Rights Are Often Wrong – Part Two

In part one of this post, I talked about how difficult it is to use rights as the basis of an argument and proposed some ways we can make the discussions involving rights more fruitful.  Now, I’m going to talk about what got me thinking about this in the first place, guns.  There are two things specifically.  One is that I often hear the phrase “gun rights” and I find it odd.  The other is that guns are one of the most talked about issues in America, but almost none of the talk has any actual substance.

When people talk about gun rights, what do they mean?  The phrase sounds to me like they mean that guns have rights, kind of like when people say animal rights or human rights.  I’m sure, though, that that isn’t what people mean.  How could an inanimate object made by people have rights?  What is probably meant is that people have rights that are directly tied to guns.  This still seems odd to me.  Guns just seem too specific.  What is special about guns that gives them this connection to rights?  They are tools, but no one talks about tool rights or hammer rights.  They are weapons, but no one talks about weapon rights or sword rights.  The same is true of the other things that they are, technology, artefacts, etc.  None of the broad categories are tied to rights, and no other specific instances of those things have their own rights.  So, why guns?*

My best guess is that guns are symbolic.  They are intimately involved in American mythology from James Fennimore Cooper’s Hawkeye to Davy Crockett to Dirty Harry.  There’s just something very American about guns.  I think for many people, owning a gun is an act of patriotism.  Then there is the perceived power, protection and security that people associate with guns.  These are partly tied to self defense, but also tied to status.  I can see how someone who believes that guns confer power, protection and security would feel diminished without their guns.

I can see where the gun rights people are coming from, but I think it is a mistake to talk about rights because of the symbolism tied to guns.  For many people, setting off fireworks is an act of patriotism, but I have never heard of anyone advocating fireworks rights.  Money gives people power, protection and security, but people aren’t discussing money rights (at least not in this sense).  Adding rights to the conversation only makes the conversation more difficult and confusing.  Talk of rights adds an appearance of sacredness to any discussion.  Once something is sacred, there is no room for compromise.  And if there is no room for compromise, there can be no progress.

Instead of fighting, we should look for common ground.  No one thinks gun violence is a good thing.  There are certainly things that can be done that everyone can agree to.  Before we can get there, though, the gun owners need to stop feeling threatened.  No one is trying to take your guns.  No one is being singled out.  And the anti-gun people need to be respectful and open minded.  Just like it is in the NFL’s best interest to really do something about their domestic violence problem, it is in the gun owners’ best interest to promote gun safety.  And the anti-gun camp needs to realize that just like perfect agreement is impossible, their idea of a perfect solution is impossible.  Then, the conversation can actually start.

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*I’m not going to talk about the Second Amendment here.  My concern isn’t what the Constitution says or how the Supreme Court has interpreted it.  I am trying to understand both sides of the debate and see if there is a way to talk constructively about it.

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