The Gun Debate I Lost

04/24/2013 03:25 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013
A handgun resting on an American flag, representing the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the right of patriotic Ameri
A handgun resting on an American flag, representing the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the right of patriotic Americans to bear arms. Social issues concept.

During the opening rounds of a gun debate in London, beamed globally by Google Plus, I thought I was doing quite well. I started by telling the audience, brought together by Intelligence Squared, that I recently was showing off photos of my grandchildren in a doctor's waiting room, when they brought tears the eyes of a grandma sitting next to me. She told me, "My grandson was cleaning his gun, and he killed his father." Think about it for a moment. Poof, one life was lost, a child lost his father, there is a terrible guilt, and the grandmother has to live with a grandson she hates and loves. Now, multiply this thirty-two thousand times, eleven times more people than we lost in the World Trade Center attacks which traumatized the nation, six times more than we lost total in the war in Iraq, and you see we're talking about a very, very serious problems. We're not talking about the quality of the Duchesses' hats, or even organic food. We're talking about a huge amount of life lost each year.

Next, I added that those who argue the Second Amendment states that individuals have a right to bear arms need to have their glasses checked. The Second Amendment states that "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." It is odd that those who argue that we should go by and live by the text of the Constitution regularly and grossly misquote it. Note that the fact that the Constitution does not recognize an individualized right to bear arms is the reason the NRA was very careful not to take this issue to court until very recently because in all the cases that were brought to the Supreme Court over two hundred years, without exception, the court did not recognize an individualized right to bear arms. Only in 2008, the Roberts Court, the same court which just gave corporations an unlimited right to bribe politicians, the same court which gave the elections to Bush despite the fact that Gore had the majority vote, claimed for the first time in American history, that there is an individualized right to bear arms. All we need is one more liberal judge and we can correct this tragedy.

Finally, I responded to those arguing that citizens need to be armed so that they could take to the mountains and fight a tyrannical government. If one truly fears that this could take place in the United States, one should not wait until the government falls but now join civil societies, conduct classes in public affairs, and organize voters to protect our democracy. Turning to fire fighters after it collapses means civil war and major blood shed, of the kind we now see in Syria.

I thought I was doing okay, but I was not prepared for the next challenge.

Peter Hitchens argued, "The fundamental point is this, do you take away the fundamental liberties of all, do you assume the guilt of all, because some people cannot handle that freedom properly? Imagine if you did, how many other freedoms would have to be taken away?" He kept coming back to the point that passing a law to ban the private ownership of guns presumes all people are guilty. Otherwise, why not let them have their guns? He closed with, "I am very disturbed by the ideas that my government thinks I can't be trusted to do so [own a gun] and denies me the freedom to do so. It is a fundamental breach of the presumption of innocence. I am assumed to be of criminal intent and criminal mind not to be responsible enough, not to be able to take decisions on my own account of such an important thing." Shortly thereafter, a vote was taken and the motion I was arguing in favor of, that "the right to bear arms is a freedom too far," did not carry.

I should have responded that laws in general are made for knaves. Good citizens are assumed to do what is right on their own. There is no assumption of guilt when we require people to drive 25 miles an hour in residential neighborhoods and next to schools or to carry insurance, when we ban throwing toxic wastes into lakes and rivers and require fathers to pay child support for their kids, if they can afford it. We assume that decent human beings will do all these things because they know they are right and apply these laws only to those who for one reason or another pay no mind to others and the common good. John Stuart Mills, one of the greatest, if not the master, of all liberal philosophers established the harm principle. Your liberty is legitimately limited when exercising it harms others. Guns clearly fail this test. Even die-hard libertarians should favor laws that limit gun ownership in ways that protect the right to live, the most basic right of all, for one and all.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.