Snakes and rats beware! The Arizona state Legislature just voted to pass an amendment to state law making it legal to discharge firearms within city limits, and, by the wording of the bill, it is for specified sized pellets described as rat shot or snake shot. Though the language of the measure, and the messaging surrounding it, is somewhat humorous, the core issue it addresses is at the heart of American conceptions of liberty.
House Bill 2022 is but a microcosm of the long-running firearm debate between gun-control advocates and gun-rights activists. This dispute centers around the right to bear arms and the responsibility of the government to provide for the security of its citizens. On the one hand, advocates of the bill say it’s all about extending gun rights. Critics immediately cite safety concerns related to firing a weapon within population centers.
It is an argument older than this nation, but one which the Founders took a decided position on. For them, government was given limited power to secure rights, not trample freedom. The American idea of the social contract between individuals and government, encapsulated in the phrase “we the people,” posits that liberty permits power, not the reverse.
In the American conception, government cannot grant rights. Its proper role is to ensure them. Over time government has attempted to garner more authority for itself regarding the safety of its citizens. This has come at the expense of the right to keep and bear arms. From the National Firearms Act of 1934, to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, restrictions have been placed on the just prerogative detailed in the 2nd Amendment, all in the name of public safety.
Even so called conservative jurists have increasingly argued that the right to keep and bear arms is not unlimited, though this was certainly not true in the early days of this republic. The late Antonin Scalia, in District of Columbia v. Heller, stated that the Second Amendment “is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
A majority of Americans would probably agree with this sentiment in some measure.
However, it is not in keeping with the American ideal. Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” A truly free people is a self-governed people, who exercise restraint and take responsibility for their actions.
We must remember that in America, “we the people” consent to a limited government in order to preserve the freedom to pursue happiness, be different, and to be left alone. None of these can exist if we are subservient to the government in the name of safety or anything else. This is not anarchy, because the government is to act to protect those same rights from being taken from someone else by another.
If for example, in the act of discharging a weapon recklessly someone is injured or has their life snuffed out, then the government is to provide punishment for the offender. They are not to pre-empt bad things from happening by limiting rights in the name of security. Liberty is a balancing act that requires eternal vigilance. Attaching more strings to make one feel more secure actually limits the expression of freedom.
There are those who will cast ridicule and dispersions at the authors of this bill, and anyone who supports it.
They should consider, that in the continuing clash between freedom and safety, it is the free choice of each person to resolve that conflict for himself.
This bill is a nod in that direction.
Joseph Morgan, a native Tucsonan, received a master’s degree in U.S. history from the University of Arizona. His ideological emphasis, in which he believes everyone can find common ground, is natural-rights philosophy.