by Dwayne Holmes
A recent video discussion posted at The Electric Agora tried to pin down the history and definition of “classical liberalism.”  This largely agreed with my own understanding. However, at one point Dan and David addressed Social Contract theory, particularly as derived from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. There, Locke contrasted life in the state of nature with what he thought would be a better life for those who choose civil society, where political power is ceded to a third party. That is to say, people turn over some of their natural authority to a political entity, granting it the authority to deal with specific issues on their behalf. One of the powers granted to this entity (which I will call “the state”) is the use of violent force to deal with wrongs committed against them. Dan and David seemed to agree that given this transfer of power, the social contract underlying civil society is (as Dan states) “…categorically inconsistent with people running around … a society like ours with weapons…” Dan thought there might be some push back on that idea, and (at least from my corner) he was right.
The owning and carrying of weapons (especially guns) is one of those issues where conservatives — libertarians most of all — have invoked liberal values to criticize those on the left for acting illiberally, and it is one of the few issues where I feel their argument has some merit. In any case, I find it interesting that both sides of the gun-control debate invoke Locke, and the particular version of social contractarianism developed from his work. What I will argue here is that even when individuals have ceded their use of violent force to the state, possessing and carrying weapons does not inherently violate the social contract, while attempts to prevent people from doing either could violate the social contract.
Weapons and non-transferred Powers
As Dan and David mention in the video, Locke considers an individual’s need for the state to be somewhat minimal. However, it is clear that transferring the authority to use violent force to the state is an important part of this compact.
Along these lines, I would concede that where individuals are free to usurp the state’s authority, it would be a failed state. There would be no real authority, beyond the personal authority found in the state of nature. Indeed, the gun-slinging “Wild West” looks like nothing more than humans returned to state of nature.
But it seems a long way to go from people owning or carrying weapons in modern society, to people being free, or acting as if free, to usurp the authority of the state. Connecting the two seems a form of equivocation. And in a way it ignores that people can usurp such roles quite easily, without weapons at all. In the second video, Dan and David discuss growing trends of imposed social control by so-called social justice warriors, which I might argue (I mean look at the name) is the explicit usurping of that authority, employing psychological and economic forces in place of physical force to address perceived wrongs.
So, as far as weapons are concerned, I’ll borrow a cliché from the NRA and say it is not the weapons that violate the social contract, it is people (specifically how they intend to use a weapon) that do the violating.
It seems clear that weapons owned for show (collectors), sport, or hunting fall well outside any purpose that would violate the social contract. And I would leave it to Dan or David to make the argument why those should count as violations, whether on private property or carried in public spaces. It is also unclear how taking such property away, given Locke’s overt concern with ownerships rights, would not constitute a violation of the social contract on the part of the state.
The same is true for weapons carried in public as part of demonstration in support of gun-rights. This moves beyond mere object of personal property, since as part of civil action, protest, they become part of free speech. Granted such “demonstrations” can seem bizarre, ill-advised, and a bit unnerving, but none of these make carrying weapons contrary to the social contract.
It might be noted that if the population was regularly used to the presence of weapons in public, which was true in earlier times, their presence would seem neither bizarre nor unnerving. I’m going to make a strange connection here, but this particular use (and its associated problem) does not seem unlike some public demonstrations in support of LGBT rights, women’s rights to dress as they want (slut marches), and even public breast-feeding. Any “disturbance” they cause is because they are uncommon and thus, unfamiliar, which is part of the point of the demonstration. This use seems very much in line with how one can affect change in society, under the social contract.
More importantly, none of the above uses, except perhaps hunting, could be activities ceded to the state.
Self-protection and State protection
Of course, many weapons are owned and carried for the purpose of self-protection. The question then arises, are the ownership and use of weapons for self-protection synonymous with usurping the role of state actors who were delegated power to protect citizens or punish criminals? Dan and David appear to argue that they are.
To the common counter-arguments made by gun-rights activists, that state actors may not be available to protect a person in time or could themselves become enemies one must have protection against, the answer was that people can address these issues through appeals to the legislature.
But this seems to dismiss reality for an ideal. While it is nice to think one can simply go to the legislature and order up as many “public protectors” as is needed, real life involves questions of money and physical resources. Small populations and/or large, remote areas present clear challenges to offering such ubiquitous protection. And even large populations in relatively small areas do not necessarily ease that burden. How many people can or want to be public protectors? When can they be available? And how much of an area can they cover sufficiently at all times?
