Guns and the Second Amendment
Dean Eugene Milhizer contents that the right to bear arms is a natural right . . .
In the last six months the U.S. has been rocked by two intentional, violent body blows: the Newtown shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Both events are complicated and in many ways unrelated and distinct from each other. But considering them together is useful to understand and define the range and limits of Second Amendment protections.
In the 2008 landmark decision Heller v. District of Columbia, the U.S. Supreme Court determined unambiguously for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms. The Court traced the right to the English common law.
Of course, both firearms and bombs were well known to the British and the American colonists before and during the Revolutionary War. As recent events too well demonstrate, both are potentially dangerous and can serve as an effective means of causing serious and widespread violence. And both conceivably could be subject to restrictive government regulation approaching prohibition. Why then do the Constitution and its precursor common law protect gun ownership but not bomb ownership? The answer involves the imperative of protecting natural rights that were recognized under common law and later enshrined in the Second Amendment.
The Heller Court, quoting Sir William Blackstone’s authoritative 18th-century treatise on England’s common law, referred to a “natural right of resistance and self-preservation” that predates the Constitution. These rights were well established under common law and were a proximate source of Second Amendment protections.
But while the common law is the proximate source of the defensive rights protected by the Second Amendment, the natural law is the ultimate source of right as recognized by both the common law and the Constitution. The natural law includes a natural right of self-preservation and defense. This is basic. As a natural right, a right to self-defense is inalienable. It can neither be bestowed by the government nor can it be ceded to it. This is because these rights are integral to a person’s dignity. It’s hardwired into our psyche.
While one can imagine scenarios in which a bomb is used in self-defense, common sense and tradition instruct that such instruments are inherently offensive. In contrast, firearms have been regularly and traditionally been used in self-defense ever since the invention of the flintlock. The Second Amendment’s protection of a natural right to self-defense thus helps define the range of instrumentalities that are afforded its protection.
The constitutional distinction between offensive and defensive instrumentalities is critical for contemporary purposes. Many dangerous things can be intensely regulated without violating the Second Amendment, such as explosives, poisons and modes of conveyance. So can mountain climbing and bungee jumping. The regulation of such products and activities presents pragmatic and prudential questions, not constitutional issues.
Firearms, the quintessential means of effective self-defense from colonial times to the present day, are different in kind. The government may of course regulate them, but not in a manner that unduly burdens the Second Amendment’s recognition and protection of the underlying natural right of self-defense.
In a civil society the exercise of natural rights and constitutional protections are not absolute. This is especially true in modern times with all of its complexities and interdependence. The government may regulate the unbridled exercise of one right when it would unduly infringe upon the natural and constitutional rights of others. For example, freedom of religion cannot shield human sacrifice, nor can freedom of speech excuse shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.
The respectful interplay of protected liberties is among the objectives the Framers addressed when crafting the Constitution, and this objective should inform contemporary legislators when they engage in law-making. Consistent with these values, it would be imprudent and even immoral to seek a pragmatically beneficial end, no matter how well intended, if the means of achieving it requires unduly burdening a natural right that enjoys express constitutional protection.
Any new gun legislation must conform to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, which is ultimately derived from the natural rights of self-preservation and self-defense. Consistent with these first principles, legislation can surely be crafted to keep guns away from dangerous criminals and the mentally ill without disregarding the inalienable rights of law-abiding citizens. All responsible lawmakers and citizens should join together to seek this proper goal.
EUGENE MILHIZER is dean of Ave Maria School of Law and a member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter.