2021 Leg Session, Ari Armstrong, Civil Liberties, Right To Arms

Armstrong: Democrats’ hypocrisy on gun waiting periods

The word is that Colorado Democrats will run a bill this year to mandate a waiting period for gun purchases. If we believe that people have rights, including to the right to self-defense, then such a proposal violates rights. In other contexts, Democrats, who control the state legislature, support people’s rights, so the position of Democrats who support gun waiting periods is intellectually untenable and indeed hypocritical.

The basic premise behind gun waiting periods is that people do not have rights, or that “rights” are really just government permissions that can be redrawn or withdrawn depending on popular will. A secondary premise is that government should permit people “rights” only insofar as they serve the collective good in terms of overall utility or some such. The hope is that popular will reflects such utility calculations. (That hope is totally unfounded, but we’ll leave aside that problem.)

Alternately, maybe some Democrats think that people have some rights, such as the right to speak freely and the right to get an abortion, but not the right to defend themselves with a gun. But it’s hard to argue that any right is more fundamental or primal than the right to self-defense, an idea that goes back at least to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. The right to defend your life flows directly from the right to life itself.

Indeed, Colorado’s Bill of Rights, Article II of the state’s Constitution, asserts that people have “essential and inalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties” (Section 3). It continues, “The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property…shall be called in question” (Section 13).

As their final move, Democrats might say that making someone wait for five days (or however long) to buy a gun does not infringe the right to self-defense. That’s nonsense.

A gun obviously is an effective tool for self-defense. Heritage, for example, compiles media accounts of defensive gun uses. (Note that many cases of defensive gun uses are never reported to police or by the media.) A search for the past 90 days in Colorado brings up the following cases: “Greeley homeowner shoots alleged intruder in the leg, police say,” “Suspect shot during attempted carjacking on Christmas Eve, police say,” and a Colorado Springs homeowner shot at an armed robber, prompting him to flee.

This is the point of the discussion at which critics claim that a gun is really more dangerous to the owner, which is nonsense for reasons I discussed a few years ago. Sure, if you’re a violent criminal who regularly engages with other violent criminals, then your gun is dangerous to you and to others. Or, if you’re suicidal, you’re at some risk of shooting yourself with your gun. For peaceable, non-suicidal people—i.e., the overwhelming majority of gun owners—owning a gun for self-defense is perfectly reasonable and safety enhancing.

I know, I know: Opponents of gun ownership will then try to bury me in the “social science” of people such as David Hemenway, whose work is consistently biased against gun ownership. For example, in response to the following line—”Victims using a gun were no less likely to be injured after taking protective action than victims using other forms of protective action”—I would point out that this accounts neither for the severity of the attacks nor the characteristics of the victims. A strong young guy with a black belt in martial arts probably can defend himself more successfully in some situations than can an armed disabled grandmother.

The reason appeals to statistical studies don’t and shouldn’t move the discussion much (aside from problems with the studies) is that they ignore the fact that people have rights. Do some people criminally misuse their guns? Yes. Do some people kill themselves with their guns? Yes. Does that justify violating the right to self-defense of everyone else? No. For a good explanation of the principles at stake, see CU philosopher Michael Huemer’s paper.

If we concede that a person normally has a right to buy a gun for self-defense, then a delay constitutes a rights violation. This is true even if a person faces no specific threat. Rights delayed are rights denied. If a person has been threatened, immediate access to a defensive gun can make a huge difference. In those cases, forbidding someone to buy a gun for a set number of days constitutes a severe and potentially life-threatening violation of the person’s rights.

In other contexts Democrats recognize that people have rights and do not seek to violate people’s rights on the pretext of (short-sighted) utilitarian concerns. Consider some examples.

Democrats think (and I agree) that women have an absolute right to get an abortion, at least early in a term. Do some women get an abortion for foolish reasons? Yes. Do some abortions cut off the life of someone who might grow up to make profound improvements to the human condition? Yes. Do these facts justify restrictions on abortion such as waiting periods? No, not if you think that women have a right to get an abortion. Indeed, pro-choice Democrats routinely decry waiting periods for abortion as an infringement of rights.

Democrats might cite studies to the effect that abortions are on net good for society, but they don’t think the right to get an abortion rests on such studies. (Obviously many conservatives and Republicans think there is no right to get an abortion; my comments here pertain to the intellectual consistency of those who think there is.)

Or consider warrantless searches. Would it “save just one life” if the police could search people’s homes based merely on suspicion, without a warrant? Probably. Police often have good “instincts” about people. If someone came up with a plausible statistical study showing that warrantless searches would save lives, would Democrats then start advocating warrantless searches? No.

Finally, consider the right to freedom of speech. Would any Democrat advocate a five-day waiting period for access to certain dangerous writings? Some Democrats might, but the better ones would recognize that rights trump.

Surely after the deadly Capitol assault, inspired by specious claims of a “stolen” election as well as by QAnon conspiracy mongering, no one will try to claim that speech cannot in fact be dangerous. Even if someone published a “QAnon Manifesto,” people might be able to sue over libelous claims, but government could not shut it down (unless it explicitly advocated violence against specific targets). Or consider that the “Anarchist Cookbook” is “available instantly” through digital sales. So is the book “Better Never to Have Been,” which easily could push a suicidal person over the edge.

According to the Sun, Democratic legislator Tom “Sullivan pointed to the case of Jennifer Laber as evidence of why waiting-period bills are necessary.” That is indeed an absolutely horrible case. It is, of course, an open question whether a waiting period for a gun purchase would have made any difference. Laber shot her two young sons with her new gun. Unfortunately, young children are extremely vulnerable to parental violence. Laber also drugged her children and might otherwise have drugged them to death or killed them by any of scores of other means.

Clearly it is wrong to look only at the downside to liberty and ignore the benefits. That approach also would “justify” total abortion bans, completely unrestricted warrantless searches, censorship, and virtually any other government restriction on people’s liberties you could imagine. And a major benefit of liberty is, quite simply, that government protects rather than violates people’s rights.

Democrats are making a dangerous move here. Our rights are, in fact, interrelated and interdependent. Democrats who push through policies that violate the rights of gun buyers inevitably will find that the rights they care about also are threatened. Alternately, Democrats could act like liberals who take people’s rights and liberties seriously.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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