I’ve been meaning to write about the right to bear arms for a while now. The issue of weapon legislation has received renewed media attention in Norway following the terrorist attacks in 2011, where the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik gunned down 69 innocent people in cold blood on the island of Utøya. Many people in Norway claim that this terrorist attack is the best argument for further restricting private gun ownership; I would say that this unfortunate incident is the best argument for allowing law abiding citizens to bear arms and to legally be able to use them to defend themselves. There is no denying that Anders Behring Breivik could have been eliminated with relative ease if any of the victims on the island that terrible day had been armed. But even if we for arguments sake accept that Utøya is a valid argument for further restricting private gun ownership, then it should also be accepted that there are thousands of other episodes from Norway that strongly suggest that the right to bear arms is the only logical way to go. Unfortunately in Norway and in many other countries in Europe the subject of private gun ownership has taken on ideological overtones where people who express pro-gun views are branded as morally corrupt and evil.
One thing that I find rather perplexing is the amount of people that seem to equate Americans' constitutional right to bear arms with the right to literally shoot others at will. This is of course ludicrous and it couldn’t be further from the truth. This very typical European way of looking at the issue is misguided and very simplistic and on the border of being downright naive. The right to bear arms is more about the right to defend rather than the right to cause harm. To get a better understanding of the rationale behind the right to bear arms we need to take a look at the issue from a slightly different angle and by doing so it should become evident that this right makes perfect sense.
I maintain that every law abiding human being on this earth have an inalienable right to not be physically harmed by others. This means that no individual have the moral right to indiscriminately or premeditatedly attack or in any other way inflict pain upon an innocent person, and by innocent I mean someone that hasn’t physically hurt others or violated criminal laws that are based on sound democratic doctrines. This is also a principle that is steeped in traditional western philosophy and which is deeply rooted in our psyche. Now, if we accept this assertion then we also have to accept that a person being physically attacked have a legitimate and moral right to defend himself against the aggressor or aggressors. To arrive at any other conclusion would be logical fallacy as one cannot possibly agree with one and not the other. To dismiss this logical train of thought would be the equivalent of claiming that the earth is both round and flat at the same time, which of course doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
So if we agree that no one has the moral right to physically harm innocent individuals then we also have to concede that innocent individuals have a moral right to resist and fight back when attacked. And if we maintain that people have a moral right to defend themselves then that would invariably mean that we have to make sure that they have the means and possibilities to exercise this right, if not the principle of right to self defence becomes nothing but a hollow shell without any substance. It is therefore difficult to understand the strong moral aversion that some display when debating whether law-abiding citizens should have the right to defend themselves with weapons against intruders or assailants attacking them for no apparent reason. I am also amazed that opponents of the right to bear arms find the use of force as a method to prevent an innocent person from becoming a victim of a crime so utterly reprehensible. Does this strong aversion imply that they believe it to be morally preferable to see an innocent victim harmed rather than to have a violent perpetrator neutralized?
Another question worth asking is why is it morally justifiable for a police officer to use force in such a scenario and inexcusable for a private individual? Surely the action of both the police officer and the ordinary citizen will have the same outcome. A bullet from a police officer’s gun will cause the exact same amount of damage as the bullet fired from the gun of an ordinary citizen, and considering that both incidents would have to be reviewed by a judicial panel to determine whether a wrongful death had occurred or not and that appropriate judicial steps would have to be taken to punish the perpetrator if this was the case there simply isn’t any difference at all between these two hypothetical scenarios. Shouldn’t the main focus be on the wellbeing of the potential victim in such circumstances, because surely it’s the criminal who is committing a crime and not the victim? What is worse, attacking someone for no justifiable reason or stopping the person that is carrying out the attack?
Another thing worth noting is that people have the right to feel safe. I would maintain that it’s akin to psychological terror to ignore the legitimate safety concerns of law abiding citizens, especially in crime ridden areas. People have the right to be able to walk down the street without having to fear getting mugged or assaulted. They have the right to go to sleep at night without having to worry about intruders trying to break into their homes and hurt them. Likewise women have the right to move around freely without having to live in a state of constant fear of being raped. Stripping individuals of these rights is the equivalent of mental torture that could over time severely affect their mental health. This is particularly applicable to Norway where crime has skyrocketed over the last few decades and where the police have shown that they are incapable of dealing properly with the problem. And on top of that the police in Norway are unarmed.
One could of course argue that if guns are made more readily available people would start using them more frequently and that this would result in disastrous consequences. Personally I don’t believe that there is much substance to that particular argument. Kitchen knives, axes, baseball bats etc are already easily available and can be purchased without any special permit and these items can quite easily be used to take someone life. But there is no evidence that would tend to suggest that people kill each other at an unprecedented scale simply because they own any of these items. If someone is intent on taking another person’s life then they are going to achieve this regardless of whether they have access to guns or not. It’s simply wrong to claim that guns kill, because they don’t. It is the people holding the guns squeezing the trigger that kill and this is very important to keep in mind.
It’s also worth noting that the US military has conducted studies that show that most normal people would be incapable of shooting someone that they’ve never met before and who hasn’t done anything wrong to them or their families. The act of killing is a skill which has to be taught and it is something that armies around the world constantly have to strive to instil in their soldiers. To take the life of an innocent person goes against pretty much everything we’ve been taught and giving someone a gun doesn’t change this. A person’s moral compass doesn’t miraculously perform a 180 degree turn the instant a person grabs hold of a gun, nor is a person’s mental boundaries wiped clean as a result of it.
The strongest argument for allowing people to bear arms however is of course the fact that the police are incapable of preventing every single crime. This is a logical and inescapable conclusion that even the most diehard opponents of the right to bear arms accept. Even the most effective police force in the world won’t be able to show up straight away and prevent a crime that’s in progress. There will always be a delay from the time the crime is called in and until the police arrive at the scene and can start actively dealing with it. And in many cases the only thing they can do is to investigate. The sad truth is that we will never be able to completely stamp out crime from our societies. We can give it our best shot, but we will never be a hundred percent successful at it. Nor will we ever be able to prevent Illegal guns from ending up in the hands of hardened criminals. It doesn’t matter how hard the law enforcement agencies work, we will never get there. Thus there will always be armed criminals threatening to commit and committing violence with guns. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be a need for guns but the world isn’t perfect, never has been and never will be. This is something we need to keep in mind when we debate this issue. It is wrong to take a life, but it isn’t necessarily wrong to take a life if the purpose of doing so is to protect your own life or that of others. Most people with a level-headed view of the world realize this.
So would criminals be more violent if they knew that people had a legal right to fire at them if they engage in certain criminal activities? Maybe it would, but then again it would probably also make them think twice about committing crimes in the first place. If committing certain criminal activities becomes just as risky as a game of Russian roulette the odds are that many criminals would seriously contemplate their career options and decide that it makes more sense to stay on the straight and narrow. Another point is that if governments take away people’s rights to bear arms they’re basically playing into the hands of the criminals. There is nothing that hardened criminals want more than victims that can’t defend themselves and a police force that is stretched beyond capacity and incapable of providing them with any meaningful resistance.