Every so often, there is a heinous act of evil in our world, and we all scramble to find the reason behind it, as though our divisive arguments will grant us the psychic power to delve into the mind of the perpetrator. Unless the a-hole in question leaves us a detailed layout of his plan and a carefully worded essay on his motivations, we will never know. And even if those writings existed, we still may not have the full picture.
Those with religious backgrounds tend to struggle less with the question of why someone would perpetrate evil, especially those of a Judeo-Christian background. For them, the nature of man isn’t some mystery to explore; it is a sick morass of selfishness and rebellion. Evil is all that man is capable of when left to his own accord. This is spelled out more specifically in the Calvinist concept known as “Total Depravity.”
The short version is simple. In his fallen state, man is in complete rebellion against God, and apart from God’s grace, man rejects His authority. In the Christian view, objective Good is that which God called Good, and that which is in accordance with God’s will and desire. God tells man not to murder each other, so not murdering each other is Good. Without God’s Grace, the concept of total depravity states, man is wholly incapable of doing Good. To do evil is fallen man’s natural preference.
There are others in these discussions who don’t worry too much about the source of evil, but rather want to skip that part and get right to figuring out how to do away with it. Of course, if we don’t understand where evil comes from, we can’t really do a great job concocting a plan to banish it. And, if the Calvinist’s are right, unless we are under God’s Grace, we can’t even begin to abolish evil. If we are under God’s Grace, none of the works of man can unravel the problem, and ultimately, we must submit completely to God’s authority.
Do you know how many arguments I see on social media that insist upon submission to God as the sole means to eradicate the evil acts of men?
None. Memes, yes. Reasoned arguments, no.
Not counting the handful of theologians who pop up in my feeds, I see lots and lots of people ranting or raving about gun rights and gun control and gun bans and confiscations and bump stocks and fully-automatic this and hunting that and I-don’t-see-a-need and natural rights and “mah rahts” and a thousand other bits and baubles of sophistry that rest on flimsy Pathos. And to be clear, these emotional arguments are scattered equally across “both sides” of the “debate.”
One of the other major problems I see in these discussions is the assumption of motive. When someone arguing for stricter regulations on firearms says, “Well, what about the 59 people who died? What do you think they’d want,” there is actually no argument being made. There are two implicit assumptions being asserted.
The first is that every person who died as a result of that particular evil would agree with stricter regulation. Clearly there is no way to know what a dead person believed or currently believes in their post-vitae state. Short of which universally verifiable psychometry, we can’t know. Just as we can’t know about the plans and motivations of the a-hole who killed them, we can’t know the hearts and minds of those who have died.
The other implicit assumption made is that the other person in the discussion doesn’t care about what the dead would have wanted. More emotionally dangerous is the embedded insinuation that the other person doesn’t care about other people, period. It’s stupid and silly, and those assumptions stop real conversation dead in its tracks. Let’s pack it up and head home, because ain’t no more work getting done today.
But the same insinuations are made from the other side, too. The pro-2A guy who rants “shall not be infringed,” thinking it’s an argument in and of itself is voicing the assumption that the regulation advocate doesn’t care about rights. Further, the pro-2A guy may think of himself as gallantly standing up for the rights of the victims, which again, may or may not be their preferred stance.
Everyone wants the moral high ground, and we’re willing to assume the worst about each other in order to pretend we’re standing on it. But here’s the big problem with most of these rants-as-arguments: The major points of the actual discussion are being completely ignored.
The other day, I heard a clip of Mollie Hemingway talking about this very thing on the Special Report with Brett Baier. (Don’t get lost in the weeds, I’m not going partisan on you, now.) In the midst of the standard “panel discussion,” she dropped some wisdom that everybody else ignored, and I’ve only heard it highlighted by one other source. She said that when we’re having these discussions about the regulation of firearms, that’s not what we’re really talking about.
Again, no one picked up on it. No one responded to it. The only thing actually worth talking about and it just whipped over everyone’s heads. They all started talking about bump-stocks and political leverage and the usual hogwash that gets us nowhere, because dealing with party lines is easier than trying to wrestle with the very nature of evil and the impotence of man—even man via government—to do anything about it.
But Mollie nailed it. Can a powerful enough government stop evil?
James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and one of the minds behind the writing of the Constitution, knew that governments were nothing more than a magnifying glass for the evils of mankind. In the Federalist Papers #51 he asked, “[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” He knew that any government created by men would contain all of the problems of man, including the insurmountable problem of evil.
“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary,” he wrote. But of course men are not angels, and even if a morally perfect man held the reins of the government, he must surely die. And since there has always been an extreme shortage of perfect men, the next guy in charge would need to be put into check. Hence the divided nature of our government. It is designed so that the government has the power to check the government, and that “We the People” have the power to check the people who check the government.
When the Founding Fathers were discussing the Constitution, there was a big debate about how the thing should be set up. One of our former presidents complained that the Constitution was a “list of negative liberties”—a list of things the government can’t do—but that there was no list of what the government should do. This assertion was demonstrably false, as it was in direct contrast to what the Founders actually put together.
The Constitution was constructed as a finite list of the government’s authority. If a power isn’t specifically granted to the government in the Constitution, the government does not have that power. Which is why the Bill of Rights was such a hotly contested subject. Some states refused to ratify the Constitution without a bill of rights being attached, while others refused to ratify the Constitution if a bill of rights was attached. This set up the public debates (via the press) between Publius and Brutus. These were the names taken by the Federalists (who saw the Bill of Rights as unfavorable) and the Nationalists, or Anti-Federalists (who saw the Bill of Rights as necessary).
In the Federalist Papers #84, Alexander Hamilton takes to addressing the subject of the Bill of Rights directly. He states that while there are certain protections spelled out within the Constitution (e.g., writ of habeas corpus, ex post facto laws, and titles of nobility), it was only done to address the most egregious and common instances of tyranny. Bills of rights were historically, he argued, stipulations between a king and his subjects, which were merely a “reservation of rights not surrendered” to the crown. In other words, they were the exact opposite of what the Constitution was attempting to do.
“Here, in strictness,” Hamilton wrote, “the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations.” By placing in the text of the Constitution that which might be viewed as a reservation of rights, the people would be exposed to an unnecessary danger; the Bill of Rights would give footing to debate where no footing could be found elsewhere.
Hamilton argued, “[The Bill of Rights] would contain various exceptions to powers NOT GRANTED; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted” [emphasis mine]. To illustrate his point, he continued, “Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”
Nowhere in the Constitution, he says, is the government granted authority over the press, so why does it need to be stated that the government has no authority over the press? What more, by including such a reserved right, the discussion is invited due to the inaccuracy of language. “What,” he asks, “is the liberty of the press?” And who gets to define those words?
Well, in the end, we know that the Bill of Rights was added to the body of the Constitution, giving us the first ten amendments. One of the compromises agreed to was that of the ninth amendment. The full text of which reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” While Hamilton and Madison still remained wary of the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution was ratified and our current government was installed.
It was the assumption of the Founders that men were endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights. That among those Rights were Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If all mankind has the Right to Life, but not the Right to defend it, then he has been granted no Right at all. If the argument is to be made that the government has the authority to determine which implements and methods a man can use in the defense of his own Life and the Lives of his family members, then the authority must be spelled out explicitly in the Constitution. Parsing the second amendment cannot be the basis for the argument, as the ninth amendment tells us that just because it isn’t in the second amendment doesn’t mean the Right has been restricted from the People.
Heck, rip out the second amendment entirely if you want, and you’ve still got to make the same argument. (In fact, please, rip out the second amendment entirely.)
It doesn’t matter what we might feel about the subject. It doesn’t matter what our opinions are. If we want to limit a Right of the People by way of government mandate, we must first identify the authority of the government to limit that Right within the Constitution. If we are unable to do so, but think the government ought to have the authority, that’s where the amendment process comes in.
All these feels. All these emotions. All these assumptions. None of them matter. Your empathy for the victims doesn’t matter. That’s not where your argument lies. Your second amendment doesn’t matter. That’s not where your argument lies.
That conversation, as important as it might be, isn’t even the most important conversation to be had if you don’t first address the nature of evil and its existence in the hearts of men. And if you don’t believe in a Creator, then you’ve got to establish the concept of a Right o begin with. Where does it come from? Who decides what is and isn’t a Right? Can a Right change? Can it cease to be a Right? Can new Rights come into existence?
And what, precisely, is the liberty of the press?
No, to be sure, when we discuss assault weapons, bump stocks, ammunition types, TSA practices, phone taps, stop-and-frisk policies, drug regulations, the war on terror, and countless other subjects, we aren’t talking about what we say we’re talking about. We’re talking about evil. We’re talking about if the government can stop evil. And how big the government needs to be in order to do so.