A Philosopher's Blog

Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 28, 2013

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In the course of discussing guns control, gun rights and related issues my friend Doug raised the question “is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny?” Since this is an interesting question, it seems worthwhile to attempt to address it.

Before the question itself can be addressed, a working definition of tyranny is required. A rather extreme view of the matter is put forth by the philosophical anarchists, such as Goldman. In general, anarchists of this sort regard all government as tyranny. As such, this sort of anarchist would consider a denial of gun rights by the state as tyranny. Thus, the question is easily answered by those who accept anarchism of this sort.  However, accepting this sort of anarchism would require rejecting that the state has any legitimate role to play, which seems to be a rather implausible view. Fortunately there are other accounts of tyranny.

A rather reasonable account is put forth by John Locke in his writings on government.  He defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right, which none have a right to” and this involves an official “using power, not for the good of those under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” Locke also adds that “where law ends, tyranny begins, if the law is transgressed to another’s harm.” This view can be disputed, but I will assume it for the sake of the discussion that follows.

Turning now to the matter of gun rights, I am inclined to take the view that gun rights (if there are such things) would fall under the more general right of self-defense (if there is such a right). As with any talk of rights, one useful way to address the matter is to make use of the classic approach of considering rights in the state of nature (a possibly hypothetical state in which there is no government).

Thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke argue that people have the right to self-defense in the state of nature. Hobbes even goes as far as to contend that a person is obligated to preserve herself. He notes that without a right to the means of self-preservation, the right to engage in self-defense would be useless. Because of this, he contends that in his version of the state of nature everyone has a right to all things. So, on Hobbes’ view, if guns were around in the state of nature, everyone would have the right to be armed (and anyone with any sense would be armed). Attempting to deprive someone of her gun in the state of nature would not be tyrannical or even unjust—after all for Hobbes there is no justice until the state of nature has been replaced with civil society. In the state of nature depriving others of their guns would generally be the sensible thing to do—and something that would presumably result in numerous fatal shootouts.

While Locke presents a much nicer state of nature (complete with rights to life, liberty and property) he does allow for the use of violence and force against wrongdoers. On his view, people would presumably have the right to be armed in the state of nature. After all, he argues that the rights need to be enforced by what amounts to vigilante justice and hence if guns existed, then people would need them to defend themselves and others against the people who would violate rights. Since there are no police in the state of nature, everyone would need to be armed—or risk being an easy victim.

While Locke and Hobbes take rather different views of the state, they both argue that when the transition is made from the state of nature to the state of civil society each person gives up her individual right to act as a vigilante, judge, and executioner. This would then place a limit on gun rights (on the assumption people had guns in such a state).

In Hobbes’ case, the sovereign sets the laws and enforces them by the use of force. While the individual retains the right of self-preservation, all other rights are set by the Hobbesian sovereign. Thus, on Hobbes’ view the denial of gun rights would be just, provided that the state was able to enforce its laws. Naturally, if the sovereign were to be gunned down and replaced by a new sovereign that supported individual gun rights, then that would be right—at least until the next sovereign took over.

In Locke’s case, people set aside the role of vigilante in order to create a society with a legal system. As such, people would lose the gun rights that allowed them to dispense justice from the barrel of their own guns. However, Locke explicitly addresses the matter of self-defense. As Locke seems to see it, if someone is threatened and the agents of the state are not available to act in her defense, then she and the person threatening her are effective returned to a state of nature and potentially a state of war. In this state, the person’s right to act as the enforcer of the rights to life, liberty and property return in full. Given that this right is retained even in civil society, it would seem to follow that on a Locke style system that restricting gun rights would impose on this right of self-defense and this could qualify as tyranny. After all, an official would not seem to have the right to deny a person the means to self-defense.

Of course, the obvious counter is that Locke sees the main purpose of government as serving the good of the people. More specifically, this involves protecting life, liberty and property. Given this, it would seem that some limitations on the right of self-defense could easily be justified in terms of protecting the life and property of others. To use a somewhat silly example, this could be justly used to deny people the right to possess weapons capable of doing significant accidental (and intentional) property damage (like grenades, rocket launchers, cannons and bombers). To use  less silly example, it would also seem to allow the denial of rights to weapons when doing so would do more to protect people from harm (that is, protect the right to life) than would allowing people to possess such weapons. This could be used to justify the denial of the right to simply walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon. This would, of course, need to take into account the legitimate right of self-defense. As such, Locke’s view would seem to protect self-defense rights (and presumably gun rights), provided that those rights did not create a threat to the right to life. As such, the state could impose on certain rights (such as the rights to have certain weapons) in a way that would not be tyrannical—that is, acting within the legitimate functions of the state.

