The basic principle of the gun-control argument: 10 years ago and today

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 26, 2018

With arguments about gun control proliferating in the wake of the Florida school shooting, an old friend of the CatholicCulture site called our attention to this short but perceptive essay, written nearly 10 years ago by our sometime contributor, Diogenes. The circumstances have changed, but the fundamental argument has not.

“What is needed, urgently, is stronger controls over the lethal weapons that cause such wasteful carnage and such unbearable loss.” With pavlovian predictability, the better trained media have displayed the reflex reaction to homicidal madness: increase state control, curtail personal liberty. American intellectuals have become so Europeanized over the past fifty years that it may be worth remembering why America severed its European political ties in the first place, and why, having done so, it radically changed the relationship of governors to the governed.

The clearest statement I have ever read of the American theory of government came from Ronald Reagan, speaking on Soviet television before his 1988 summit meeting with Gorbachev. It came out in response to an interviewer’s objection that Reagan seemed to have forgotten that the Soviet Union had a constitution too.

“You have a constitution; we have a constitution. The difference between our two constitutions is very simple. Your constitution says these are the privileges, rights, that the government provides for the people. Our constitution says: we the people will allow the government to do the following things.”

Bull’s eye. That’s why a low-to-middle income American can have a rifle leaning in the corner of his dining room that the local chief of police knows nothing about, while his European counterpart cannot. Also, in part, that’s why totalitarian statism has not been a serious threat to Americans. So far.

“We the people will allow the government to do the following things...” If the coercive power in a given nation belongs exclusively to government agencies, the notion of government “by the people” becomes vacuous. The Second Amendment reflects the ratifers’ understanding of this grim truth; and the guarantee that “the right to bear arms shall not be infringed” was intended, in part, to diffuse coercive power among as broad a spectrum of the citizenry as possible. It makes a difference. When the state is the only armed party in the state-citizen encounter, it tends to consult its own convenience at the expense of other human goods.

As anyone who has lived abroad can attest, the police and other agents of the state who come onto one’s property have one attitude when they know there’s no lethal weapon on the premises, and another attitude entirely when they don’t. It’s true of friendly visits, and true of not-so-friendly visits. Would the ratifiers have approved the right to bear arms had they foreseen massacres staged by madmen? Almost certainly. Any liberty will be abused. All liberties come at a cost of life. Those who prefer life to freedom are traditionally given the name slaves.

In this vein, I was struck by an argument made some years ago by a constitutional scholar named Robert Cottrol, who gave the following justification for the Second Amendment (a very rough paraphrase): In pre-Enlightenment Europe, the notions of nobility and the right to own weapons were interchangeable. To be noble was to be “armigerous”—a word that means not only to have a coat-of-arms, but more generally to bear weapons. Government was aristocratic, which in theory and in practice meant the government of the commons by the nobles, i.e., the un-armed by the armigerous.

Then two kinds of revolutions shook up the old regime. One was that of the French Revolution and its statist imitations, which obliterated the nobility: all persons were to be citoyens. Rule was by a cadre of political managers, in whom resided all powers of violent coercion. This produced the modern European state.

The other kind of revolution was the American. In this revolution (if I have Cottrol right) hereditary classes were abolished by declaring all men intrinsically noble. Thus all men were rightfully armigerous. Thus the right to bear arms was not to be infringed—any more than the right to a trial or the right to free speech was to be infringed. The result was a distinctively American refusal to regard one’s governors as one’s superiors. An associate at a Washington law firm once told me that a Chinese intern at the same firm confessed her perplexity that many Americans criticized President Clinton so harshly and vocally. When told this was common she replied, “But why does the government let them?” Now that’s the voice of the statist.

We see the divide very clearly in the way the decisions made by the European Union are enforced in the member countries. When the state has determined that a personal liberty is to be curtailed, the presumption is that the citizen who resists is in the wrong. Even if a reprieve is granted—think of the two years given the Catholic Church in the U.K. to come to terms with gay adoption—that reprieve is viewed not as a right but as a favor bestowed by the state, and at the state’s pleasure. In the U.S., though it’s becoming yearly less true, government initiatives to curtail freedoms are viewed as wrong until proven otherwise. We the people, to the extent that we still have a say in matter, are less inclined than statists simply to roll over and take it from the government.

Many people will scoff at the “nobility” of an armigerous Nebraskan farm hand with his gun rack hanging in his pick-up. They prefer their nobles more—dare we say it?—European. Like the Europeans, they’ll be shaking their heads at the Virginia Tech massacre and sniffing, “if the proper laws and proper enforcement were in place, this never would have happened.” In the final analysis there’s no reply to this, because it declares a difference of first principles. Sure, we can point to the backpack bombing in gun-free Madrid, and we can ask why a maniac with a match and a coffee can filled with gasoline can’t out-Columbine Columbine, but in the end it’s a question of—when civil amity breaks down to the point that coercive force is necessary—which armiger we want on the business end of the arms. I’ll take the Nebraskan in the Dodge Ram.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: [email protected] - Feb. 27, 2018 10:07 PM ET USA

    Good essay. More importantly the 2nd Amendment is the bulwark against the government swamp and it's enslaved. It also is the support for all the other amendments particularly the 1st dealing with freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Although for the liberal press of today the 2nd does not fit their agenda.

  • Posted by: Bronco Pete - Feb. 27, 2018 9:23 PM ET USA

    Thank you Phil for your common sense arguments. I am strongly 2A. My Catholic faith teaches me that life is a battle between good and evil. Inanimate objects are of no consideration. People with souls and free will are what makes things occur. Inanimate objects such as firearms are just tools. We must shape souls and not worry about inanimate objects. We must ensure that good triumphs over evil. Randy Collins

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 27, 2018 7:37 PM ET USA

    Nicely stated. Diogenes rocks.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Feb. 27, 2018 7:29 PM ET USA

    Interesting to note that the Catholic Church is very strong in Nebraska. Flyover country is the core behind Trump. We realize that no number of restrictive gun laws will ever stop criminals. Only another weapon of equal or greater strength will. "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight." Don't expect a principal or a coach to protect children with her/his body, when up against a gun. And don't expect to keep 1st amendment rights w/o 2nd amendment rights. Tyranny is only ever 1 generation away.