Catholics, The 2nd Amendment, & Subsidiarity

Ryan Harkins took an initial look at how Catholics should look at the question of whether there is a natural right to own guns in a post last week. The basic thrust of Ryan’s argument, and I ask him to correct me if I misstate this, was to examine the question of whether the benefits of private gun ownership outweighed the potential social evils. This is, in a sense, an obvious way to look at the question. If one is trying to determine the rightness of allowing people to own something potentially destructive, it would seem natural to take a “do the benefits outweigh the dangers?” approach.

I’d like to take a slightly different approach, looking at both the actual text of the second amendment and Catholic Social Teaching. The second amendment reads:

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 libertarian approach to this is to assert that an armed citizenry is required in order to provide a counter-weight to the power of the government. However, I’m not convinced that the thinking behind the second amendment was a merely a balancing of powers in this sense. Rather, it seems to me that to a great extent the US Constitution is written with the point of view that people possess certain natural rights and duties, and that from these spring rights and duties of the government. My understanding is that one of the major controversies in regards to the second amendment (one spoken to fairly definitely in last June’s District of Columbia v. Heller decision) has been whether it secures a right of state militias to have weapons, or a right of individuals to have weapons. While in effect my opinion on the matter lies closer to the individual right side, it seems to me that there is an important distinction which has been increasingly lost in our modern mass society:

That the Founders imagined a society in which the militia was made up of ordinary citizens, and that the right of the militia to bear arms thus stemmed from a right of each individual to self defense and protection of his community’s laws and social order.

I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, so let me start by looking briefly at a hierarchical European approach to arms and social order, such as would have (either through experience or through mythologized history) formed the background against which the authors of the Constitution thought. In a feudal/monarchical system, permission to bear arms (and what sort of arms you were allowed) was something granted by the lord. As the authority, the lord or monarch possessed the power to determine which orders of society, or which members of those orders, could have arms of what type. One of the things that set the British experience of the last 200-300 years off from that of much of Continental Europe was that in the late middle ages and renaissance the peasantry had vanished from Britain, replaced by the yeomanry: freeman who could own land and own their own weapons. In almost no country were peasants (those who were bound to the land and often had highly limited if any property rights) allowed to own weapons of warfare, though obviously the farming implements they owned could be plenty dangerous against anyone other than a properly armed cavalry or heavy infantryman.

In opposition to this, the experience in the American colonies (except when foreign mercenaries were brought in by either the British or the French) was that of militias being raised of local freemen and land owners — men who owned their own weapons. More importantly, local law enforcement and militias were under the command of the people themselves or their elected representatives, not of some ruler holding power in his own right. Thus, law enforcement and militias drew their authority to bear arms and enforce order from the right of the people themselves to bear arms and enforce order within their communities.

Moving from the practical to the theoretical: I would argue that the right and duty of law enforcement to provide order and the right and duty of the military to protect a nation stems from the natural rights of the citizens who make up the community.

Now why, given that, do we even have police? Why have a court system? Why have a military? In a sufficiently small community one might have need of none of these. A village council might settle disputes and judge crimes, while members of community policed themselves and gathered under the direction of mutually acknowledged authorities to defend the village. But in anything like a large community, it becomes necessary to have formal institutions for policing, adjudicating disputes, judging criminal cases, and securing defense for the community in order to assure that these duties are performed consistently and fairly.

However, since the existence of police forces and militaries springs, at root, from the right of the individual to defend himself and his family, and from the right of the community to enforce order, it seems to be wrong to insist that the individual should not retain any right to own the tools with which to protect himself and his family and to assist in enforcing order in society. Not only would such a complete ban smack of shifting to a view of authority in which weapons are the sole prerogative of the ruler (more along feudal lines) but it would also leave individuals without any means of protect and communities without any means of enforcing order in those situations in which larger institutions break down.

Does this have any basis in Catholic Social Teaching?

To my knowledge, there has been no in-depth discussion of the source and exercise of the right to bear arms in the context of CST. However there are some precedents to work from. Although the Catholic Church long lived in tacit agreement with feudal systems of government in which property ownership was to a great extent seen a springing from the will of an aristocratic class, in the last 150 years (explicitly in Rerum Novarum and subsequent CST encyclicals) the Church has developed and understanding of economics and property rights in which individual ownership of the means to provide for oneself is a natural human right. Given that defending oneself is also a natural human right, it would not seem unreasonable to assume that owning the tools necessary to exercise the right to self defense is also a natural human right, rather than something held only by rulers and those designated by them.

The argument that individuals retain the right to possess weapons for the defense of themselves and their local communities would also seem to fit with the subsidiarity, whereby social duties are performed by the most local unit possible. While it is certainly important to have local police forces and militias, the authority most able to deal immediately with an intruder in your house at 2am is you — and the people most able to prevent looting and other crimes in your neighborhood during a natural disaster or other social breakdown are the able-bodied citizens of that neighborhood.

Does this mean people should be able to own any kind of weapons? Atom bombs and rocket launchers? Machine guns?

I would argue that it does not. Even in modern warfare, the appropriate tools for defending a single house or for enforcing order in and defending a neighborhood are small arms — not artillery and machine guns. Thus, it would seem reasonable to me to argue that the individual only has the right to own small arms. Larger and more deadly weapons can only be properly owned by a community of such size as to need such a means of protection.

Does this mean there should be no restrictions on small arms ownership?

I don’t think it means no restrictions, but it does mean that people should be allowed to own and train with small arms that would be functional for serious defense purposes. The restrictions I would be most in favor of would relate to making clear the responsibilities which come with such ownership, and the gravity of mis-using those rights. To the extent that I would see owning weapons as being equivalent to assuming on a small scale the duties of local police and military work in one’s community, I would be strongly in favor of punishing those who commit crimes using guns with all the severity which would be used on a policeman or soldier who disobeyed orders and used his weapon to commit crimes.

I’d also be conditionally in favor (subject to practical considerations) of laws which require that one be licensed in some sense in order to own weapons — though the only restrictions I would want to see in that licensing would be in regards to lack of criminal record and the possession of some basic safety and legal training in regards to weapons and their uses.