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The NRA Gets It Wrong

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The concept of individual rights really isn’t complicated, but even some of its defenders get it wrong. Take, for example, the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA, of course, concentrates exclusively on the individual’s right to keep and bear arms, but that is no excuse for failing to relate that right to the wider context of individual freedom. By failing to do so, the NRA actually undercuts our rights and endangers the very right it seeks to defend.

The association is focusing its wrath on ConocoPhillips because the company joined a federal lawsuit to block an Oklahoma law that would require employers to let their workers keep firearms in their cars when parked on company parking lots. The law was passed by the state legislature after Weyerhaeuser fired a dozen employees three years ago for having guns in their cars in violation of company policy. ConocoPhillips is the largest of a handful of companies that is challenging the law in federal court. Hence the boycott.

Before getting to the details, let’s stipulate the following:

* Rights cannot conflict. Indeed, the purpose of rights is to avert social conflict and to enable people to pursue their interests in peace, cooperate with one another when suitable, and prosper. Whenever we detect an apparent conflict of rights, at least one of the claimed “rights” is counterfeit. Just as a contradiction in a chain of reasoning is the sign of error, so a conflict of alleged rights is a sign of error.

* The NRA should have the right to boycott anyone it wants. That is simply the freedom to abstain from association, which is entailed by the freedom of association.

* Barring employees from keeping guns in their vehicles is a silly rule because only law-abiding people will observe it. Anyone intending to shoot someone else will be undeterred. (It is worth pointing out that the guns were discovered at Weyerhaeuser during a search for drugs, a measure inspired, no doubt, by the government’s inane “war on drugs.”)

That said, there is no justification for the Oklahoma law. The owner of property has a natural right to set the rules for its use. That’s what ownership means. When a company says you can’t park on its lot if you keep a gun in your vehicle, then the owner’s wishes should be respected. This is no different from being asked not to bring a gun into someone’s home. If you don’t like the owner’s rule, you are free to go elsewhere. An employee can park somewhere else or find another job.

If the NRA wants to urge its members to boycott ConocoPhillips in order to pressure the company into reversing its policy, it should be free to do so. But the NRA goes further: It supports the law that limits employers’ freedom to set the rules on their own property.

The danger of such a move lies in the fact that an attack on one right is an attack on all rights. The rights of gun owners will not be secure if the rights of other kinds of owners are insecure. It is ownership per se that needs a consistent defense.

Contrary to the claims of many gun enthusiasts this case has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. The Constitution governs relations between the government and individuals, not relations among individuals. Weyerhaeuser did not forbid employees from keeping and bearing arms. It could not possibly do that. It merely said that employees may not bring firearms onto its property and if they do so, they may not work for the company. However stupid that policy, the company was within its rights. The NRA has got it wrong.

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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.