Friday, January 18, 2013

Which Right Is More Important? Right to Life? Right to Bear Arms?

The Declaration of Independence set forth the reasons the 13 colonies were declaring independence from England.

After a short preamble explaining that sometimes people have to cut old ties, the Declaration then says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal*, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Life.  Liberty.  Pursuit of Happiness.  These are the unalienable Rights our founders declared most important when they wrote to the King of England to explain why they needed to rule themselves.

Then after the Revolutionary War, the colonists came together to write up an agreement, which we know as the Constitution of the United States, on how to rule themselves.  It begins, again, setting out basic principles.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Justice.  Domestic tranquility.  Common defence.  General welfare.  Liberty.

After they finished the Constitution they added ten amendments which spelled out more rights.

As President Obama sets forth his gun control proposal, I just want to point out what should be totally obvious.

Different rights will inevitably conflict.    When Wayne LaPierre set forth the NRA's response to the Newtown shootings, he would brook no compromise to the Second Amendment.  Yet he had no trouble at all proposing to abridge the First Amendment rights of film  and video game makers.  That tells me that even the NRA recognizes that Constitutional Amendments are not absolute. 

Some rights are a means to more important rights.   The right to vote is a means to achieving liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The right to a free press is a means to helping the people of a democracy gain the knowledge needed to vote wisely.  The right to bear arms is a means to protecting liberty. 

Some rights are more important than others.  When one person's rights infringe on another person's rights, we have to determine which is the more important right.  Some are a question of preference.  Sometimes one person exercising his rights conflicts with others exercising their rights.  A well-known, though apparently misattributed quote goes, "Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins."   The right to practice one's religion in the US, does not include the right to human sacrifice.  The right to life is more important.  The right to bear arms does trump the right to life.  Yet people bearing arms take 30,000 lives a year in the US. (Over half of which are suicides, but that still leaves another 15,000 or so that aren't.)

Which rights are the most important?  I believe that the rights enumerated at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and of the US Constitution are the highest level rights.  They are the ends to which the other rights are merely the means.

There are a lot of things I don't know.  

I don't know why some people  - mostly men - have such a strong passion for guns.  So strong that it seems nothing else matters.  We can come up with plausible explanations - they bonded with their dads over guns;  they feel impotent in a world that is changing and and a gun gives them some sense of control;  they experienced loss through violence which they believe might have been prevented had they had a gun;  they grew up in a family where power was important and a gun is the ultimate source of power to them.  But I do know every individual comes to this feeling through their own individual path.

I don't know if any gun control legislation will actually make a difference.  Will it be watered down so it is only symbolic?  Will a black market for guns make it irrelevant?  There are lots of things that can dilute its intent.  (But symbolism is important or people wouldn't get upset when a flag is burned.) 

I Do Know

But I do know that guns make it easier for people to kill others and themselves than most other implements of death short of explosives.  Those who say "guns don't kill, people do" are half right.  People do the killing, but without guns, they would do it less.  So guns are only part of the answer.  The other part is working on helping people learn to resolve problems without anger and violence.  I know that people's experiences affect what they believe is possible, and some people who grow up surrounded by anger and violence do not know other ways to resolve conflict.

There's been a lot of talk about mental health in regards to mass violence.  I think we should be talking more about social health - people's ability to interact with other people in healthy ways.  Ways that lead to care and love and satisfaction, not to frustration and anger.  Most mentally ill people aren't prone to violence.  A larger percent of people not diagnosed with mental illness are likely to be violent than those with identified mental illness.  Social health, then, may be a better way of thinking about this.

I do know that life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness are higher level values than the ability to own an automatic weapon.  For those who believe they can only be happy with automatic weapons, I would hope they can find substitutes that can make them happy. There are so many neat things in the world, surely there must be something else that can fulfill them.   If not, I would point out that we are only guaranteed the pursuit of happiness, not necessarily its achievement.  But life and liberty are guaranteed.  Taking someone's life in pursuit of your happiness is not acceptable. 

Let's stop making this either/or.  Let's stop allowing the the extremists to define the debate.  Let's stop treating this as a win/lose battle.

Let's address the underlying causes of people's strong emotional responses.
  • Why is owning a gun so important to you while most people live perfectly happy lives without one?  
  • When did you first feel a need to have a gun?   
  • Why are you so afraid of guns?  
  • Under what situations is it ok for people to have guns?  
Let's start here, talking about people's core feelings and beliefs and where they came from.  Let's  find nurturing ways to talk to each other about guns and violence and alternative ways to resolve human conflicts. We can be better than this.

*Which shows the Constitution wasn't perfect since it allowed slavery and  considered slaves to be only 3/5 of a person when it came to calculating representatives.  Which is why I understand that any gun legislation is also likely to be imperfect.   But probably, like the Constitution, better than nothing at all. 

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