Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?


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In the course of discussing guns control, gun rights and related issues my friend Doug raised the question “is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?” Since this is an interesting question, it seems worthwhile to attempt to address it.

Before the question itself can be addressed, a working definition of tyranny is required. A rather extreme view of the matter is put forth by the philosophical anarchists, such as Goldman. In general, anarchists of this sort regard all government as tyranny. As such, this sort of anarchist would consider a denial of gun rights by the state as tyranny. Thus, the question is easily answered by those who accept anarchism of this sort.  However, accepting this sort of anarchism would require rejecting that the state has any legitimate role to play, which seems to be a rather implausible view. Fortunately there are other accounts of tyranny.

A rather reasonable account is put forth by John Locke in his writings on government.  He defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right, which none have a right to” and this involves an official “using power, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” Locke also adds that “where law ends, tyranny begins, if the law is transgressed to another’s harm.” This view can be disputed, but I will assume it for the sake of the discussion that follows.

Turning now to the matter of gun rights, I am inclined to take the view that gun rights (if there are such things) would fall under the more general right of self-defense (if there is such a right). As with any talk of rights, one useful way to address the matter is to make use of the classic approach of considering rights in the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government).

Thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke argue that people have the right to self-defense in the state of nature. Hobbes even goes as far as to contend that a person is obligated to preserve herself. He notes that without a right to the means of self-preservation, the right to engage in self-defense would be useless. Because of this, he contends that in his version of the state of nature everyone has a right to all things. So, on Hobbes’ view, if guns were around in the state of nature, everyone would have the right to be armed (and anyone with any sense would be armed). Attempting to deprive someone of her gun in the state of nature would not be tyrannical or even unjust—after all for Hobbes there is no justice until the state of nature has been replaced with civil society. In the state of nature depriving others of their guns would generally be the sensible thing to do—and something that would presumably result in numerous fatal shootouts.

While Locke presents a much nicer state of nature (complete with rights to life, liberty and property) he does allow for the use of violence and force against wrongdoers. On his view, people would presumably have the right to be armed in the state of nature. After all, he argues that the rights need to be enforced by what amounts to vigilante justice and hence if guns existed, then people would need them to defend themselves and others against the people who would violate rights. Since there are no police in the state of nature, everyone would need to be armed—or risk being an easy victim.

While Locke and Hobbes take rather different views of the state, they both argue that when the transition is made from the state of nature to the state of civil society each person gives up her individual right to act as a vigilante, judge, and executioner. This would then place a limit on gun rights (on the assumption people had guns in such a state).

In Hobbes’ case, the sovereign sets the laws and enforces them by the use of force. While the individual retains the right of self-preservation, all other rights are set by the Hobbesian sovereign. Thus, on Hobbes’ view the denial of gun rights would be just, provided that the state was able to enforce its laws. Naturally, if the sovereign were to be gunned down and replaced by a new sovereign that supported individual gun rights, then that would be right—at least until the next sovereign took over.

In Locke’s case, people set aside the role of vigilante in order to create a society with a legal system. As such, people would lose the gun rights that allowed them to dispense justice from the barrel of their own guns. However, Locke explicitly addresses the matter of self-defense. As Locke seems to see it, if someone is threatened and the agents of the state are not available to act in her defense, then she and the person threatening her are effective returned to a state of nature and potentially a state of war. In this state, the person’s right to act as the enforcer of the rights to life, liberty and property return in full. Given that this right is retained even in civil society, it would seem to follow that on a Locke style system that restricting gun rights would impose on this right of self-defense and this could qualify as tyranny. After all, an official would not seem to have the right to deny a person the means to self-defense.