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  1. Ken Byrd (@ksbyrd84) said, on January 28, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    This is an interesting question. It could be argued along similar lines that the denial of gun rights can be construed as immoral. As the author has pointed out here and in his previous post, it is simply not possible for the government to protect every individual. Indeed, while deterrence is an important aspect of law enforcement, many (most?) of the resources are spent responding to and investigating offenses that have already occurred. Moreover, in the case of a larger, stronger, more skilled, or armed attacker, a gun may be the only reasonable means a disadvantaged victim has of defending herself. Thus, governments that prohibit personal gun ownership are purposefully denying individuals their only reasonable means of self-defense – knowing full well that the safety of their citizens cannot be guaranteed.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 28, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    I think you’re over-thinking this, because it’s not that complicated.

    We have a right to life, do we not?

    If we do, then we have a right to protect our lives, do we not?

    If someone deprives us of this right, then we have been wronged, have we not?

    Might does not right make, does it?

    Which came first, the tyranny? or the gun?

    Tyranny can and has existed without guns, has it not?

    Here in Mexico, men with machine guns are ubiquitous. Is this a good? or an evil?

    Here in Mexico, people are organizing themselves to protect their communities from criminal gangs. Is this a good? or an evil?

    What is good government? Is it men with uniforms and machine guns who don’t protect the people but protect the state? Is it men with uniforms and machine guns who protect the people?

    Here in Mexico, the people can’t get justice because the men with uniforms and machine guns are perpetrating the murders and disappearances of peoples. Is this a good? or and evil?

    What is justice? and does it even matter?

  3. Doug said, on January 28, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    A fun nitpick of negation.

  4. magus71 said, on January 29, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Both sides are striving for the same goal, but each defines the problem differently. There are some things that are fundamental to us as a nation and as human beings. Oddly enough, after joining the regimented Army, I have edged toward libertarianism. It is amazing how people will make more and more rules. There can never be enough. Eventually there are so many rules that no one can go a week without breaking one of them. Then what happens next is something that I do not think many people are aware of: Since there are so many rules, and so many people are breaking them, the people of authority begin to think they have powers they do not have. But–and here’s the kicker–they do have them. Why? Because the populace feels so “guilty” for breaking rules that it subjugates itself, and the person of authority becomes so used to commanding or punishing the rule-breakers that psychologically he cannot see that he has limits.

    I own no guns. I grew up around guns, was a cop and am in the military. But I own no guns. So much for the “gun culture”. The gun is a symbol to me. It is the last partition between me and an infinitely powerful state, the last bulwark between fascism and the value of an individual. When the state can take away the law-abiding persons’s right to own a gun, it can do anything–tell you how to dress, how to eat, how to worship.

    The gun is an *idea*. Americans must stand up now. Giving up freedom is always a bad idea in my book. Removing a people’s guns *is* fascism. And the worst of it is that it doesn’t even protect the law-abiding people. It is tyranny–and the current administration and the proto-fascist Dems like Feinstein should be duly ashamed.

    • WTP said, on January 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      It is amazing how people will make more and more rules. There can never be enough. Eventually there are so many rules that no one can go a week without breaking one of them. Then what happens next is something that I do not think many people are aware of: Since there are so many rules, and so many people are breaking them, the people of authority begin to think they have powers they do not have. But–and here’s the kicker–they do have them. Why? Because the populace feels so “guilty” for breaking rules that it subjugates itself, and the person of authority becomes so used to commanding or punishing the rule-breakers that psychologically he cannot see that he has limits.

      Exactly. As I’ve said before, we are legislating ourselves into anarchy. Once we hit a critical mass of rules, due to the practical limitation of resources, the rules inevitably get selectively enforced. Once that happens, you’ve opened the door for government by fiat.

