Elizabeth Bruenig is an assistant editor for Outlook and PostEverything at the The Washington Post.

Twenty-six crosses stand in Sutherland Springs, Tex., one for each person killed in the First Baptist Church on Sunday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

After the mass shooting before last, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly articulated what anti-gun-control politics seem to presume but rarely admit: that blood is the cost of the right to bear arms. “This is the price of freedom,” O’Reilly wrote on his blog, referring to the dozens killed in Las Vegas. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.” He went on: “The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”

This is a special, even radical, type of freedom — the kind that entitles a person to own the means of mass killing and the kind that compels society to grant that right. (Devin Kelley, the shooter in Sutherland Springs, Tex., last weekend, was legally forbidden to buy a gun because of his history of domestic violence, but various polls from states experimenting with such bans show that some Americans still feel ambivalent about keeping firearms from convicted abusers.) How did the United States become a country where half of gun owners feel intolerably constrained if they can’t own an assault-type weapon or a high-capacity magazine?

The answer is historical. It’s the story of how Western thought moved from seeing freedom as a means to an end — what philosophers call “the good” — to seeing freedom as an end in itself. Thanks to our liberal heritage, we regard freedom as an intrinsic good, perhaps the highest one of all. The more of it we can get, the better off we are. Right?

Plato held that freedom is the ability to comport with the good willingly and rationally, uninhibited by unruly desires or external force. For centuries, Christian philosophers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas followed this principle, holding that true freedom left people in an unmolested state to grasp what is good and act accordingly. (Thus internal fetters, namely sin, were the main obstacles to freedom.)

This understanding passed into church practice: In the Middle Ages, for instance, the Vatican held elections to appoint abbots, bishops and other clerical officers, and canon law enshrined the right of eligible individuals to cast their votes. But their choices were not unlimited: If an elector knowingly cast a ballot for a candidate viewed as unsuitable by higher authorities (usually an archbishop), he risked having his right to vote revoked and was thought to be in danger of damnation. And if a majority of electors voted for such an unsuitable person, their decision could simply be overturned. Freedom mattered, in other words, but was always subordinate to the highest good, which could sometimes place limits on liberty.

But by the 17th century, a funny thing happened: The progenitors of modern liberalism, including Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, decided that there simply was no highest good. Hobbes, in his opus “Leviathan,” cited “the diversity of passions in diverse men” as well as “the difference of knowledge, or opinion each one has.” Locke said divining the good was like arguing over which is better, “apples, plums, or nuts.” Since no single principle would make all people happy, it didn’t make sense to favor one theory of the highest good over others. Different strokes for different folks: This was a new understanding of freedom.

The concept made some sense at the time. These thinkers were translating the idea of freedom from personal, moral terms to political ones in era of emerging mass politics. Absolute monarchies were struggling in Europe, and a parliamentary system was taking hold in England. A reassessment seemed a necessary step in building pluralistic, democratic societies.

But freedom unchained from the good comes with certain hazards. Today, it seems like devising a vision of the good means curtailing people’s liberty; after all, it does require that we define some choices (bestiality, for instance) as inherently wrong and perhaps limit them, even if they make a person happy. Yet this also means that the greater the swell of public sentiment against gun ownership, the more justified its ardent defenders seem in claiming that their freedom is under attack. The way they see it, not only is their freedom to do as they please threatened, so is their freedom to be pleased by what they’re pleased by. By imposing a preference, the government would be abrogating their liberty. This is O’Reilly’s point. We can ban people from killing and punish them for it, but we can’t insist that they ought not own the implements of killing, as long as they’re still following the laws.

To see how far we’ve come from understanding freedom as closely tied to the good, consider the text of the Second Amendment vs. the way we debate it now: “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.” The freedom to bear arms has a purpose: to allow for the functioning of a well-regulated militia, which itself has a purpose — to protect the security of a free state. These are modest and contingent relationships between liberty and goodness, but they do favor some good over the individual freedom to bear arms.

Still, in our modern reading, the National Rifle Association and its many devotees imagine the right in the starkest terms: as a guarantee to bear arms, for any reason, for any purpose, or for none at all. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, for instance, about three-quarters of gun owners said their right to own guns is essential to their personal freedom. Some gun debates concern who ought to have a gun (in light of the Sutherland Springs shooting, efforts to stop domestic abusers from acquiring firearms have redoubled) or what kinds of weapons or accessories one can buy (bump stocks are on trial, for example, in the wake of the recent shooting in Las Vegas). But we largely lack the framework to ask what gun ownership is for or to decide as a society whether it truly aligns with the good. Such questions have been lost to apples, plums and nuts.

Older readings of freedom may feel dark and alien to us now. And we probably wouldn’t trade our world for theirs. But it’s helpful to ask of our freedoms the same questions our forbearers asked of theirs: What are they really for? It’s hard for us now to see how the right to purchase a lethal object might damage our freedom in the classical sense, by serving as a temptation easily aggravated by fear or anger. But perhaps it’s easier to see how we seem less free operating on the modern view of the Second Amendment: Parents are buying bulletproof panels for children’s backpacks, and people are visiting psychiatrists complaining of fear, anxiety and dread sparked by random mass killings. The freedom advocated by people like O’Reilly certainly isn’t subordinate to the good, and it no longer even appears to reliably add to our overall freedom.

If we’re trying to build a free society for the sake of being free, or so each person can pursue their own tastes, no matter how evil, then we’re doing an excellent job where firearms are concerned — and reaping the results in ghastly headlines. But if we’re trying to build a society in which people are free specifically to flourish and live long and well, to be virtuous and educated citizens engaged in the task of creating lasting peace and greater understanding, then we’re stumbling, and we’ll keep tripping along a bloody path until we can decide what our freedom is for.

Twitter: @ebruenig

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