
Once this relationship is established we can begin to see that a right such as is stated in article three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”—is going to be one of the most capacious rights and one in which many others are then contained.
So now let’s go back to the right to self-defence in the context of the US gun laws. Straight away, it becomes clear that the individual’s assertion of this particular right “to bear arms” must come under the larger assertion of the right to “security of person;” self-defence is nested within the wider universal right of personal security.
A set of clearer and more truthful questions now emerge. Does the individual’s right to personal security trump the collective right to personal security? What if, in the case of guns, the collective right to personal security is being powerfully and repeatedly violated by the individual’s right to personal security (self-defence)?
In this way, we can see what is really going on with this debate: that by asserting a “right” to self-defence, the individual accepts a hierarchy of rights and is, in fact, asserting the larger right to personal security. But in the case of guns, the larger right of personal security of the society (of which he or she is a member) is demonstrably reduced by the very assertion of the individual right. In other words, even by its own lights, the argument from the gun lobby for self-defence is incoherent and self-contradicting. The more guns there are, the less personal security there is. In truth, the only coherent positions for the pro-gun lobbyist are that either there is only one human right—to have a gun; or that there is no such thing as society and they neither owe obligations nor receive benefits from it. In which case, they’d better not drive on the roads, drink the water or expect an ambulance.
More than this though: surely it is also true that by asserting their individual right to self-defence, the pro-gun lobby are in some way responsible for the reduction of personal security in American society in general. Since now we can see (given the factual evidence of the number of deaths) that what they are really arguing is that their individual right is more important than the wider social right to personal security.
Now read the following again and observe first just how much moral philosophy Obama is mobilising. The issue of gun ownership, Obama says, “…is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic … This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” Note that phrase “political choice” and note in particular how Obama goes further in the argument I’ve just outlined and makes the deaths the responsibility not just of the gun lobby but of everyone in “the body politic.” In other words, for the President, democracy brings responsibility as well as power to each citizen. (Hillary Clinton has just tabled universal background checks and legislation to prevent domestic abusers having firearms.)
But the main point here is that there is—and must be—a “body politic.” And that the pro-gun lobby argument for self-defence is not just anti-Democrat but anti-democratic. And that, finally, in a democracy where the rights of the many are being traduced by the right of the individual, the Government not only has the right to act, but also the duty.