Of course, the obvious counter is that Locke sees the main purpose of government as serving the good of the people. More specifically, this involves protecting life, liberty and property. Given this, it would seem that some limitations on the right of self-defense could easily be justified in terms of protecting the life and property of others. To use a somewhat silly example, this could be justly used to deny people the right to possess weapons capable of doing significant accidental (and intentional) property damage (like grenades, rocket launchers, cannons and bombers). To use  less silly example, it would also seem to allow the denial of rights to weapons when doing so would do more to protect people from harm (that is, protect the right to life) than would allowing people to possess such weapons. This could be used to justify the denial of the right to simply walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon. This would, of course, need to take into account the legitimate right of self-defense. As such, Locke’s view would seem to protect self-defense rights (and presumably gun rights), provided that those rights did not create a threat to the right to life. As such, the state could impose on certain rights (such as the rights to have certain weapons) in a way that would not be tyrannical—that is, acting within the legitimate functions of the state.

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  1. There’s a lot of confusion caused by associating ‘rights’ with ‘morals’ in any sense that either is something objectively ‘out there’ or God given. I also think Locke and Hobbes don’t contribute to the debate now – they are of historical interest only. They don’t (couldn’t) take a modern account of the evolution, biology and physics of our nature.

    Rights are mutually conferred privileges, to the extent that we actually enjoy them, and to the extent that we enshrine them in laws, and are enforced only on the basis of power. We can shout and screen about this right or that as much as we want, but if we’re in a tyrannically oppressed majority or in any democratic minority with regard to those claims our moral perspective is only so much personal persuasion. It doesn’t matter if personally we think they are God given, an objective state of the universe, or subjective preferences; what they turn out to be, by objective observation of this variety of personal perspectives, are personal subjective opinions, enforced by power.

    The ‘state of nature’ is quite clear. Natural ‘selection’ is the all-encompassing authority. The trick is to spot it where it’s not obvious. It’s only a post hoc observable ‘law’ or ‘rule’ (i.e. the model we use, as we see it after the fact) is survival to reproduce; but that’s not a directive intentional teleological rule – the ‘selection’ isn’t positively selecting. It is merely physics in action. It comes from the ordered interaction of atoms and molecules, with some quantum randomness thrown in, and the mind boggling chaos of unpredictable influences from far and wide in space and time that come to act at any point in space-time.

    You can imagine the most successful and dominant tribe of early humans. They are, as far as we could tell if we could observe them, about to travel out of Africa to become modern humans. But they pause for a while, for some months or years, on the side of a fertile yet infrequently active volcano. They grow in number, and an adventurous intelligent few are nearly ready to move on, to become ‘us’ (i.e. whoever turns out to be here at this time). But the volcano erupts and wipes them all out, leaving a window for some other ‘us’. There is nothing about their advanced brains that could have saved them, because they were ignorant of the facts of what was going on underground. If anything their brains’ identification of a good thing is the cause if their downfall. They were ‘unlucky’ – another model of ours for chaotic nature.

    Had some weaker members been pushed out earlier, and had they moved on before the eruption, then ironically the weak, supposedly ‘less fit’ would have been naturally ‘selected’, and might have become us. In many ways Neanderthals were unlucky; had the cold persisted they might have been better equipped to survive and become ‘us’. Think of any natural disaster in recent history, and wonder what future great person might have grown from some young victim, or from some lost potential father or mother.

    Other scenarios illustrate how precarious life is at the hands of nature’s ‘selectivity’. The dominant male who succumbs to a lucky blow from an opponent, or to disease, or to predators, may have been statistically more likely to survive; but statistics don’t determine the actual survival of individuals, or groups of individuals. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ means fitness in terms of being able to survive the current environment to reproduce, and may not be based on who is the strongest and healthiest, though most often it might.

    This unpredictable ‘state of nature’ has resulted in humans that form larger groups and come to organise themselves for mutual benefit; and in doing so agree to define and confer rights upon each other. They also think that these rights are important enough and worth keeping enough that they define their importance by associating them with that other invention, morality.

    This is the only context in which ‘rights’ have any meaning. We have to look back at evolution and grasp what life actually is to avoid falling for the classical philosophical and theological perspectives that start out as if humans as special and that rights and morals are there for us to discover. What if the Chicxulub asteroid had missed earth? What rights would humans have had then, had they been here at all? Would some intelligent chickens be debating their right to arm, or perhaps a debate over abortion v pro-life for the rights of an egg?

