Earlier this year I led a small group of twelve and thirteen year olds on a hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. This hike has been described as Zion’s equivalent of Yosemite’s Half Dome. Although far less strenuous than Half Dome the last half mile of the Angel’s Landing hike involves walking and climbing along a knife edge ridge, sometimes no more than three feet wide, with steep drops on both sides. I certainly don’t consider it a dangerous hike but I can understand why some people do.
Both during and after the hike I found myself contemplating the value of taking children on such hikes, where one stumble would likely result in death or serious injury. Each time I came to the same acceptable conclusion, they were testing their limits, learning discipline and self-control, building character and learning to appreciate the great outdoors.
I returned to such thoughts the other week when I had occasion to see a group of children being taught how to shoot pistols and rifles. It was obvious that they were enjoying themselves and, as far as I could see, they were scrupulous in following the four universal firearms safety rules. But there was something missing. Learning the mechanics of how to shoot certainly requires discipline, self-control and good hand/eye coordination, but this activity is fundamentally different from the hiking example above. Guns are specifically designed to kill. Pulling a trigger on a pistol or rifle can snuff out a life instantly. Were these young men and women aware of the moral and ethical implications of using a tool specifically designed to deliver deadly force?
The decision whether or not to use deadly force in a particular situation is an intensely personal and moral one. If you had a gun, a knife, a baseball bat, or even just your bare hands, under what conditions would you use deadly force? Would you do so to save a loved one, a stranger, or maybe something precious that you own? Would you do so knowing that even if you faced no criminal charges you could still lose everything you own in a civil law suit? You wake up one night to see an intruder with a ski mask climbing into your daughter’s bedroom. You grab your gun from the night stand and shoot him. The police come, remove the ski mask and tell you he is a convicted rapist on their most wanted list. How do you feel? What will your neighbors say? What will they write about you in the newspapers the next day? What if they remove the ski mask and instead, you see that you have shot your neighbor’s teenage son? How do you feel now? What will the community reaction be? What will the headlines say? Did you still make the right decision under the circumstances? Nobody can decide for you whether or when to use lethal force. There are no laws, books or religions that can give you the right answer. They can influence your choice but only you can pull the trigger. Having said this, one maxim that finds almost universal approval, is “if it’s not worth dying for it’s not worth fighting for.” I would not hesitate to tackle an intruder carrying off my loved one but he is welcome to keep the large plasma TV screen. Ultimately it’s your decision alone and you pay the consequences for carelessness or a bad choice.
The Founding Fathers were very aware of this moral dimension to the use of firearms and believed that there was a close connection between guns and character. Thomas Jefferson wrote to his nephew advising that “health must not be sacrificed to learning.” “As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprize [sic], and independence [sic] to the mind.” In contrast, he believed that “games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.” Colonial Americans believed that the bearing of arms was essential to the character and dignity of a free people. Modern gun prohibition laws actually had their origin in racist legislation designed to prohibit slaves and black freedmen from owning guns. This was done, not just to deny blacks the political power of arms, but to prevent them from “aspiring to the dignity of free men.”
What did “the dignity of free men” mean then and what might it mean today. Thomas Jefferson gave us one answer in his inaugural address of 1801. “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” Along similar lines James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.” In Europe, he said “the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” The Founders were victors of an armed revolution where they had repeatedly faced life-or-death choices knowing full well the consequences of failure. Forged in the furnace of armed conflict in defense of their liberty, they had developed a level of ethical maturity and individual responsibility, which at its core, manifested itself in the knowledge that they were truly competent to govern themselves. The dignity of a free man or woman lies in the fact that, only by being willing and able to make life or death decisions and take full responsibility for our actions, do we earn the right to govern ourselves. The Founders knew that if we do not trust ourselves to make these decisions we will almost certainly get the government we deserve but do not want.
“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to permit the conquered Eastern peoples to have arms. History teaches that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by doing so.” Adolph Hitler, April 11 1942