The Natural Right of Self-Preservation and the Second Amendment

To what extent does man have a natural or God-given right to self-preservation and protection of his property?  This question has been bandied about for thousands of years, and that issue, not guns (which are an instrument of self-preservation), is at the heart of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The United States is the only nation in the annals of mankind to be established on the basis of a political and social philosophy centered on natural, or God-given, rights.  Among these are self-preservation and property.  Property rights are the bedrock of the American political system; without that foundation, there is no freedom.  The Founders held that property rights encompass not just physical property, but also one's life, labor, speech, and livelihood, as individuals own their own lives; therefore, they must own the products of those lives, which can be traded in free exchange with others.  Further, as there is a natural right of self-preservation, man has the right and duty to defend himself against transgressors, including the state, who would deny, abrogate, or unlawfully seize his property.

However, over the past 150 years, the statists, including the current iteration of the American left, have marched in lockstep to what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels espoused in their Communist Manifesto: "The Theory of Communism may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property."  They contended that one's labor or livelihood (and by extension, one's life) is not private property and is thus subordinate to the common good as determined by the state.  Therefore, the individual has no God-given and unconstrained right of self-defense, as that right can be utilized to counter or oppose the common good.

Opposing views regarding the purpose of the state and individual property rights (including self-preservation) have been bandied about for 2,500 years.  The Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 B.C.) called for a communist social order in which property is held in common (the state) and that human nature can and should be molded and transformed to benefit the state.  Thus, an individual, being subservient to the state, cannot exercise any form of self-preservation except that acceptable to the state.

On the other hand, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued that if property is held in common and man cannot, therefore, exercise his right of self-preservation, then there exists the potential for animosity and anger; further, man possess a human nature that cannot be molded or transformed to some ideal of a perfect state.  The laws of nature and the rule of law demand that government should govern for the good of the people, not for the good of those in power.  

While the conflict between communism and democracy has been the centerpiece of the history of the past 100 years, the underlying philosophical battle over the role of property rights and self-preservation was waged in 17th-century Britain between Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704).  

Thomas Hobbes published his seminal work Leviathan in 1651.  In it, he described man's essential nature as one of aggression, avarice, destruction, and near constant war.  An all-powerful sovereign (or government) is paramount in order to protect against and repel this base human nature.  Hobbes believed that this sovereign would by necessity have nearly limitless power to seize or restrict any and all property (including one's speech, labor, and livelihood) for the good of society.  He acknowledged the right of self-defense, but he thought there can be no agreement on what constituted legitimate self-defense, so the state and the rule of law must determine what constitutes legitimate self-defense.

John Locke published his Second Treatise of Government in 1690.  In contrast to Hobbes, Locke, regarding an individual's natural right to his property which encompasses one's life, labor, and speech, wrote:

[T]hough the things of nature are given in common, yet man, by being master of himself and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it, had still in himself the great foundation of property; and that which made up the great part of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being ... was perfectly his own and did not belong in common to others.    

Therefore, on the issue of the natural right of self-preservation, Locke wrote that men are intended to live as freely as possible without interference from anyone or anything else.  There is a right of self-preservation, which obligates man to defend himself from those, including the government, who seek to infringe upon his natural liberties.

[H]e who makes an attempt to enslave me thereby puts himself into a state of war with me.  He that in the state of Nature would take away the freedom that belongs to any one in that state must necessarily be supposed to have a design to take away everything else, that freedom [Self-Preservation] being the foundation of all the rest; as he that in the state of society would take away the freedom belonging to those of that society or commonwealth must be supposed to design to take away from them everything else, and so be looked on as in a state of war.  [Emphasis added.]

The Founders were greatly influenced by the writings of Aristotle and Locke among others.  In drafting the Constitution, they assumed that the recognition of the God-given right of self-preservation is self-evident and not in need of enumeration – as the nation's current favorite founder, Alexander Hamilton wrote, in Federalist 28 (published six months before the introduction of the Bill of Rights) (emphasis added):

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government[.]

However, the men who proposed the Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution were insistent that this inalienable right of the individual be recognized in clear and unambiguous language: "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."   Thus, the Founders recognized that the natural right of self-preservation includes the possession and use of virtually any implement of self-defense.

The Founders were steeped in the history of mankind and recognized that among the first steps taken by all despotic governments throughout the ages was the usurpation by the state of the natural right of self-preservation.  This was accomplished first and foremost by the seizure and outlawing of any weapons the citizenry might be able to use for that purpose – a process often, and with disastrous results, repeated throughout the twentieth century in nations such as Russia, Germany, Italy, China, and Cambodia, among many others.

In the 2,500 years since Plato and Aristotle first debated the nature of rights and man, there has been a clear dichotomy on the question of self-preservation.  Those who deem the state paramount and, thus, the source of the rights of man believe that any right of self-preservation can and must be limited as the state sees fit.  On the other hand, those who deem certain rights, including self-preservation, natural or God-given believe that the state not only cannot limit or deny this right, but must guarantee it.  There is no middle ground.

This is the tension now afoot in the United States as the American left, the heirs to the legacy of Plato, Hobbes, and Marx, are determined to eviscerate the right of self-preservation.  It is not a coincidence that over the past 50 years, the left is the source of all gun legislation, regulation, and furor – using handy catchphrases such as "commonsense gun control," all the while denying their ultimate objective.

The Founders' recognition of the God-given right of self-preservation and the unambiguous language of the Second Amendment require that any limitation on the right to bear arms be done by the constitutional amendment process – not the Courts or Congress or the president, either collectively or as separate branches of government.  That, or this nation is no more than a façade of the constitutional republic founded on the basis that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" and "[t]hat to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men[.]"

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