Grassroots Commentary

Guns and Choices

By Cameron S. Schaeffer · Feb. 13, 2013

I was in surgery when the first Columbine victims arrived in our emergency room. As I was working to improve one child's life, my friends were downstairs trying to save others – one cracking a chest and another tending a girl whose breast had been partially blown off by a shotgun. Trust me; I get it.

Set aside that our media have made us numb to violence and our children more aggressive. Set aside that the data overwhelmingly show gun control laws are unhelpful and often counterproductive. Set aside that we have systemically destroyed inpatient psychiatric care in the name of civil rights and saving money. Trashing our individual constitutional rights is not the answer to mass shootings.

The First Amendment was not written for video games like Call of Duty, the Second Amendment was not written for squirrel hunting, and the Fifth Amendment was not written to coddle violent schizophrenics. These rights were written to prevent tyranny. They were written to say to the state: “I am going to say what I want, and you can't shut me up or lock me up!”

Some of us do still “bitterly cling” to our first two Amendments, and for good reason. Throughout history, various forms of state power have slaughtered millions of men and women who could neither speak freely nor defend themselves. The worst examples occurred in the last century.

Conduct is determined largely by two things – law and conscience. Law is force on conduct. Laws tell us what we cannot do, like kill other people. The freedom to choose right and wrong is constrained by laws. The state makes the decision for you; you do not have to wrestle with a choice or your conscience.

To learn to do the right thing, people must have choices, face temptations, act, and make mistakes. In short, they must be free. We constantly struggle to decide how much of our freedom we are willing to sacrifice to the force of law to be secure. The Constitution is a framework that sets limits on law. We once tried amending it to constrain our choices, but we later decided that a man should be free to destroy himself and those around him with alcohol.

Most human conduct is determined not by law but by conscience. We want our consciences to tell us to try to do the right thing. Evil may be the silence of conscience. Sometimes we do the wrong thing, and the process by which we learn to do the right thing, that is to mature, is the subject of morality.

Right and wrong choices do exist. In this country, good choices are being increasingly undermined by laws and a look-at-me narcissism that runs from Facebook through Reality TV to its worst manifestation, mass shootings. How then do we learn individually and collectively to do the right thing?

We must try to keep the conduct of our basic rights within the sphere of conscience, not law. Passing more laws to restrict our freedom of choices will only weaken our consciences and our chances of living moral lives. By chipping away at our rights and choices, law by law, Big Gulp by AR-15, the state is denying us the opportunity to make mistakes and to learn how to do the right thing, to become moral creatures. A society so denied becomes one obsessed not with doing the right thing, but with figuring out how to break the law.

The inevitable result of violent misconduct is howling for the state to immediately pass more laws that restrain individual freedom to act, the diffusion of power away from the individual and to the state, and the increased risk that the state will become tyrannical and precipitate violence. When we ask our elected representatives to restrict our rights and our freedom of conduct, we are asking them to diminish our chances of becoming good and happy citizens.

There once was a king who had only two laws – “Do as you please, and harm no one.” This is the simplest expression of liberty and of good governance. It is also the only regime under which citizens can fully learn the difference between right and wrong.

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10 Comments

JtC in TX said:

"our media have made us numb to violence and our children more aggressive."

The media can't be blamed. Absentee parents and parents with the "I don't want to make my child do anything he/she doesn't want to do" parenting style are responsible.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Diane in Tx said:

Huh, Our government has turned into a "helicopter parent", I guess I already knew it, but I didn't see it until I read your column... Thanks, Doc.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 11:09 AM

Brian in Newport News said:

"We must try to keep the conduct of our basic rights within the sphere of conscience, not law. Passing more laws to restrict our freedom of choices will only weaken our consciences and our chances of living moral lives."

Excellent! The premise if this claim is the old adage, "If you don't use it, you lose it." By passing laws that allow us to not have to exercise conscience, we slowly lose the ability to discern right from wrong increasing the possibility of a wrong choice in the future.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 11:53 AM

HardThought in Kansas said:

No amount of laws will stop criminals from getting their weapons of choice, be it guns, explosives, knives, poison, fire accelerants or whatever.

All that extra, constrictive laws do is punish law abiding people with those constraints.

Why punish law abiding citizens for the actions of criminals? Enforce the laws already on the books.

The Second Amendment is about liberty, not hunting.

Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 2:29 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

The more laws passed by the evil marxists in their zeal to control, the more freedom is reduced. At what point will we have had enough? Will we let them dictate how hot or cold to set the thermostadt? Will we let them control our calories and let them package our food for us? Will we let them disarm for our own good? Will we allow them to indoctrinate the children in a monopoly of government education? Will we allow them to take over all business and dictate production? Will we allow them to tranform America into a mirror image of Cuba? They will continue to erode freedom until their treason is stopped. The party of Marx, the Democrat Party of America, supported by the Communist Party of America, is a group of useful idiots and Traitors. When will they go Too Far for their evil treason to be recognized?

Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 10:48 AM

margaret in los angeles said:

"Do as you please, and harm no one" happens to be the Wiccan Rede, or wiccan golden rule. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiccan_Rede.

Just to be clear that this is not a Judeo-Christian concept.

Like the variant in scripture, "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes," this sounds good, but leads to social, political, and moral disaster.

The rub is that the human heart is notoriously self interested and equivocating. That is why "the way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise" (Proverbs 12:15).

No one can predict the scope of harm that our moral improvisations may have on the lives of others. It is impossible claim that no one will be the worse off (including ourselves) when we do as we please.

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 11:39 AM

George in Bellingham, WA said:

Well said! Under Communist rule, Soviet Russians became adept at low-level criminal behavior, and the Russian Mafia developed into, perhaps, the most sophisticated organized criminal enterprise ever seen--and now runs Russia. They had to engage in criminality in order to survive. "A society so denied becomes one obsessed not with doing the right thing, but with figuring out how to break the law." While I understood this, I never thought of it before in these terms. This is a brilliant piece. Thanks.

As for whether or not violent media (games, movies, etc.) increase violent behavior in society, everywhere TV has been introduced has seen an increase in violent behavior among the young.

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 1:58 PM

Ann Bronson in California said:

theking who had two laws--do as you please and harm no one is not the simplest expression of liberty and of good governance. It sounds more like "each man does what is right in his own eyes and the end thereof leads to death. Proverbs 14:12

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 2:43 PM

JoeF in Arlington, TX said:

Dr. Schaeffer,
Thanks for your insightful, reasoned, principled commentary. Most of the readers' comments disappoint, are off target and frustrate potential for much unity on the essential principles you discuss.
Ideologues from Marxism to Conservative Christians to Muslims would control man's laws, conscience and choices. But that's not found in Christ's teaching. The God of the Bible does not impose morality. But the state will indeed, when controlled by the religious or the God-less under the tyranny of the ignorant and disengaged. Christ reportedly taught to love God above all and your neighbor as yourself, which would do no harm. There is no morality without man's freedom to choose it, and that freedom can be tragically costly to innocents. By these great errors, individuals and nations must learn what kind each chooses to be, and learn to make moral choices. I accept that risk, its consequences, and the responsibility to actively engage others in making choices which do nor harm.

Monday, February 18, 2013 at 2:51 PM