      On a similar note, David Mamet (via David Thompson’s blog):
      Healthy government, as that based upon our Constitution, is strife. It awakens anxiety, passion, fervour, and, indeed, hatred and chicanery, both in pursuit of private gain and of public good. Those who promise to relieve us of the burden through their personal or ideological excellence, those who claim to hold the Magic Beans, are simply confidence men. Their emergence is inevitable, and our individual opposition to and rejection of them, as they emerge, must be blunt and sure; if they are arrogant, wilful, duplicitous, or simply wrong, they must be replaced, else they will consolidate power, and use the treasury to buy votes, and deprive us of our liberties. It was to guard us against this inevitable decay of government that the Constitution was written. Its purpose was and is not to enthrone a Government superior to an imperfect and confused electorate, but to protect us from such a government.


      • magus71 said, on January 29, 2013 at 10:51 pm

        I love David Mamet. Liberal Jew who came in from the cold.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      When you get back from Afghanistan, you’ll have to go gun shopping with Ron and I-assuming that guns can still be legally sold then.

      • WTP said, on January 29, 2013 at 3:55 pm

        In the good ‘ole days one of the fruits of war was bringing home all the weapons you wanted thanks to an enemy who no longer needed them, iykwim. I suppose there are rules against that now too.

        • magus71 said, on January 29, 2013 at 10:56 pm

          There are so many rules here you wouldn’t believe it. The Afghan people will pay for all our rules, because we could never fight to win. Their country will be engulfed ini civil war in about 3 years. Many of them will be begging for the infidel to come back and restore order. We’ll be busy revising uniform regulations and wringing our hands on which courts we should try mass-murdering terrorists. The Taliban will rule large swaths of Central Asia. The End of the End of History.

          • WTP said, on January 29, 2013 at 11:29 pm

            Keep in mind that the Taliban will rule sh*t. All they have is the drug trade. It’s something, but not much. They can’t take advantage of the mineral wealth there because they have their own set of stupid rules for the society they think they know how to plan. They don’t play nice with anyone with any knowledge of science or industry. That part of the world had its chance, but now that OBL is toast we should just step back and let it burn.

      • magus71 said, on January 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm

        Sounds good.

  5. biomass2 said, on January 29, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Easy for Goldilocks to decide whether the porridge is too hot, too cold, or just right. She’s one wee girl.

    How do we little pigs decide when we have too many gun rules? Too few gun rules? And what will those rules be? Which of the pigs, with their different takes on fear and freedom , will answer those questions for all of the pigs?

    • biomass2 said, on January 29, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      Please don’t let the combination of fairy tale and nursery rhyme throw you off.

      The choice of pigs over bears seemed symbolically more appropriate, since there are more piggies in the rhyme than bears in the tale, making the act of choice makng more difficult, and because there’s one little scaredy-cat piggy that goes “wee wee wee all the way home.” But I still needed someone to make the decision, so I threw another childhood image, Goldilocks, into the pot. Ultimately, I think it works.

  6. Chip H said, on January 29, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Pip Hellion wrote Constitution to speak up about gun rights and government control. If you’re interested in an anthem, this is it.


  7. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 29, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    “Perhaps they [the Darwinists] are reluctant to confess error. Perhaps they fear that the fundamentalists will gloat over their discomfiture. These would be human failings, but just the sort that one must resolutely put aside. I urge the Darwinists to take the public into their confidence by a full disclosure. They are not expected to be infallible, confession is good for the soul, and candor is always highly valued.” ~ Norman MacBeth, “Darwin Retried: An Appeal to Reason”, (Harvard: The Harvard Commons Press, 1971) p. 150

    I’ve been explaining, recently, to people commenting on two, different blog posts, why the “theory” of biological evolution is not a valid theory, scientifically speaking. But because they don’t believe in God as the Creator of the life and of the world, they insist biological evolution is a proven, scientific fact, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, and that I’m stupid for believing in God as the Creator of life.

    This foolishness of unbelievers is nothing new, and is something the writer of Wisdom wrote about long ago:

    “Instead either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods.” ~ Wisdom 13:2

    Too such foolish peoples, both then and now, the elements of the world are solely responsible for the existence of the world, and of life.

