As the vicious debate over gun control continues unabated in the United States and the NRA distinguishes itself by constantly coming up with new ways to be terrible, there’s an interesting trend cropping up here and there. I’m noting more and more rhetoric suggesting that gun ownership is a human right, and that people like Secretary Clinton are violating human rights by expressing a desire to put checks on gun ownership and curtail some of its worst abuses.
It’s a creative new argument, and also one that’s very wrong. I can see why people are doing it: There’s a growing sensitivity to human rights, and suggesting that something is an inalienable entitlement makes it seem ironclad. It’s an example of how the right attempts to use the language and tools of the left against it, often highly effectively. After all, the logic goes, if marrying anyone you want is a human right and we frown upon any attempts to abridge or interfere with that right, then surely if gun ownership is declared a human right, then the left will be forced to defend that ‘right.’
The thing is…well, I’m not going to play the dictionary game here, but suffice it to say that gun ownership doesn’t really meet any of the standards we use to define a human right. It’s not even a civil right, even though a section of the constitution appears to suggest that the founders intended to protect gun ownership as part of the civil rights of citizens in their new nation. (Spoiler: They pretty clearly meant it in the context of militias, and also, they favoured pretty aggressive gun control.)
A human right has to do with something intrinsic to who you are as a human being, and your most basic needs. Healthcare, food, housing, and water are human rights. They are all critical things that human beings need to stay alive. Access to reproductive health services is a human right. The ability to participate freely in society regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or disability status is a human right. These are things society is supposed to guarantee to us because we are part of society, and these things are integral to our very identities.
Owning a gun does not place one in a protected class of society. It’s not integral to the inextricable identity of a human being. You can put a gun down and no longer be a person holding a gun. You cannot become unMuslim for an afternoon, or take off your Black skin to walk through the streets. While a gun owner may participate in gun culture, may enjoy interacting with guns and fellow gun owners as a recreational activity, may even integrate that activity heavily into daily life, gun ownership still isn’t about identity.
And a gun is not a basic necessity for survival. Some guns can be useful for hunting food, but not most, and there are alternatives to hunting for most people. They can sometimes be helpful for self defense, but not nearly as often as people like to claim. More commonly, they are used to inflict violence, which is an abridgment of other people’s human right to remain alive. Nothing about a gun is intrinsic to identity or survival. Comparing a gun to something like the right to maternity care is patently absurd, and that’s just one example of a basic human right.
Checks on gun ownership, to varying degrees, are perfectly acceptable because, again, owning a gun isn’t a human right, and it’s not a civil right either when its ownership infringes upon the enjoyment of life for other people. It’s just not. Gun ownership is something else: A privilege. And privileges are contingent on meeting reasonable standards. People are not entitled to privileges. They are accorded on the basis of fitness to have them.
Gun ownership could better be compared to driving a car. Everyone has the potential to drive a car, but not everyone knows how to drive. Fewer people can operate a vehicle safely. Requiring people to understand how to safely drive a car is viewed as a reasonable requirement for issuing a driver’s license. Similarly, drivers are expected to maintain their cars in good working order and carry insurance, to reduce the risk of problems and have a measure in place in the event something bad happens. It is understood that when you fail to obey the law, there will be penalties, up to and including losing your license.
While some drivers seem to think otherwise, driving a car is not a right. A car is an external object that you own (lease, borrow, rent) in order to use it for a variety of purposes. A car is not integral to your identity, although it can facilitate things like getting to work, traveling, or being able to leave your home in a remote area without public transit. Some people are super into their cars and get fancy ones. Some people race their cars and engage in recreational driving. But at the end of the day, they do eventually get out of the driver’s seat and walk away. The car is not bound to the driver. Losing a license is a pain, and sometimes it is unjust, as when people are profiled by law enforcement, but it is not an infringement on basic rights.
The right wants to cheapen the notion of human rights with this kind of rhetoric, while also trying to score points. It’s a pretty pathetic line of logic, and hopefully they’ll figure that out sooner rather than later.
Image: Second Amendment Security, Paul Sableman, Flickr