The latest issue of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis features Cal State-San Bernardino political science professor Edward J. Erler‘s analysis of the current national debate over gun rights. Erler delves into some of the fundamental differences of opinion among supporters and opponents of gun control.
The principal constitutional debate leading up to the Heller decision was about whether the right to “keep and bear arms” was an individual right or a collective right conditioned upon service in the militia. As a general matter, of course, the idea of collective rights was unknown to the Framers of the Constitution—and this consideration alone should have been decisive. We have James Madison’s own testimony that the provisions of the Bill of Rights “relate [first] . . . to private rights.”
The notion of collective rights is wholly the invention of the Progressive founders of the administrative state, who were engaged in a self-conscious effort to supplant the principles of limited government embodied in the Constitution. For these Progressives, what Madison and other Founders called the “rights of human nature” were merely a delusion characteristic of the 18th century. Science, they held, has proven that there is no permanent human nature—that there are only evolving social conditions. As a result, they regarded what the Founders called the “rights of human nature” as an enemy of collective welfare, which should always take precedence over the rights of individuals. For Progressives then and now, the welfare of the people—not liberty—is the primary object of government, and government should always be in the hands of experts. This is the real origin of today’s gun control hysteria—the idea that professional police forces and the military have rendered the armed citizen superfluous; that no individual should be responsible for the defense of himself and his family, but should leave it to the experts. The idea of individual responsibilities, along with that of individual rights, is in fact incompatible with the Progressive vision of the common welfare.
This way of thinking was wholly alien to America’s founding generation, for whom government existed for the purpose of securing individual rights. And it was always understood that a necessary component of every such right was a correspondent responsibility. Madison frequently stated that all “just and free government” is derived from social compact—the idea embodied in the Declaration of Independence, which notes that the “just powers” of government are derived “from the consent of the governed.” Social compact, wrote Madison, “contemplates a certain number of individuals as meeting and agreeing to form one political society, in order that the rights, the safety, and the interests of each may be under the safeguard of the whole.” The rights to be protected by the political society are not created by government—they exist by nature—although governments are necessary to secure them. Thus political society exists to secure the equal protection of the equal rights of all who consent to be governed. This is the original understanding of what we know today as “equal protection of the laws”—the equal protection of equal rights.