The ridiculous and offensive meme that’s been making its way around Facebook and Twitter for the past few days, linking the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and gun ownership today, is being grounded in the language of human rights.
One blogger immediately responded to my most recent post to reiterate the right-wing talking points about how racial equality and gun rights are the same:
Insofar as they are both expressions of fundamental human rights, yes, they are the same thing.
The civil rights leaders of the Jim-Crow-era South knew that having a gun was the only thing that would protect you from the KKK, because the local police wouldn’t. Even MLK himself had guns; one of his advisors described his home as “an arsenal”.
Gun Rights Are Civil Rights.
The amazing thing about a response like this — and there are lots of these sorts of posts all over the internet right now — is just how amazingly wrong it is, both in terms of the way we think about rights and in terms of historical accuracy.
Let’s start with human rights:
First of all, there is no human right to gun ownership. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Leaving aside the intentions of the Founders, as I’ve already written about this extensively, we can clearly see that there is a right to keep and bear arms afforded by the American Bill of Rights. But this right, like all of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, has never been understood to mean that citizens have the right to own any weapons they want or that there should be no barriers at all to gun ownership. We regulate a citizen’s ability to procure weapons today without any constitutional problem and we restrict the types of weapons that are available for sale to the public today; it would be difficult to make an argument that further regulation or restriction would somehow be ruled unconstitutional.
Further, no such right to gun ownership appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The closest we get is Article 12:
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
This language seems to refer both to governmental and private interference: The government cannot arbitrarily interfere with a citizen in these ways and, further, the UDHR notes quite clearly that the government and its laws exist to protect citizens equally against private attacks. Nowhere does the UDHR suggest that citizens have the right to arm themselves to protect themselves against criminals or that armed insurrection is the way to deal with the threat of a government that might become repressive.
If we go all the way back to John Locke’s argument about natural rights and resisting tyranny in his Second Treatise of Government, we find that in Chapters 18 and 19 he recommends a system in which the people can change their leaders with relative ease, thus allowing them to withdraw their support from a potentially repressive government and to replace it with a better one rather than resorting to rebellion and armed insurrection (which would bring with it a whole host of evils).
Now, a few words about American history:
Did Martin Luther King, Jr. own guns? You bet he did.
William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that once, during a visit to King’s parsonage, he went to sit down on an armchair in the living room and, to his surprise, almost sat on a loaded gun. Glenn Smiley, an adviser to King, described King’s home as “an arsenal.”
This was in the mid-1950s in Alabama, when King and his family were the targets of constant, credible, specific death threats; after his home was bombed, King even applied for a concealed carry permit (and was rejected).
There’s not a lot of discussion of the reason that King owned guns. Gun advocates would like us to believe that King owned them solely because he had the right to do so or because he liked having them around, not because he lived under the sort of constant threat that exists today only in the minds of wingnuts who think our tyrannical government is out to get us. What’s more, here’s the most important part of the MLK story that gun advocates aren’t quite so interested in discussing:
Eventually, King gave up any hope of armed self-defense and embraced nonviolence more completely.
So, gun advocates, if you want to emulate Dr. King, then you’d better start working to highlight for us the constant, credible, and specific threats against you that require you to own guns for your personal protection. And then, of course, I’ll remind you that you’re not really emulating Dr. King, since he later gave up on the gun and embraced non-violence. Are you ready to do that? Why not? Worried that someone is going to bomb your house or assassinate you?
Of course, I’m not actually in favor of taking all of the wingnuts’ guns away from them. As I noted above, I think the Second Amendment pretty clearly affords Americans the right to keep and bears arms and I don’t think we’ll be doing away with the Second Amendment any time soon. I am, though, in favor of further regulations and of further limiting the kinds of weapons that citizens can own. And that’s why the civil rights meme going around is so foolish: It attempts to establish some sort of right to an assault rifle based on either a human or civil right to own every possible kind of gun (which is obviously false) or to defend oneself. But even if citizens had a human right to self-defense, which they don’t, such a right wouldn’t establish the right to own an assault rifle since those are terrible weapons with which to defend oneself.