Tensions Between Freedoms

America is the “Land of Liberty,” and we hear “freedom” invoked for nearly every political position or campaign imaginable. But there are three “freedoms” (or rights, if you prefer) discussed in our founding documents that exist in inherent tension with each other. These are: the freedom from fear of one’s safety (or the “right to life”), freedom of expression (or the “right to think/speak unpopular things”) and freedom of armament (or the “right to bear arms”). The Declaration of Independence proclaims it a “self-evident truth” that “all men… are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” While our definitions of “the pursuit of Happiness” may differ, and the “right to life” inarguably includes the right not to be murdered. Given the existence of evil and homicidal intentions in the world, how are we to protect this right? If we wanted to protect it absolutely, to reduce the risk of murders as close to zero as possible, one option would be mass surveillance. We could imagine a surveillance state so thorough that all (or nearly all) prospective murderers could be identified; artificial intelligence coupled with rigorous screening of communications to friends, family, posts on the internet that correlated with a propensity to commit violence or indicated violent intent could all be combed to pre-emptively intervene with “dangerous people.” But this could fall afoul of First Amendment protections of freedom of speech (and the principle of punishment for actions, not ideas). Our alternative is some form of restrictions on the freedom of armament (Second Amendment right to bear arms. The text of the Second Amendment is broad and ambiguous; the extreme position would interpret even the most basic requirements of licensure as an “infringement” on the right. This fails the sanity test. Suppose that the U.S. were an archipelago and the text read “A well-connected populace, being essential for a unified state, the right of the people to operate airplanes shall not be infringed.” No one would expect that anyone who could afford to would be permitted to purchase a 747. We would reasonably assume that there any airplane requires licensure, and the largest/most complex planes would be off-limits to private citizens.

Another alternative would be to require firearms insurance. We require drivers to maintain auto insurance in the event that they have an accident, and I see no reason not to do the same for weaponry; at a minimum, this would ensure that families of victims in even the most egregious occurrences have some recourse. The economist in me hates that my life insurance premiums are more expensive because someone else has decided to own a firearm with a high-capacity magazine and keep it in an unlocked garage somewhere right next to boxes of ammunition. If insurance were obligatory, we would at least expect to see some market incentives develop: insurers might give discounts to people who purchased gun locks, passed biannual re-qualification tests, or demonstrated other responsible behaviors. The insurance on a collector’s flintlock would likely be a fraction of that on a semi-automatic, and it would all happen with a single regulation that needn’t be anchored to current technology; the insurers would keep up-to-date (or as much so as is possible) due to their own financial incentives. Strict liability on gun manufacturers could accomplish the same thing, but if the claim is that the problem isn’t the tool but the user, then fine- companies already charge different rates for a 19-year-old driving a bright red Viper and a 50-year-old driving a white CR-V.

I don’t have a perfect solution to deaths by firearm in this country; no one does, and the implementation of any action will be challenging, given the hundreds of millions of guns already in private hands. But the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good, and even if we aren’t able to stop all deaths, if we truly believe in the sanctity of life, we must be willing to bear some cost, some inconvenience, some modest restriction on our freedom of armament in order to increase others’ ability to live free from fear.

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