    Fire, heat, matter, energy, time, chance… these are the “gods” of those who deny the Creator God who made the heavens and the earth, and life on the earth.

    Never underestimate the power of the made up, closed mind that denies and hates God. Such a mind always has and always will believe anything, no matter how foolish and unscientific, so long as it replaces their need to believe in God.

    Such fools say “Science be damned, we will not believe in God!”

    And so, today, we have the death of science, due to foolishness.

    Today we have foolishness and fantasy taught as scientific fact.

    Mary Midgely has given us an apt description of the modern scientific theory of biological evolution: “The theory of evolution is not just an inert piece of theoretical science. It is, and cannot help being, also a powerful folk-tale about human origins.” From this perspective, the evolution versus creation controversy is a controversy over which story of human origins (Genesis or Evolution) makes more sense to us, not which account of origins is scientifically correct.

    See: Mary Midgely, “Evolution as a Religion”, (London: Routledge, 1985, 2002) p. 1

    Very simply, evolution is: atomistic philosophy applied to biology. Darwin’s success was due to the fact that, because of his naturalistic and materialistic theory for the development of life, the entire cosmos was now explicable by recourse to the atomistic philosophy.

    Benjamin Wicker explains the atomistic nature of Darwinian evolutionary theory:

    “Matter is the only reality; and by its random motion and cohesion, it creates the appearance of form (i.e., species). The complex unity, then, is the accidental result of the random variations of simple material constituents. The origin of species, therefore, is the random mutation of matter on the atomic level.” ~ Benjamin Wicker, “Moral Darwinism”, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2002) p. 217~ 98

    Lest anyone think this is not precisely what the Darwinists believe, and what they would have us to believe as well, consider the following statement, made by Seth Lloyd, published (recently) in a book purporting to defend the “truths” of Darwinian evolution against the “errors” of the (upstart) Intelligent Design Movement:

    “Atoms collide in every possible way until they form a wide variety of molecules, each selected for by the lo- cal concentration of atoms together with the laws of chemistry. Molecules, in turn, explore ever more complicated chemical reactions until they form a molecule capable of catalyzing its own production together with variation in its form: Such a form of pro- to-life is selected for merely by its ability to reproduce and adapt to different environmental conditions. Because of its ability to adapt to new surroundings, life explores a vast space of possible beings, until it arrives first at sexual reproduction and then at language.” ~ Seth Lloyd in, “Intelligent Thought”, (Vintage, 2006) p. 189

    This is what the evolutionists would have us to believe:

    Atoms colliding randomly in the void… eventually become people capable of communication through the use of language.

    The “…” is a problem, from the standpoint of science.

    Other than “…” it makes a good story, but stories are not science; there’re only stories.

    The “theory” of biological evolution is untestable, unobservable, unrepeatable, makes no predictions, and is without experimental proof.

    See: http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Religion-Stranger-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415278333

    See: http://www.amazon.com/Science-Salvation-Modern-Myth-Meaning/dp/0415107733/

  8. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 30, 2013 at 10:47 am

    Professor, what do you make of this?

    “After writing a series of articles documenting the discrepancies and outright lies in the official narrative of the Sandy Hook shooting, Professor James Tracy of Florida Atlantic University shot to international attention when the establishment media began covering his work. Now, Dr. Tracy is left trying to explain the misinterpretations, lies and soundbites that the mainstream media is using to discredit his work. Find out more in this week’s GRTV Feature Interview.”

    The Sandy Hook Controversy — James Tracy on GRTV with James Corbett:

    See: http://memoryholeblog.com/2013/01/29/the-sandy-hook-controversy-james-tracy-on-grtv/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 30, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      Interesting. I don’t know professor Tracy, but the idea that some folks in the media would get facts wrong and go after a person is certainly plausible.

      • biomass2 said, on January 30, 2013 at 5:38 pm

        It’s not at all uncommon. See coverage of election night Nov. 2012 Of course there will be discrepancies (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from lies) if information is being released and or leaked at different times, or if different reporters and different networks have different sources or access to more sources. In the immediate aftermath of any event all of that information can appear to be of equal value. My general approach is to wait until the dust settles (and this could be take months or longer depending on the nature of the subject) before making a hasty judgment.

  9. […] Is the denial of gun rights, in and of itself, a tyranny? (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

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