    The anarchists, communists, Stalinists, fascists, tyrannical dictators, priests, elected representatives, have no less ‘right’ to do what they as individuals or groups of individuals want to do than any of us – but, of course, they have no more ‘right’ either. Everything is up for grabs and goes often to the strongest, and, by avoiding erupting volcanos, predators and sickness, to the luckiest, or to the most intelligent, or the most well organised socially. Humans are testament to this survivability through society, in that we do save the weak and sick and they do go on to reproduce – and natural selection being what it is they can become the ‘strongest’ in other ways. This is the context in which we can start to frame rights.

    So, every gun toting, God fearing, bible bashing, government hating redneck has no more or less rights that I do. It is only my voice, and the voices of millions of other humans that prefer organisation to anarchy, peace to war, gun free to gung-ho, that hold sway by the power of the democracies we build and support.

    Morality has nothing to do with it, except as an easier means of maintaining power than is persuasion by argument. Our traditional submission to moral authority, as opposed to our conscious intellectual subjective positive design of democratically agreed laws, really gets in the way.

    So, without any regard for morals, and with no objective privilege to rights, I perceive gun toting idiots to be a threat to my survival, purely on pragmatic grounds. The more bullets there are, and the more guns to fire them, and the more idiots to carry them, the more likely to have one with my name on it.

    But, I have to balance my dislike for guns with my greater like for democracy and the collective power with which it enables me to confer ‘rights’ upon myself, and upon those who want to carry guns. Pragmatically the balance seems to me to be still in favour of a gun free citizenry, because an armed citizenry poses the bigger threat to democracy, and the more likely source of a tyrannical government.

    The US right seems to trade on fear: fear of criminals, fear of socialists, fear of communists, fear of atheists, fear of the poor, fear of taxes, the list is endless, and leads to insular selfish libertarian protectionism, for the protection of what you own. It becomes so ridiculous that even many of those destined to live and die poor still feel they can benefit from degrees of freedom that they think will allow them to live the American Dream. Their rich and powerful soul mates that have managed to live the Dream whip up fear and become elected democratically, but in their fear they start to shut down democracy and become the very tyranny they feared in the first place. And still the idiots don’t recognise this and still fear some centrist Democrats as the most likely source of tyranny, when the only left leaning thing about them is what hangs in their pants.

  2. I’m wondering what all the fuss is about rights? Rights are a human social construct. Rights are awarded (or denied) to humans by other humans, or taken by humans for themselves. The rules governing rights are arbitrarily created by humans.

    Why do we argue, in great detail, about rights, as if there are rights (:smile:) and wrongs to discover or deduce? We can, and should, simply assert whatever it is we want to say. There is no right or wrong, just what we want.

  3. Ron,

    “Rights are mutually conferred privileges, to the extent that we actually enjoy them, and to the extent that we enshrine them in laws, and are enforced only on the basis of power.”

    It seems we’re thinking along the same lines.

  4. The notion of ‘state of nature’ is perfectly (i.e. completely) bogus: it never happened because man along with his fellow animals (ants, bees, dogs and birdies) is a social animal. Before the white man, some native American tribes used the ultimate sanction of banishment; which was akin to a death sentence. So, if some of you think that a state of nature is a real possibility, go to it.

    We need only to look to Switzerland to see a country of rational gun owners. And that point exposes an enthymeme in Locke’s argument: in a state of nature, man would still be a rational animal, and able to discern the benefits of a social organization of which the fictional natural man had no ken. Ha! At any rate, we need only look to Switzerland to see a country of rational gun owners. When I look at the USA, I see a country of whacking wacos.

  5. A lot of states which do not seem to me to be tyrannies have strict gun legislation: the Netherlands, Denmark, France, the U.K., etc.

    Now, if someone claims that the Netherlands is a tyranny, what can I say?

    It seems that there are international standards, international human rights legislation, about what constitutes a tyranny and on the list of tyrannies, people generally put North Korea,
    Syria, maybe Iran (maybe not), maybe Saudi Arabia (maybe not), possibly Cuba, etc., but no one besides U.S. rightwing fanatics put the Netherlands there.

