The right to self-defense versus the right to bear arms

The right to self-defense is a fundamental human right.

From the Catechism of Catholic Ethics, n. 228:

“The right to self-defense is based on an ordered love of self, on a choice to defend the life given to you by God against an objectively unjust attack. The person who kills in self-defense obeys the command to love God and self, and does not disobey the command to love your neighbor, since true love of neighbor is in no way contrary to justice. When your neighbor attacks you with deadly force, compelling you to choose between your life and his, you may morally choose to defend your life, because you are innocent and he is guilty. The eternal moral law always distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty, since innocence is in harmony with the moral law, and guilt is not.

“But concerning self-defense, the terms innocent and guilty have a specialized meaning. The aggressor is guilty in the immediate situation of choosing a particular objectively immoral act that threatens the defender with grave harm. But the aggressor is not being judged as to the guilt or innocence of his life or of his soul. And the person who acts in self-defense may have sinned much at other times during his life, but he is innocent in terms of the immediate situation.

“Examples: (1) Your neighbor on one side of the street is a very sinful man, who has publicly admitted to committing many mortal sins, and who openly states that he is unrepentant; he is guilty of many gravely immoral acts. But he never threatens you with any type of grave harm, and so you may not kill him. Though he is guilty of many sins and crimes, he is innocent of any grave aggression against you, and so to kill him would be to kill an innocent person. He is guilty of many things, but he is innocent of attacking you.

(2) Your neighbor on the other side of the street is a veritable living Saint; by all accounts he is full of every virtue, and no one accuses him of any offense. But one day, afflicted by a severe psychological illness, he attacks you with deadly force. You may morally kill him in self-defense (if there is no other way to save your own life), even though he is, as they say, ‘not guilty by reason of insanity.’ Your attacker is without any culpability in the sense of actual mortal sin; his soul and his life are innocent. But in the immediate situation he has chosen (in this case without free will) to assault your life with deadly force. He is committing an objective grave attack against you, though without the culpability of actual sin.

(3) A man is convicted of very serious crimes and given a life sentence; he admits to the crimes. In prison, he is attacked with deadly force by another prisoner. He may morally use deadly force to defend himself, despite his guilt in other acts in his life. This man, who is guilty of many things in his life, is innocent in the immediate situation. The act of self-defense does not judge the soul or life of the individual, but only judges the morality of the chosen act, under all three fonts.”

But how does the right to self-defense compare to the right to bear arms, or in practical terms the right to own a firearm?

The right to self-defense is a fundamental human right, possessed by all human persons, even those who, due to present circumstances, are unable to exercise that right. But in order for the right to self-defense to be not merely possessed in theory, but able to be exercised in a practical situation, the individual human person needs a means to self-defense. If human law were to admit the right to self-defense, but at the same time deprive citizens of all reasonable and effective means to that end, in effect the law would be denying the fundamental right itself. Such a law would be intrinsically unjust, since it would be inherently directed toward the deprivation of a fundamental human right.

Gun ownership is not a fundamental right, but as a reasonable means to the end of self-defense, it is a derived right. The primary right to self-defense requires a means to access that right, and such a means, in so far as it is necessary or expedient in particular circumstances, is a secondary right. But it is not correct to argue that, in some cases, by some stretch of the imagination, a person might defend himself successfully without a gun, and therefore gun ownership can be entirely denied without denying the underlying right to self-defense. For just as a car or other vehicle is expedient, but not entirely necessary, to a long journey, certain means are expedient to self-defense, even if not entirely necessary in every case. Citizens have a right not only to the bare necessities of life, but also to expedient means that are within reason.

The difference between a fundamental human right and a derived (or secondary) right, is that the derived right is based on the circumstances. If you cannot exercise your right to self-defense without owning a gun, then you have a right to own a gun as a reasonable or even necessary means to the exercise of the more fundamental right. But since the secondary right is based partly on circumstances, reasonable restrictions also based on the circumstances will apply. So the State can morally and reasonably restrict gun ownership in a variety of different ways, depending on the circumstances in particular places or at particular times. But it would be contrary to the eternal moral law and contrary to the fundamental right of self-defense if the State were to restrict gun ownership, or other reasonable means of self-defense, to such an extent or in such a way that the exercise of the more fundamental right would be denied or substantially impaired in many practical cases.

Jesus on Weapons

{22:35} “When I sent you without money or provisions or shoes, did you lack anything?”
{22:36} And they said, “Nothing.” Then he said to them: “But now, let whoever has money take it, and likewise with provisions. And whoever does not have these, let him sell his coat and buy a sword.
{22:37} For I say to you, that what has been written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was esteemed with the wicked.’ Yet even these things about me have an end.”
{22:38} So they said, “Lord, behold, there are two swords here.” But he said to them, “It is sufficient.”

Circumstances vary. In the first circumstance, Jesus sent His disciples out without money or provisions or even shoes, and they did not lack anything; their listeners provided for them out of their love for God and neighbor. But the second circumstance refers to the Passion and Crucifixion of the Church (which is like the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ), called the tribulation or the Apocalypse. In that time period, there will be lawlessness and much civil violence: “And another horse went forth, which was red. And it was granted to him who was sitting upon it that he would take peace from the earth, and that they would kill one another. And a great sword was given to him.” (Rev 6:4).

And so Jesus is counseling us, especially during the tribulation, that sometimes the ownership and use of a weapon will be necessary in self-defense or in defense of other innocent persons. He even suggests selling a necessary item, like a cloak or coat, in order to buy a weapon. This verse is no mere figure of speech. Jesus is approving of the use of deadly force in defense of the innocent, whether the innocent person is yourself or your family or your neighbor. And such use of force in self-defense will be much more prevalent and necessary during the Apocalypse than at any other time in human history.

Why does our Lord also say that the two swords are sufficient? It is partly because limitations on the ownership of weapons is also reasonable and moral.

However, note this well:

The reader is strongly cautioned that laws permitting the use of deadly force, and the use of lesser degrees of force, vary greatly from one place to another. The interpretation and application of the law can also vary from place to place, from time to time, and from person to person. Although it is moral to use deadly force in certain situations, often the laws of society permit the use of force or deadly force in a narrower range of situations. Prudence dictates that a person inform himself as to the laws of the society in which he lives, especially laws whose violation may result in grave consequences.

If it is moral, but not legal, to use deadly force in a particular circumstance, it may be best, if at all possible, to refrain from using deadly force. An action that is moral but illegal may have serious negative consequences. In theory, what is illegal is sometimes moral, and what is legal is sometimes immoral. However, if you commit an illegal act, one that you judge to be moral, you could still end up with a long prison sentence. Use prudence and good judgment. Keep informed about the laws that pertain to firearms, weapons, and the defense of self and others in your locality.

More information about my book of moral theology, The Catechism of Catholic Ethics, is available here.

— by Ronald L Conte Jr

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