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Only Individuals Have Rights

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Attorney General John Ashcroft has let it be known that it is the official position of the executive branch of the U.S. government that individuals possess the right to keep and bear arms.

Hallelujah! As the anti-self-defense lobby says, this is a reversal of a position held for about 30 years — but it is a good and long-overdue reversal. It was under President Richard Nixon — a Republican — that the Department of Justice pronounced the right referred to in the Second Amendment as something other than an individual right. The Clinton Justice Department repeated that position explicitly a few years ago during an appeal in a gun case.

The issue is this: What did the authors of the Bill of Rights mean when they wrote, “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.”

The anti-self-defense lobby says it refers only to today’s version of the militia: the National Guard. That is absurd on many levels. For one thing, in the Founders’ day the militia meant every able-bodied male, not a specially organized body. More fundamentally, the gun controllers’ argument is ridiculous because the right to keep and bear arms can only be an individual right. As the Founders knew, there are no collective rights. A more un-American concept could not be imagined. A group has a particular right only insofar as the individual members possess it.

Furthermore, there is no hint of collective rights in the Constitution. Throughout the Bill of Rights it is patently obvious that “right of the people” means rights of individual persons. The First Amendment refers to the “right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.” The Fourth Amendment refers to “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” The Ninth Amendment warns that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” These are clearly individual rights.

And so it is with the Second Amendment. The idea that the right to own guns belongs to an agency under the control of government mocks the Founding Fathers and insults the intelligence of all Americans. One of the amendment’s chief intentions was to recognize that the people have a right to protect themselves against tyranny perpetrated by their own government. Giving government control of all guns is like having to ask King George if it’s okay to revolt.

The gun controllers try to sound harmless when they insist that they do not wish to threaten “sportsmen and hunters.” But the Second Amendment is not primarily about sportsmen and hunters. It’s about self-responsibility and self-defense. Those virtues are directly threatened by the gun controllers and anyone else who believes possessing firearms is not an individual right. Sarah Brady, chairman of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, has criticized Ashcroft because his position reverses previous government policy. She added, “His position is also dangerous, as it would only make defending reasonable gun laws — laws that Americans overwhelmingly support — more difficult.”

Notice she didn’t say Ashcroft’s position is wrong. Believe it or not, Mrs. Brady, the government can make a mistake and even persist in it for more than three decades. Is it really “dangerous” to correct that error because Americans might change their minds about the reasonableness of gun laws? Maybe when they understand that rights can only belong to individuals they will see that those laws are in fact unreasonable because they interfere with self-responsibility and self-defense.

The use of guns to violate rights should be dealt with harshly. The mere possession of guns and use of them to defend innocent life should be respected and praised. Otherwise we Americans have no claim to the title “free people.”

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.