Charleston, Guns, and Natural Law
Acton Institute Powerblog

Charleston, Guns, and Natural Law

In the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting in which nine people were killed during Bible study, debates and pushes for more gun control revived. Shooter Dylan Roof’s weapon of choice was a .45 caliber handgun with five extra magazines of ammunition. Rightly so, this heinous crime shocked the nation, especially religious communities. Calls for prayer and support for the victim’s families immediately followed the tragedy. Inevitably, these prayers were followed by new demands for gun controls.

Understandably, after such a depraved crime people react strongly, wanting to prevent any potential future occurrences. The president, evangelical leaders, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and other political and religious leaders all called for greater regulation of firearms. However, not enough policy advocates critically think about their positions and reason from first principles, considering philosophy and Natural Law before promoting drastic or even seemingly innocent changes. Many Catholic leaders, notably the USCCB, maintain a long standing position of campaigning for stricter gun laws and reducing the availability of firearms of all types. After examining the unintended consequences of gun laws and the flawed philosophy behind them however, one cannot remain consistent.

At the very core, calls for greater gun control conflict with, in my opinion, one of most fundamental Natural Law concepts: the right to self-defense. Violent crimes, like rape and murder, demand greater retaliation and greater punishment than crimes against property, like theft. While theft violates a person’s private property, violent crimes violate the dignity of the human person, a direct abuse of personhood. As beings created in the image and likeness of God, humans by their very nature have an ontological discontinuity between plants and animals. The sanctity and sacredness of human life is a pillar of Christian philosophy and Natural Law theory. Given the higher nature of human life, an individual possesses a natural right to defend one’s own life from aggressors with malicious intent. The defense of one’s life supersedes any government edict. The state may deny Natural Law and enact legislation hindering potential acts of self-defense, but such obstructions to natural rights cannot make claims to justice, let alone ethics or morality.

Man might have a right to self-defense rooted in Natural Law, but how might one exercise this right? Does the natural right to defend life provide for the use of deadly and efficient weapons, like firearms? Man is a species of invention and innovation, constantly developing tools and technology to make tasks easier. In cases of self-defense this is no exception. Since Cain and Able, people invented, used, and improved tools to make killing easier. All administrative and legislative efforts that deny this reality are Luddite, utopian fantasies that fail to accurately affirm the deadly ingenuity that motivates one possessed by evil intentions. A weapon, whether Cain’s rock or Roof’s .45 caliber pistol, is merely an extension of an individual’s intent to inflict great harm onto another. Given that predatory and evil people exist in this fallen world, the good and the innocent must be allowed to defend their lives with the tools appropriate of the times. After all, the fact that churches are gun free zones utterly failed to prevent the Charleston shooting.

In modern times, individuals cannot expect law enforcement to engage each and every act of physical aggression, especially in the inner cities. Detroit for example, diverts fewer and fewer resources to law enforcement as a result of the shrinking tax base. As a city plagued with regular acts of violent crime, officials and residents fully understand that many criminals face little to no retaliation. However Detroit is experiencing fewer instances of robbery, car-jacking, and break-ins. Why? The Detroit Police Chief, James Craig, credits the drop in crime to armed citizens judiciously defending themselves. Criminals purposefully target the weak and vulnerable; they are predators and cowards. Firearms however, give the weak a fighting chance against criminal violence. When exercised effectively, the right to self-defense certainly deters criminal activity, especially violent crime.

Further, affirming natural rights to self-defense limit the scale and scope of authoritarian state power. A society with the ability to defend life and property with contemporary tools prevents state encroachments and efforts centralization. As the only institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the state regularly employs this unique power in various degrees and magnitudes. Citizens with the capability to respond to arbitrary state violence with equal ferocity protect not only their lives and property, but the rest of their natural rights. All throughout human history, most obviously in the 20th century under Nazism and Communism, governments have brutalized and oppressed their own citizenry. The natural right to self-defense through ownership of firearms protects people from aggressors of all types, whether their fellow citizens or state actors initiate hostilities.

Consider the states of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Maoist China. Each of these states are responsible for the industrialized slaughter of tens of millions of people, more than were killed in both World Wars combined. In each nation there were oppressed minorities who experienced the heavy hand of state barbarism. In order to persecute the Jews, Hitler explicitly prohibited them from owning firearms; Lenin enacted strict gun laws against his political opponents; and after the Communist revolution in China the new government was quick to inventory firearms and authorize ownership through the Party. States of tyrannical and abusive nature begin their centralization of power with stripping their political enemies of the natural right to self-defense, ending possibilities of an armed rebellion.

Before Christians petition for increased gun regulation, they must examine the unintended consequences. In an effort to punish the violent acts of a few, such policies effectually ignore Natural Law and strip fundamental rights of the many. Modern weaponry, like firearms, serves to equalize the weak with the strong. Petite women, the elderly, and disabled cannot be expected to meet physically capable attackers on equal terms without weapons. As dignified beings with rational souls, humans possess a natural right to self-defense and firearms are simply the modern tools that permit competent exercising of that right. Natural Law is written on the hearts of all men; the right to defend one’s own life is substantively infused into the very make up of humanity. Governments may reject this truth, but the dismissal of essential principles never leads to decisive policy.