    I agree with Ron Murphy and Steve Merrick that there are no rights “out there”, that rights are
    a human social construct.

    There are lots of international agreements today about what the majority of societies agree constitute rights.

    None of those international agreements confer the right to own a M-16.

    The international agreements on rights are more concerned with issues like the right to healthcare and so am I.

  6. Boreas,

    I wonder if you noticed this definition, hidden in the original text?

    “…the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government)”

  7. @Steve Merrick,
    You say “Boreas, I wonder if you noticed this definition, hidden in the original text? “…the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government)””.

    Golly I’m gobsmacked. I didn’t notice. It’s such a large swine of surly pigs, I didn’t notice one of them is wearing lipstick.

  8. Boreas,

    I think we need to distinguish between the use of ‘state of nature’ as crudely perceived to be that wild stuff of plant and animal life, but not including social animals and rational humans, and the actual ‘state of nature’, which does include all life and rational humans and their rational behaviour. Nothing is really outside the ‘state of nature’.

    There are two perspectives, with the same result.

    First, we are the state of nature, since the state of the rest of nature depends on what we do. For most other species their impact is quite local, and without our presence would still be subject to evolutionary determination. But of course they still are: turning my previous examples to metaphor, we are the volcano that has erupted, we are the asteroid that has landed, and whether a species survives or not depends on its unfortunate proximity to us. For them, we are the state of nature in which they live.

    Second, we have come to see ourselves as special, and outside nature, and so anything we do or create or destroy we have labelled as artificial. For example, we distinguish between natural selection, that applies to most animals, and artificial selection, which we impose on dogs. But that in itself is just another form of natural selection, in the wider context. I don’t suppose the domestication of dogs was planned, until it happened and the variety we could produce proved useful, or entertaining. So, dogs have been naturally selected to be various, by the naturally (natural) inquisitive and experimenting behaviour of humans. We might not want to imply anything teleological in it, but the separation of finches into islands where they became so various is the same sort of thing: some event in nature (rise of humans, separation of islands) has had a selective impact on some animals (‘artificial’ selection of dogs and the natural selection of finches). We didn’t plan changes in the peppered moth, so is that change artificial or natural?

    Our distinction between natural and artificial selection is an artificial (ironically) convenient one for our purposes. The Hobbes and Locke perspective of a ‘state of nature’ was a convenient one for them; but given how we are learning that we are not so separate from all nature, not so special, not so capable of pure reason that we can overcome very natural biological drives, we must accept we are in the thick of nature.

  9. Ron Murphy,
    As Aristotle said about Anaxagoras, you sound like a sober man.

  10. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” – Jewels, Pulp Fiction

    The idea of a gun being a defense against a gun doesn’t make much sense. Guns are offensive – only under very limited circumstances are they defensive. In 1981, Ronald Reagan and three others were shot by a lone gunman, while surrounded by a small army of armed secret service agents and armed police. The “If only Ronald Reagen had a gun” argument is laughable. What if John Hinckley, had not been able to get a gun?

    The defense argument doesn’t really hold water. The best defense against a gun would be bullet proof clothing and a kevlar helmet, like soldiers wear in the battle field. If guns worked as a defense they wouldn’t need all this protective clothing.

    Just the other day, 15 year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago. Had she been carrying a gun, would she have been able to defend herself – does carrying a gun magically deflect randomly fired bullets.

    There is another tyranny being missed here. It’s a tyranny of a high availability of guns in the environment. The tyranny of not being able to shelter from the rain in a public park for fear of being shot. The tyranny of having armed guards posted in schools (Columbine had an armed guard for all the good it did). The tyranny of guns in themselves.

    IF guns really worked as a defense, thousands of people in the US would not be dying as a result of guns every year. The best self-defense against guns is not to have them. This formula works very well in countries where people are not allowed own handguns or assault rifles.

