An argument used time and time again against the idea that individuals have the fundamental right to own firearms is that such a right would have no practical limits; that is, if governments may impose no gun controls then individuals would be able to freely own weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Recently, philosopher Christopher Freiman redirected this argument, not to argue in favor of gun control, but to contend that rights-based arguments against gun control fail. Freiman constructs his argument using a hypothetical scientist named “Bobby” who builds an atomic bomb in his garage. Surely Bobby should not be allowed to own such a weapon due to the risk it poses to his neighbors, even if he plans to never use it. Taking this latter point as given, Freiman lists the shortcomings of three “typical” rights-based arguments or objections that libertarians make against gun control:
- The right to a means of self-defense: the argument that individuals have the right to self-defense and therefore gun control is a violation of this right would imply that they also have the right to defend themselves with nuclear weapons.
- The right to private property: another argument against gun control is that it deprives individuals of their private property. However, since Bobby legitimately owned all the materials he used to build the atomic bomb, this argument would also justify his private ownership of his atomic bomb.
- Gun control opens the door to state tyranny: Freiman argues that nuclear weapons are at least as effective a weapon against state tyranny as firearms. Therefore, this argument too would allow Bobby to own a nuclear weapon.
Therefore, concludes Freiman, arguments for or against gun control should be made on the basis of analysis of costs and benefits, not rights.
My purpose here is not to address whether ownership of nuclear weapons is ever justified or the quality of Freiman’s rebuttals to the provided objections, but to show that he, in his conclusion that rights-based arguments against gun control fail in this regard, is wrong. There is one theory of rights that does not lead to such a failure: Murray Rothbard’s. In fact, Freiman here provides a great demonstration of why a Rothbardian conception of rights is so important.
Individuals across the political spectrum are wont to talk of rights such as the freedom of speech, right to self-defense, and so forth. Rothbard, however, argues that all human rights derive and are inseparable from property rights:
…The concept of “rights” only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard.
As an example, Rothbard criticizes Justice Holmes’s contention that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute, as one does not have the right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Prohibiting such an offense should not be considered an infringement upon free speech but an expression of the property rights of the theater owner and the agreement made with theater patrons (either implicitly or explicitly) to refrain from disrupting the performance without cause.
The same consideration applies to one’s right to bear arms: property owners have the right to allow or prohibit individuals on their property from carrying weapons. Although lease agreements may not mention it specifically, one would imagine that most landlords would not allow tenants to store nuclear weapons on their property. Would such a prohibition be an infringement upon a tenant’s right to self-defense or to bear arms? No, just as agreeing to not disrupt a theater does not infringe upon one’s right to free speech. But what if one is not a renter but a debt-free homeowner?
Although one may own their home and some of the land surrounding it, this does not mean that they are free to create negative externalities for their neighbors, unless they had already “homesteaded” that right prior to the arrival of those neighbors. Rothbard uses the example of an airport built with an adequate amount of empty land around it such that no neighbors are disturbed by the noise of airplanes taking off and landing. The owners of the airport have homesteaded the right to emit a certain number of decibels and if a housing development were to later be built in the vicinity of the airport, occupants would have no legal right to force the airport owners to stop making so much noise. If, however, the housing development had been built prior to the airport, then the airport would have to purchase the right to emit the noise.
The same considerations would apply to one building nuclear weapons in their home: assuming the riskiness of building and storing an atomic bomb is as high as Freiman argues, they would only be able to do so if their home were so far out in the middle of nowhere that an accident would not create negative externalities for third parties, or if they were able to purchase this right from all third parties who would be affected in the case of an accident. Such a requirement would likely make it prohibitively costly for anyone to build a nuclear weapon without violating someone else’s property rights. By contrast, a common small-arms weapon can be safely stored and maintained in one’s home even if it is in close proximity to others’ homes. Thus, Rothbard’s theory of rights meets Freiman’s challenge by allowing for the private ownership of firearms without also implying one’s right to own nuclear weapons in an urban setting.
The broader lesson here is that a theory of rights must be grounded in property, if rights are not to become fuzzy and self-contradictory as Rothbard warns. By comprehending all rights as deriving from property rights and contracts, we can avoid the frequent clashes between contradictory “rights” and “freedoms” of today, such as the battle between “religious freedom” and “employee rights” or “LGBT rights.” This is not to say that these rights and freedoms do not exist, but that they only exist and are compatible with one another as an exercise of underlying property rights.