There could be a sensible trade-off between employing so many people towards protecting all, or everywhere, versus allowing individuals some level of personal protection.
Early in US history, where threats from animals and humans were great, owning a weapon was likely more efficient than shrinking the state or taxing its resources to employ as many roving protectors as would be needed. The US Constitution’s Bill of Rights explicitly allowed personal possession of weapons, (it would seem) specifically because they did not have a standing army (as we do today). 
Unless one argues that the social contract mandates sufficient standing police and military forces to remove the personal need for weapons, it does not seem inherent to social contract theory that people be denied weapons for their own protection.  Rather, it would be a case of societal choice as to how to delineate that task, based on the conditions they face (and how much risk they are willing to accept).
And it is almost an absurdity to think that overreach by a state determined to control the population, and with the means to do so, can be countered by appeals for it to desist.
As it is, these positions taken against weapons, due to the subordination of personal power to the state, does not seem consistent with Locke’s Second Treatise, where he addresses the tentative nature of this handing over of power. 
With regard to a person’s right to defense where the state lacks an ability to protect a person in a timely manner (from Chapter III, section 19)…
But force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject. Thus a thief, whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill, when he sets on me to rob me… because the law… where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force… permits me my own defence, and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law… force without right, upon a man’s person, makes a state of war, both where there is, and is not, a common judge…
… and then the person’s right to defense against a state actor (the judicial powers) when it acts against, or allows an attack upon, the person (Chapt. III, Sect. 20)…
…where an appeal to the law, and constituted judges, lies open, but the remedy is denied by a manifest perverting of justice, and a barefaced wresting of the laws to protect or indemnify the violence or injuries of some men, or party of men, there it is hard to imagine any thing but a state of war: for wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law…
Later, Locke expands his explanation to a right of defense against the legislature (Chapt. XIII, Sect 149)…
And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject: for no man or society of men, having a power to deliver up their preservation, or consequently the means of it, to the absolute will and arbitrary dominion of another… they will always have a right to preserve, what they have not a power to part with; and to rid themselves of those, who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation, for which they entered into society.
… as well as the executive (Chapt. XIII, Sect 155)…
I say, using force upon the people without authority, and contrary to the trust put in him that does so, is a state of war with the people… when they are hindered by any force from what is so necessary to the society, and wherein the safety and preservation of the people consists, the people have a right to remove it by force. In all states and conditions, the true remedy of force without authority, is to oppose force to it.
It is very hard to read these passages as not explicitly stating under certain circumstances people have the right to defend themselves (and their property), from the aggression of others and the excesses of state powers, through violent force, if necessary. It also seems to argue that people don’t have to give up the means to do so. At the very least, weapons would seem an arguable (if not patently necessary) thing to possess if one wanted to ensure some means of protection from state actors who are themselves armed with weapons.
Following this, it seems legitimate to consider a state’s attempts to remove the tools needed to protect oneself from potential state overreach as acting contrary to the social contract. I grant that in ideal civil societies individuals would feel so secure that weapons for such purposes would not be desired. But that is different from drawing a line at what is consistent with the social contract.
Threats to Health and Safety
While I do not agree with the arguments made against weapons based on the transfer of power from the person to the state, as part of the social contract, I do believe some forms of regulation are allowed by the state. 
It seems clear that anti-gun laws would not even be under discussion if misuse of weapons were not of reasonable concern. Whether used as instruments of intimidation, to enact vigilante style justice, to kill others in acts of rage, or to kill oneself, the US ranks high among Western, first-world nations, in suffering from relatively frequent and undeniably tragic gun-related deaths.  Mass shootings in particular are becoming more common (aided by high-power, fast-firing weapons with large ammunition clips).
One of the benefits of living in a civil society is an ability to find solutions to problems (even guns) where risks are deemed to have risen to a certain level. Again, from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government,  where he discusses political power (Ch. XV, Sect. 171)…
Political power is that power, which every man having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property… it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions… a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them, as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt, that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement, and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.
This clearly makes regulation compatible with the social contract, while underlining that gun rights advocates are also not acting contrary to the social contract, as long as they believe weapons are not “so corrupt, that they threaten the sound and healthy.”
Thus, it is in the hands of the public to debate that issue, and determine what appropriate remedies might be (the line to be drawn). If parties on either side will not abide by common, majority consensus, then the possibility the government will be dissolved (or war begin) is raised.
As I said earlier, I support common sense levels of regulation, this is especially true given the nature of weapons in the modern era and the number of gun-related injuries and deaths.
