Is There a 'Positive Right' to Own Firearms?
Emboldened by Obama's easy re-election despite a radical first term, liberals are finally removing the mask of moderation and talking openly about abandoning the Constitution altogether -- or, at a minimum, amending it to include what they call positive rights. But the left's attacks on firearm ownership alongside their talk of positive rights could raise questions that the left cannot afford to answer, if conservatives are willing to ask.
Obama and others on the far left have long claimed that our Constitution is inadequate because of its reliance on negative rights, or restraints on what government can do to us. Feeling the political wind at their backs, the left is now in a position to radically reframe the role of government as doing things for us, such as providing our health care and guaranteeing a minimum national income.
If conservatives don't have enough material for their political nightmares these days, they can always imagine the upcoming polls in which voters will be asked if they prefer the new "positive rights" being offered by the Democrats or the old-fashioned "negative rights" defended by the Republicans. Unless conservatives can change the terms of the debate, the left will have succeeded once again in claiming the political high ground and maneuvering us into a defensive position.
An educated and informed electorate -- the kind that our Founders insisted was necessary to preserve and protect our Constitution -- would quickly spot the dangerous political reef just beyond the fog of sweet rhetoric about positive rights. First, from the standpoint of practical politics, a government powerful enough to do things for us is also powerful enough to do things to us. Secondly, from a moral perspective, the notion of positive rights would allow one citizen to lay claim to the fruits of another citizen's labor in providing for those rights.
But millions of voters have learned what little they know about the role of government from educational and news institutions run by and for the Democrats. Without a solid grounding in the wisdom on which our Constitution rests, the idea of government as provider will not sound particularly dangerous or extreme to much of the electorate. And to the growing number of voters who have come to see government as a kind of vending machine, anyone who criticizes the idea of positive rights runs the risk of looking like the guy who puts the "out of order" sign on the vending machine.
Conservatives are going to have to find creative ways to take the wind out of the left's sails on this issue, and a good starting point is to expose the contradiction between the left's sweet rhetoric about positive rights and the reality of their current attack on the Second Amendment. If citizens have a positive right to government-provided health care, free contraceptives, and a guaranteed income, do we not also have a positive right to self-defense?
Let's make the question more real and less theoretical. Does a woman driving home from work late at night have a positive right to carry a concealed handgun in order to defend herself against potential carjackers and rapists? The negative language of the current Second Amendment says that government shall not infringe upon her right to purchase and carry a firearm, if she chooses to do so. But what if the woman cannot afford a firearm, or what if she chooses to spend her resources on other priorities? Would a positive right obligate the government to provide her with a free firearm to carry next to her free contraceptives and her national health care card?
Absurd as these questions may sound at first, it would be worth the price of admission to hear liberals forced to take the position that one citizen should not be obligated to buy something against his will for another citizen. Besides, the questions above are simply logical extensions of the left's implied position that, if something is good, government should ensure that we have it.
How could liberals handle a question about a positive right to self-defense? They could claim that there is no such right, in which case they would have to explain why they omit this one right amidst their long list of new ones. Or they can argue that there is such a right, but that government should not fund it. If they go that route, they admit that there are limits to the role of government as guarantor of all things good, and the focus of the debate shifts to defining those limits.
By raising the question of a positive right to self-defense, conservatives could expose the real agenda behind the sweet rhetoric of positive rights, and that agenda is power. A government with the power to provide health care can also deny it to those who are inconvenient to that government's interests. A government that guarantees a national income can make that income conditional upon doing the bidding of that government. And a government that can take away the firearms of law-abiding citizens can treat those citizens as subjects.
Dr. Tim Daughtry is co-author of Waking the Sleeping Giant: How Mainstream Americans Can Beat Liberals at Their Own Game.