The right, and duty, to bear arms

Filed under: Contributed Column,Opinion,Print | Tags:

When writing from Israel, the most militarized nation on earth, I admittedly have a different perspective on gun rights.

National security isn’t simply a political excuse for parliamentary debate, but a real survival matter for a tiny country surrounded by enemies who publicly declare their intention to destroy it. Military might is a watchword even for peace-lovers who’d give up the West Bank in a two-state solution to the Palestinian right of independence.

No matter what one reads here, there is no mention of personal gun rights or a hint of the ideology based on a lone rider, shooting his way through Indian (or Palestinian) territories.

Instead, there is shock and horror over the Aurora shooting, overheard through a deep sigh: It can only happen in America.

One big difference is that in Israel, people are on the lookout for violence. Most public places have guards who check backpacks and purses. Everyone knows suicide-bombers have caused severe damage over the years. People in Israel know they live in a military zone and that they must be keep a watchful eye on their surroundings.

This is in no way to say that someone could have prevented a nut-case from opening fire in a crowded theater. The consensus is that with enough intent and planning, one can cause harm anywhere in the world. But there is a consensus in Israel that cultural cues and training may help create an atmosphere and mindset where citizens can expect to live a normal life under abnormal conditions.

The new normal in Israel differs from that of Colorado when it comes to guns and security, patrolling one’s borders and airports. But public debate about such issues is radically different, and perhaps informative.

Americans of all stripes — consider Obama and Romney on the issue — publicly declare their support for gun ownership and the right “to bear arms,” but in Israel the issue revolves around duties to protect one’s country. Israeli media is enmeshed in a parliamentary debate over the duty of ultra-Orthodox Jews to join the Israeli Defense Forces and bear equal burdens as secular citizens.

The Second Amendment has two versions.

The one passed by Congress states: “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 other, ratified by the states and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state at the time, reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right…”

In his Law’s Empire (1986), author Ronald Dworkin dedicates an entire chapter to the different punctuation of the amendment, claiming that if one follows the grammatical conventions of the time, the right to bear arms was associated with the formation of militias and not attributable to individuals. This, of course, isn’t what the Supreme Court decided in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller when it reaffirmed the right of individuals to bear arms, overturning D.C. restrictions.

What gets lost in the American debate, especially when intellectual lightweights join the conversation from both political parties, is the realization that in a democracy that holds the rule of law paramount, there are no rights without duties. One’s right ought to be proportional to one’s duties. The assumption is that we are dealing with responsible adults.

Will the horrific Aurora case change anything? There are 49,762 licensed gun dealers in the U.S. and 7,261 pawn shops that sell guns; about 30,000 people die annually from firearms, half suicide cases. To some extent, we have to change the public discourse if we want to have a useful conversation with the National Rifle Association.

First, gun ownership shouldn’t be understood as an absolute right. Just as equality isn’t an absolute principle — we have laws and policies about equal opportunity — so must our understanding of gun rights be circumscribed with greater regulations (perhaps a few weeks of waiting period is reasonable, just as we wait for liquor licenses).

Second, gun rights should be accompanied by duties. These duties shouldn’t be limited to the permit fee, but also to training and annual classes where gun owners should reconsider why they own their guns and under what circumstances they should or shouldn’t use them.

Third, gun ownership should be understood as a personal responsibility to one’s community. As such, each gun owner should contribute 10 hours a year to helping law-enforcement agencies, for example, or participate in mandatory exercises, depending on each community’s needs.

One need not be for or against guns, but rather approach the topic as a political issue worthy of public debate with reasonable solutions.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com. Column archives are at sassower.blogspot.com.