However, I do not believe a blanket ban on all weapons is necessary (especially those kept on private property), and would be leery of such laws in a time of militarized police forces, invasive national surveillance, and extensive economic inequality. Oh yeah, and terrorism.
I also believe those supporting regulation do a disservice to their own cause by demonizing weapons and gun-rights advocates. It creates unnecessary friction by taking a parental or despotic role with respect to others’ (rightful) desire to hold on to their possessions, as well as means for self-preservation. In particular, commentary on accidents in the home (as reason to restrict their possession in total), seems to ignore the many other objects for which accidents occur at home (or in public, how about cars?), as well as an important concept of classical liberalism that people are supposed to be allowed to make mistakes.
I fear gun-control has become part of the modern era’s Disneyfication of the US. Making sure that every space is built for the safety of children (and the lowest common denominator). Where any risk is deemed to threaten “the sound and healthy,” freedom itself goes out the window as an intrinsic risk factor. Training wheels and padded walls for all.
That is not to say that gun-rights advocates don’t have their own problems. Some argue from idealistic scenarios, rather than facing reality. As a reverse mirror to the gun-control advocate, almost no risk is deemed high enough to impose regulation. That any pragmatic safety measure put in place by the state is an infraction of all liberty. Intriguingly, this level of freedom-loving, “risk-aversion”-aversion is usually held only for guns, and often not for other rights, such as free speech (perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword?).
And to be frank, I do feel the US public’s obsession with guns for personal protection, and violence as first solution to problems, seems unhealthy, though that is arguably more a symptom than a cause.
My argument here was not to settle the debate on gun control, only to note that factions on both sides of the issue can work consistently (or not) within the frame of the social contract. It all depends on the context.
- Daniel Kaufman and David Ottlinger’s video at meaningoflife.tv and Electric Agora on Classical Liberalism. (relevant section is 36:48 – 41:28, with specific quote around 37:34): https://youtu.be/hkp-0T94oLk and second video discussing social justice warriors: https://youtu.be/IG2f2aFxrQ
- The US Constitution’s Bill of Rights contains the famous 2nd Amendment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution), which states: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
- Dan went further to argue that civil society under a social contract is not meant to totally guarantee safety. While I agree that is true, when married to the obvious concern for rights of ownership and being able to pursue one’s own goals, that would seem to construct an argument for accepting the risks of gun-ownership, rather than risking the failure of the state to protect you. The intriguing argument, that a gun-owner should consider the possibility of Dan running around with a gun, sort of begs the question. Many actually. Should we worry about Dan running around with a gun? Why? Is he a criminal? Will he try to usurp the role of the state? Will he carelessly fire his gun in random directions? In reality, most gun owners would presumably be similar to how I assume Dan would be with a gun, careful and not likely to cause an incident.
- John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government at Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm
- The majority of gun-rights advocates understand and agree with some form of regulation. For example, you don’t store bullets in your oven, you don’t have firing ranges on crowded public streets, you can’t own (or fire) a howitzer in your back yard, you can’t own an ICBM, et cetera. So, the precedent of restricting weapons ownership and use is set and acknowledged based on general safety guidelines. The debate then has to be on what is the minimal restriction required to reduce incidents and impact of gun-related violence, without negatively effecting rights of gun owners.
Mandatory checks before purchase, and even some waiting time, seem reasonable. So are training and storage requirements (gun safes, trigger locks).
It would also seem understandable to regulate the power of weapons (and ammo) allowed to be stored in one’s home, based on the kind of home one has. A cheap high-rise apartment is not the place to have an ammo dump, and high-powered assault rifles (which could tear through all your neighbors’ walls). That would not restrict one’s ability to own higher powered weapons stored in a weapon-appropriate facility.
And what of the open carrying of weapons? In an age of mass shootings in public spaces, how are people supposed to identify a “demonstrator” carrying a rifle into a fast-food joint to protest a right to own weapons, from someone coming in to shoot up the joint? It seems rights and restrictions could find some sort of common ground to separate the two, without effecting the legitimate gun owner. Public “demonstrations” of that sort could be limited the same way other demonstrations are limited. The person has to give public notice to appropriate authorities, and ask permission. Or legally limit what people can carry (size, rate of fire), how they can carry (unloaded, tagged, muzzle-blocked), and where they can carry weapons when “demonstrating”. The same could be said for personal protection. There are limits to the utility of different weapons in different venues, and so limiting weapons based on venue (outside of open war and so end of society) does not seem draconian.
6. Statistics comparing gun-related deaths: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate