Friday, January 25, 2013

Gun Culture and Rights Culture

Greg Weiner, a political science professor at Assumption College and author of Madison's Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics, believes that the only way to curb gun violence is to curb the "rights culture" that defines American public life.  He argues that our obsession with rights "isolates the individual from considerations of the common good decided upon by deliberate majorities."

Here is a taste of his piece at The Front Porch Republic:

Advocates of gun control, most of them on the political left, are justifiably pointing to the excesses of rights talk today.  But Newtown provides an opportunity for bipartisan reflection on the false absolutism and hyper-individualism of the rights culture. In this matter, liberals are not innocent.  It is the left that, for near to a century, pioneered the tactic of pressing claims of rights—understood as exemptions for the individual from the authority of the community—in the courts, short-circuiting the slow but sure political processes that require engagement with one’s neighbors and consideration of their views.  “We talk a lot around here about voting on rights,” said Rachel Maddow on an MSNBC broadcast.  “Basically, rights are rights because you are born to them; you don’t vote on rights.”

But there is a right to own guns, and it is difficult to see how it can be limited without voting on it.  The problem with the absolutist line is that it assumes politics has no role to play in determining what all rights have: namely, boundaries.  The framers of the Constitution recognized only one absolute right: the sacred liberty of conscience, and that only because it resided in an internal realm and was therefore literally impossible to regulate.  All other rights—from speech to guns—had public repercussions and were consequently subject to public limitation.

Elsewhere in the piece, Wiener mentions abortion rights:

Thus when the citizens of the District of Columbia decided their city would be safer if it banned handguns, the Supreme Court—in the case of D.C. v. Heller—told them they could not.  One need not resolve the wisdom of such a policy to see the revolution worked by the judiciary trumping the deliberate sense of a community in resolving the boundaries of rights. The resort to the courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act resulted from the same mentality.

But so does the use of the judiciary to overturn majorities on abortion or any number of other priorities prized by the left. That is not by any means to equate those issues with what happened in Newtown.  It is, however, to say there is an inescapable linkage in the absolutism surrounding rights that characterizes both sides.

Each claims its priorities are exempt from the judgment of the community.  Each is quicker to turn to the courts than to democratic persuasion.  Each claims its rights are absolute, without boundary, isolated from regulation, indifferent to the opinions of one’s neighbors.  Each amounts to a claim to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants, regardless of what others want.  And each is part of a culture of rights that, every bit as much as a culture of guns, must change if another Newtown is to be deterred.

So here is the question I am grappling with after reading this piece: What is the difference between the conservative defense of the right to own any kind of gun and the liberal defense of a woman's right to an abortion? Guns have the potential to end lives.  Abortion does end lives.