The National Rifle Association has launched a new membership drive aimed at helping the organization oppose gun regulation. It will need the increased support. The Delaware, Massachusetts and New Jersey legislatures are all working on new gun regulations of various kinds — responding to the momentum of last month’s March for Our Lives and the Parkland, Fla., students‘ ongoing campaign against gun violence. It’s just the latest iteration of Americans’ ongoing debate about regulating guns, a debate that often erupts — as it did this time — after another mass shooting.
Many gun-regulation proposals are extremely popular. For instance, 82 percent of Americans support banning bump stocks like the one used in the Las Vegas shooting, and 97 percent approve of universal background checks.
These proposals often stall in the face of intense political opposition from the NRA. The organization and its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, appeal to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, as well as to a right of self-defense against both individuals and the government. They argue that almost all gun regulation threatens the rights and safety of the American people.
The NRA’s worldview is fundamentally Hobbesian
This self-defense argument stems from a bleak worldview in which we are constantly under siege from threats. Here’s how LaPierre puts it:
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face — not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival . . . Responsible Americans realize that the world as we know it has changed. We, the American people, clearly see the daunting forces we will undoubtedly face: terrorists, crime, drug gangs, the possibility of Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest or natural disaster.
In sum, the government cannot adequately protect us, and gun regulations will merely make Americans victims in an extremely dangerous world.
This worldview is closely aligned with that of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who published his most famous work, “Leviathan,” after the decade-long English Civil War. Hobbes believed that the worst thing that could happen to a person was to die a violent death; he focused his philosophy on securing individuals’ safety.
Doing so is difficult, however, because Hobbes argues that in the absence of government, individuals will frequently attack and kill one another in what he terms “the war of all against all.” It is not that he thinks humans are evil; far from it. But he argues that our natural tendencies — vanity, competitiveness, fearfulness and glory-seeking — will inevitably lead us to fight, and frequently kill, each other. As a result, without government, human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Faced with such a bleak existence, Hobbes argues that there is only one solution to the problem of a violent and chaotic world: a government with absolute power. An absolute government, preferably a monarchy, is the only way to keep people alive by ensuring that no matter how big and bad the threat, the government is even bigger and badder.
The NRA’s solutions are Lockean
But here’s where Hobbes and the NRA part ways. The NRA’s policy positions on firearms depend on a notion that limited government is best — the idea that, as much as possible, citizens should be left to manage their own affairs without interference from government regulations. Such a limited government, it argues, should keep firearms regulations as minimal as possible.
But limited government is the opposite of what Hobbes prescribed. It was advocated, rather, by his critic, John Locke. Locke, an influential figure for America’s founders, viewed human nature distinctly differently from Hobbes. Locke argued that humans are capable of living (mostly) cooperatively without government regulation.
For Locke, the state of nature merely had “inconveniences” (yes, he really called them that) that necessitated government. We could even afford to be picky about which kind of government we have because, really, life without government isn’t that bad. Why? Because Hobbes was wrong, Locke thought — people are not, in fact, violent, selfish, glory-seeking paranoiacs. Instead, we’re reasoning creatures who can find our way to the Golden Rule all on our own and are capable of living peaceably with our neighbors.
Therefore, the state of nature is, according to Locke’s “Second Treatise,” a “state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation.” In such a world, Locke said, you would find “[m]en living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them.” Accordingly, a limited government is all that’s needed to keep the peace.
The NRA’s policy positions contradict its worldview
In other words, the NRA’s political philosophy is not consistent with its policy prescriptions. If the human condition is as the NRA describes it — arguably demonstrated by the episodic mass slaughters in the United States — then Hobbes would argue that the proper and consistent remedy would not be limited government, but a strong, unlimited sovereign who can do what is necessary to save irascible humans from themselves. Locke, who argued that human beings aren’t all that bad, might agree with the NRA’s prescriptions — but would shake his head at its diagnosis.
Christopher R. Hallenbrook is an instructor of political science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
Ryan Reed is an assistant professor of political science at Bradley University.