Guns and Choices
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.