    A tyrant is a jackass who likes to have power over and intimidate people. It would be dishonest to say that those jackasses who have been doing little “open carry” of assault rifles protests in some US states, have not being doing so because it gave them a kick to terrify people. If you see someone carrying an assault rifle in public, how can you tell it’s a jackass defending his constitutional right to bear arms, or a jackass on his way to shoot up a school, a mall, or even you. These people are tyrants.

    There was a funny ad that ran in the US a few years back, (funny peculiar not funny haw haw). Two teenagers smoking marijuana and one playing with his fathers gun – and then he shoots his friend. Guns don’t kill people, marijuana does. The idea the makers of the ad were trying to convey was a perfectly harmless gun could be turned into a lethal object by the addition of marijuana. Harmless? Smoke marijuana then play with a gun and see how harmless marijuana really is.

  11. Isn’t the traditional criticism of the “state of nature” that it was based upon some really poor information about the “noble savage” or maybe it was grapes, I forget? As I read your words, here in Connecticut, there hangs over the fireplace a musket used by great uncle John to shoot rebels. From what great Aunt Nell said ,Uncle John wasn’t convinced he had a right to do that, but he did(for freedom?),and was “no good for anything ” afterwards. The right that I hear NRA types advocating is the right to have an arsenal of modern military weapons to conduct another insurrection against my society and my government . Our society rule book says they don’t have that right. To claim that they are defending themselves as noble savages ,or survivalist,is dishonest.

  12. JMRC,

    “Smoke marijuana then play with a gun and see how harmless marijuana really is.”

    I don’t think anti-marijuana propaganda has a place in a gun-rights discussion. It can only confuse the issue. Peace, man. 😛

  13. Steve Merrick,

    Just to give you an insight into the lunacy. When I first saw the ad, I seriously thought it was for gun safety – like you see government safety ads in Europe all the time. No, it was for the dangers of marijuana smoking. That the ad went from concept, to production, to dissemination is indicative of something very damaging the project crew were smoking.

    Americans fall into two camps. There are those who find guns, even the sight of guns distressing – they’ll often have a close family member or friend who died through a gun accident or died a pointless death at the hands of some idiotic teenagers who managed to get a gun from somewhere. (I knew a girl whose parents were both killed in a robbery of their dental clinic. Two stupid teenagers with a gun – when they were told the business didn’t handle cash, the teenagers shot them – a pointless and idiotic death.)

    Then there are other Americans who are comforted by the sight of guns. They feel it offers them some protection. After 911, to comfort these people, the US army took museum pieces (cannons from the Civil War), and built small sand bagged artillery positions in the suburbs. It took two years before the Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center could get their cannons back. I think it was Washington NPR I was listening to – some woman called in from the suburbs to say how grateful she felt seeing the soldiers in her suburb, it made her feel safe (as if she believed Al Queda operatives were creeping through her garden shrubbery).

    Americans are not uniquely irrational. The British and all other nations have a habit of “going off on one” on occasions. As Baron Macauley said “Nothing is more revolting than the British public in one of their fits of moral outrage”. One of the latest is wanting to exit the European Union. It’s not driven by any rational argument – it’s purely emotional. David Cameron, the prime minister, knows this is absurd – that the average British person has no idea what they are on about – they do not know what the EU is. But he uses the fervor to his advantage. He huffs and puffs, and pretends he’s anti-EU too – then he promises them a referendum in 2017 (which is a million years away in political terms). He’s hoodwinking them.

    You can’t win with a rational argument, when you are dealing with people who are irrational and emotion driven. The NRA’s arguments are always just superficially rational – but they are never anything more than just slogans.

  14. This doesn’t make you feel any safer:

    With negligent discharges occurring in controlled environments, on ranges, and by the police on duty, who is the most likely victim? You the gun owner? If you’re not the gun owner, who is most likely to do you harm? The gun owner supposedly armed to protect you?

    Since actual intended gun crime is rare, then the more good non-criminal citizens that are armed the more people will get hurt. As in many areas we always feel we are the competent ones, and it’s all the other jerks that can’t hack it. But there’s a pretty good chance that any one of us could be the cause of harm to self, family or friends, without ever witnessing a crime, let alone being the victim of one.

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