Freedom, Security and Gun Laws

Much ado has been made about freedom in the past 70 years since the world emerged from the tragic conflagration of World War II. The relations between countries, dictated by the New World Order that emerged then, still reigns today, reflected and observed in multifaceted international issues, through massive financial crises and in the grating conservatism of international institutions, which have acted more as guarantors of Western hegemony than as impartial custodians of the international interest. The 'Freedoms' we are fed and consequently influenced to praise are derived from Western, or more specifically American, values. Due to the relentlessly pervasive iterations of the Western way of life portrayed on every media platform imaginable, every country must be willing to cede at least some cultural or spiritual authority to the West, no matter how authoritarian. This is inevitable given geopolitical realities, but more importantly also because of its almost universal resonance with the individual. For Western Freedoms are individualistic. As an ideal, it is applicable to any human, regardless of creed, ethnicity or community. Yet the subject on Freedoms is varied: they are a plethora, encompassing anything from freedom of expression to freedom of the press. Furthermore, any discussion of freedom cannot be complete without mention of the security of persons, for what freedom can a person be entitled to if he cannot even guarantee his own safety long enough to exercise his rights to those freedoms? The issue of freedom - of fundamental (Americans like to use the word ‘inalienable’) rights of persons to make certain decisions for themselves without infringement by a third party - has come to a head most recently in the debate on regulatory gun laws and abortion rights, the latter of which saw a victory in favor of pro-abortion activists.

The conception of freedom as tied to democracy - to the enfranchisement of the masses - dates back to ancient Greece. Democracy in Athens at the time meant the right to vote for and elect leaders, but was the exclusive preserve of male citizens. Female citizens and slaves were debarred from voting. However, ‘Democracy’ had a pejorative connotation courtesy of its unflattering characterization by Plato: “Dictatorship arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” Philosophers and intellectuals have since accepted this Platonic assertion, that Democracy necessarily meant ochlocracy ('tyranny of the majority', mob-rule etc.) and that only chaos and anarchy would follow its imposition because the degenerate masses would not be educated enough to make prudent or sagacious decisions. The idea that Democracy is good in itself is relatively recent, professed by America an inalienable freedom and exported irresponsibly in recent decades to myriad parts of the world regardless of local context, to disastrous consequences. In some ways it is a fruit of the 18th and 19th century Enlightenment and its ideas of universal equal rights, the inherent worth of every human person, the right to preserve one's life and property and the triumph of reason over superstition; it was not much of a stretch to link conceptions of equality to the enfranchisement of every man and woman regardless of creed or ethnicity within a political order.

Democracy has seen massive public relations battles undertaken by political candidates, raging over ethnic, security and economic issues with demagogic fervor. Their objective is to be voted into the executive – the heart of power – ostensibly to do what they promised the people (though it very rarely works out so nicely). Yet that is not the only internecine battle waged within a Democracy; the legislature and judiciary are the subjects of much scrutiny as well, as highly divisive issues are dealt with, mostly concerning the limits of state power and the rights of the people, but not always satisfactorily.

The idea of fundamental rights as part of the freedom that the people are entitled to has been explored more recently as the right to abortion and the right to same-sex marriage, to name but two contentious issues. They concern the freedom of a woman to make decisions concerning her own body and health and the freedom to love respectively. In both cases the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has decided in favor of expanding freedoms – with regards to the latter, a Judge explains in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case that homosexual couples seek the right to marry out of an inherent respect for the institution of marriage itself, and is not in any way meant to demean it. The first case is trickier - the rights of a mother over her own body are in dispute because it might infringe upon the rights of the unborn fetus. Where does the right of a mother to decide end and where does the right of a fetus to live begin? This is a matter informed by religion, science and philosophy, where competing perspectives have led to bitter debate and divisive resolutions. The main impediment to the institution of such rights in both these cases is religion: religious sentiment criticizes (and even criminalizes) homosexuality as degenerate and motivated by unnatural sexual desire (to 'sodomize'). Extreme religious sentiment also illustrates abortion as 'baby murder'. As contemporary mindsets display a marked predilection for ‘progressiveness’, once taboo subjects have seen renewed consideration, leading in some cases to the expansion of freedoms and the changing of the status quo.

Regardless, there seems to be an underlying trend in all of these - progressiveness and freedom trumps conservatism and control. The calls for the recognition of transgender and gender fluid persons attest to this modern phenomena. Like the gay rights and black rights movement, opposition might be considered an attempt to oppress or persecute.

Yet this was not always the case. For the longest time, Man's mental horizons was monopolized by religiosity. Any challenge to God's hegemony was met with animus and violence. Conflicting accounts of religion thus generated some of the most vicious conflicts of human history, from the Crusades of the Teutonic Knights to the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Today's emphasis on progressivism, usually on the side for expanded freedoms and which has become a mainstream mindset, represents a break from the past.

