The Fundamental Human Right to Self-Defense

Fundamental human rights are based on our ability to think for ourselves and make our own free choices. Reason and free will give us the desire to think for ourselves, and the right. It is part of our very nature as human beings to think and to choose, and that is the basis for all of our rights. We have a right to life, because we are persons, not mere animals, and we are persons because we have reason and free will. The goodness of our humanity comes from reason and free will: the search for truth, our compassion and love of others, our connection to the rest of humanity and to nature, and our search for happiness and for greater meaning in life. All this is predicated on our ability to understand and to choose. From reason and free will, all our rights spring up.

Arguments about gun control often center on the rights granted in the second amendment to the Constitution: to keep and bear arms. But what is the basis for the second amendment? I argue that the second amendment is based on the fundamental human right to self-defense. It is a fundamental right because, if you cannot defend yourself, then all your other rights — even your very life — can be taken away from you. And if anyone argues that self-defense is unnecessary, because police will defend the community and soldiers will defend the nation, I reply that the right of the community to defend itself with police and the right of the nation to defend itself with soldiers is an extension of the individual right of self-defense.

The second amendment is under attack by voters and politicians and judges who will reduce it to dust as soon as they are able. So we cannot defend gun rights merely by reference to the second amendment. We must also defend the reason for that amendment: the fundamental human right of self-defense.

I think we also have a right to keep and bear arms based on the principles of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We should be free to do whatever seems good to us, with restrictions only when necessary for the common good. The trend today is to positively need permission from law or culture for everything we do, and that is not liberty. Then the pursuit of happiness implies that we should be free to use guns for hunting, competition shooting, and any reasonable recreational purposes. But the right to self-defense is the strongest basis for a right to keep and bear arms.

I am afraid that we will all lose our right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, in the long run. Self-defense is the fundamental right that we are most likely to lose, because government always seeks more power. Yet armed citizens are a bulwark against excesses of power by government. So every government has a built-in bias against the right to self-defense, especially the right to keep and bear arms.

I searched online for lists of human rights. Most lists (including ones from the UN and the EU) make no reference whatsoever to the right to self-defense or the right to keep and bear arms. One list has 30 human rights, and nothing related to self-defense at all. The omission of such a fundamental right is scary and disturbing.

The possession and exercise of this right to self-defense scares many people. Some are afraid of the guns themselves. But I think others simply prefer that society keep and bear power by controlling law and culture, and by use of money and influence. But if any ordinary citizen can own a firearm, it takes away from the power that they have in society. For guns give each individual the ability to use force when necessary. Therefore, guns represent a distribution of power away from the current power centers of the nation: political leaders, the wealthy, and social or cultural leaders. That is why political and cultural forces would like to do away with gun rights.

All the rights of the Bill of Rights are individual rights. The primary purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect individual citizens against an excessive or unfair exercise of power by the government. So the Constitution grants powers to the government, and then the Bill of Rights protects individual citizens and groups of citizens from the abuse of power by the government. Therefore, the second amendment cannot be solely concerned with formal government-sponsored militia. The second amendment is necessarily and primarily about the rights of individual citizens to keep and bear arms — both for personal self-defense and also in case the government abuses its power.

– Thoreau

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