Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
‘Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ someone quipped the other day, when I described myself as a sensible libertarian.
The easiest response was, of course, simply to clarify that I’m not an anarchist. But could this exchange shed light on America’s gun problem? When firearms cause the death of more than 30,000 Americans a year, opposition to restricting access to them can seem incomprehensibly negligent. Are we happy to condemn the 47 per cent of Americans who don’t want increased gun control as gung-ho thugs?
For many, it comes down to rights and protection; they cite the Second Amendment: ‘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.’ As this stance accords with a desire for extensive individual freedom and limited state power, it is often described as libertarian.
But rights are complicated. If you think about it too hard, it’s not easy to explain something as obvious as how we have the right to water. Rights – whether they’re ‘natural’ or not – have to be afforded by someone. Laws allow – and, therefore, also necessarily disallow – us to do certain things. How could rights work in a lawless place?
But laws are complicated, too. Not least in today’s Wild West, where, thanks to industrial luxuriation in the opportunistic scrutiny of legalese, persuasive interpretation is king.
We might lambast the oily side-partings of Britain’s affiliated trades union, but, over the past four decades, America’s National Rifle Association (NRA) has shape-changed from a shooting club into one of the most powerful lobby groups in the world, able to pay six-figure salaries to its big guns. And the Second Amendment argument is largely an NRA construct.
Before their involvement, this amendment was seen to sanction the bearing of arms by the state (the ‘militia’) – rather than the individual (‘the people’). The NRA’s reading seems, at best, to be big-state reactionism.
But who should protect us? Isn’t American gun culture rooted in classic Civil War defence of the family homestead? Libertarianism no sooner favours renouncing personal responsibility, than it supports banning things – yet its theoretical spectrum ranges from complete anarchy to leftist collectivism. Most libertarians are positive about human nature; human beings are rational social creatures, who don’t need laws just for the sake of it.
Our world is not a utopia, however. Certain laws are essential to help us to benefit from organised society. In order to afford rights fairly, some types of behaviour need to be prevented. And this is part of the tacit deal that we enter into with the place in which we live. We gain corporate protection by sacrificing some of our liberty – this should preclude the need for riotous vigilantism. Partaking in a society is a choice; in principle, you could always live elsewhere.
Successful governance is also pragmatic. Radical free markets and free lives are attractive, sure. But there’s no blank slate on which to experiment with impractical ideology, without chancing unnecessary risk. You might think that the smoking ban breached our freedom, but also appreciate its societal benefits. You might wish that we could all be free to do whatever we want all of the time, but realise that this would be impossible to effect (what if we both want to stand on one specific spot at one specific moment, or eat the entirety of one specific doughnut peach?). And sometimes it’s best to wait for change: you might find abortion morally abhorrent, but accept that it wouldn’t be best to prohibit it now. This isn’t relativistic, it’s sensible.
So, what about guns? Aside from defence, they contribute to domains as diverse as sport, farming, and art. Most people wouldn’t disapprove of someone storing a ceramic vegetable knife safely in the kitchen, someone happily using a combine harvester to monetise their fields, or someone firing sacks of potatoes from a model trebuchet, just for fun. But all of these artefacts could be immensely dangerous in the wrong hands; we can’t pre-legislate to prevent every single instance of possible peril. So, as long as gun owners behave responsibly, isn’t that sufficient?
Whilst death by trebuchet, and many other potential weapons, happens rarely enough to risk ownership remaining legal, this isn’t the case for the military-style guns used at Sandy Hook, and in the Aurora ‘Dark Knight’ shooting. If it’s hard to explain a natural right to water, where do assault weapons come in? Alongside a right not to be killed at school?
Common-sense regulation – where proven necessary – seems inoffensive to the sensible libertarian. It could even be seen as a weak enforcement of personal responsibility: the requirement for firearm licenses and registration, the provision of training and testing to ensure safety awareness, and the practical advantages of universal background checks. (Or, as a truly American solution, how about the introduction of compulsory gun insurance?)
But sensible restrictions are what the NRA continues to obstruct. If Obama spent the rest of his congested second term fighting this, even limited success would seem most unlikely. (Not least because of the implicit ties between guns and racism, and the silent prejudice that has dogged an already difficult presidency.) If mortuary photos of broken children, and the stellar team of a survivor politician and her astronaut husband, haven’t managed to force change, then what could?
Well, hope may lie within the walls of the modern-day American Sala dei Nove: the (yes, unlikely) prospect of the Supreme Court reverting the NRA’s take on the Second Amendment, and offering a sensible reading. Perhaps the past few days portend possibility: the combination of the current nine is turning out to be less predictable, and more progressive, than its make-up might suggest.
Until then, let’s not stain our desire for freedom. The NRA call themselves sportspeople or libertarians, but, in truth, they stand their ground as caricature fanatics, who blame a pastor for his own murder, because he didn’t want to allow concealed weapons in his church. With their ranking system of hot-or-not senators, blocking of gun death statistics, and materialistic enforcement of the firearm state, have they not become unnuanced hostage takers?
When you become so focused on stopping people from stopping you from doing what you want, you stop others from doing what they want. And you become the big state in yourself – a state that doesn’t promote responsibility, or trust its citizens to choose for themselves.
Necessary regulation doesn’t necessarily restrict freedom – sometimes, it even supports it. If you’re in favour of law at all, comprehensive gun control is sensible.