The great issue at hand is however not progressivism but the manner in which it is pursued. Progressivism has lost its original corollary of 'tolerance'. Rather than tolerance, there exists a desire amongst progressives to homogenize mindsets to the belief of one monolithic truth, the truth that freedoms are an objective fact, that bigotry even in thought is unacceptable and that every person ought to accept new individual liberties unquestioningly. Taken in this way progressivism echoes communist ideology and religion in its focus on rhetoric and what is taken to be the truth as compared to dialectic, or substantiated argument in search of the truth. Freedoms are important for the emancipation of humanity from the control of governments and centralized power. It is important for leisure and entrepreneurship. Yet when it metamorphoses into just another form of control of one group over another, infringing upon others' supposed freedoms - then it is not much more than interest-based politics. If the 'Freedoms' that the United States professes dedication to from a moral high ground is to be given any credence by societies around the world, more commitment to it must be shown. By commitment is meant respect to the virtue of freedom in other countries where the United States occasionally tramples human rights. Commitment also means upholding it through reasoned discourse not only through the judiciary or the legislature, but also the executive: no thought is given to reasoned debate in the current presidential election. Empty promises, lies, tawdry insults and vapid symbolism abound, devolving the contest into a mere popularity show.

Security is a concept related to and often conflated with freedom. The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes illustrated in his magnum opus Leviathan that the state of nature is the state of war - without the centralizing authority of a state, anarchy reigns and the life of every human is 'nasty, brutish and short'. It is to escape from this unwholesome fate that the people enter into a social contract with the government or state: they agree to give up a portion of their 'natural liberty' in exchange for security and protection, for a state is essentially a monopoly on coercive force that can utilise violence or the threat of it to achieve order and stability. Here we see the relation between freedom and security. In Hobbes' 'State of Nature', there is no limit to natural liberty and thus every man may make war on every other man, stealing and pillaging as he pleases as long as he can sustain and protect himself against others. In other words, 'might makes right'. When he enters into a social contract, he gives up his right to steal from others, just as others give up their right to steal from him. It comes as no surprise why security and freedom are inextricable. In a state of anarchy, where every man is consumed in a war against each other, one must be able to live long enough and be strong enough to enjoy his freedom. By extension, one is constrained by his individual strength. The presence of a state changes that dynamic, protecting and allowing even the weakest to experience some basic freedoms.

These ideas are of crucial importance to the debate on gun laws, the current contention tearing the US legislature apart. The controversy has been magnified in recent weeks, with exposed information of funds from the NRA lobby being used to bribe senators to block gun control legislation in congress. The ongoing battle has seen a mass sit-in of Democratic congressmen and women and the shouting down of GOP Speaker of the House Paul Ryan during his speeches. Such obstreperous shows have been meant to force a vote on gun control legislation, a vote Paul Ryan has said he would not countenance. The right of American citizens to bear arms is protected by the 2nd Amendment, which states that 'the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed'. It is easy to see how any sort of gun control legislation may contravene the 2nd Amendment, a prospect looked upon with horror by gun lobbyists, who invariably tout the ‘inalienability’ of the Constitution as defense.

If we apply the idea of trading freedom for security, however, we see that those calling for tighter gun regulations have a point. In a state of nature, anyone can hurt anybody, but the existence of a state provides legitimate force to counter that possibility, albeit belatedly. The 2nd Amendment was enshrined into the Constitution on the grounds that the American people should be able to defend their individual selves against enemies who would threaten their security: it was partly a response to the British who attempted to disarm the American colonialists in the 18th century and partly a derivation from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. We see however that although contextual circumstances have changed dramatically, the 2nd Amendment is still imbued with much intrinsic significance. The pragmatic step in regulating arms, such that extremists like Omar Mateen or the various other disturbed personas that have perpetrated mass shootings would find it difficult or impossible to obtain the tools to carry out their heinous crimes, is passed up in favor of upholding the Constitution, whose relevance in this specific area is suspect. Furthermore, things are not so simple: statistics might have shown that countries which have regulated or banned guns outright have far less gun-related deaths (e.g. Australia), but there is some evidence which shows that murder rates after gun bans had been instituted actually increased, as in Ireland. (For evidence, see here) The first assumption above is also in dispute: in fact, firearms-related homicides increased in England and Wales after the firearms ban.

It is statistics like this which make it clear this is no open and shut case. It is however clear that something must be done to address the issue, or the 2nd Amendment might just end up preserving a 'state of nature' where the prospect of anarchy is always looming. The trend inferred above, where decisions are usually made in favor of freedom, might point toward the preservation of the status quo here, as long as repealing the 2nd Amendment is seen as detrimental to the freedom of the people. Yet it is a small step simply to introduce more stringent background checks and more conscientious policing of individuals' right to bear arms. The point can be put another way: the social contract can be strengthened if individuals in American society agree to give up part or all of their rights to bear arms, leaving the policing to the state. Thus, people will have more security to enjoy their other freedoms, more importantly, the freedom to live. To justify this step, in the event of a gun ban for example, policing and enforcement of security must be targeted at reducing homicides, especially firearms-related ones.

There exists a peculiar American fear of Big Brother which makes such a step seem fanciful. The 2nd Amendment was borne out of fear of British hegemony, and it is unlikely to be overturned in view of the prospects of abuse of firepower by the American government upon its people, however slim. Unlike the small, secure, cozy island nation of authoritarian Singapore, gun control means ceding individual power to government, a process perhaps normal in the orderly, hierarchical Asian city, but inimical to American conceptions of personal freedom. For them, perhaps, security costs too much freedom.





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