The Ash Wednesday massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, seems to have broken more hearts than similar tragedies that preceded it. It was no more senseless than other American school shootings, but there is something about the innocence and bravery and eloquence of the youthful survivors that has touched the souls of Americans deeply.
After burying their dead, the survivors have mobilized into a mighty political force that loosely seeks more laws to regulate the right to keep and bear arms. The young people, traumatized and terrified with memories of unspeakable horror that will not fade, somehow think that a person bent on murder will obey gun laws.
Every time I watch these beautiful young people, I wince, because in their understandable sadness is the potential for madness — “madness” being defined as the passionate and stubborn refusal to accept reason. This often happens after tragedy. After watching the government railroad Abraham Lincoln’s killer’s conspirators — and even some folks who had nothing to do with the assassination — the poet Herman Melville wrote: “Beware the People weeping. When they bare the iron hand.”
It is nearly impossible to argue rationally with tears and pain, which is why we all need to take a step back from this tragedy before legally addressing its causes.
If you believe in an all-knowing, all-loving God as I do, then you accept the concept of natural rights. These are the claims and privileges that are attached to humanity as God’s gifts. If you do not accept the existence of a Supreme Being, you can still accept the concept of natural rights, as it is obvious that humans are the superior rational beings on earth. Our exercise of reason draws us all to the exercise of freedoms, and we can do this independent of the government. Stated differently, both the theist and the atheist can accept the concept of natural human rights.
Thomas Jefferson, who claimed to be neither theist nor atheist, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Such rights cannot be separated from us, as they are integral to our humanity. Foremost among our unalienable rights is the right to life — the right to be and to remain alive.
And that right implies the right to defend life — the right to self-defense. If I am about to assault you in the nose, you can duck, run away or punch me first. If I am about to strike your children, you can strike me first. If I am about to do either of those things with a gun, you can shoot me first, and no reasonable jury will convict you. In fact, no reasonable prosecutor will charge you.
The reason for all this is natural. It is natural to defend yourself — your life — and your children. The Framers recognized this right when they ratified the Second Amendment. They wrote it to ensure that all governments would respect the right to keep and bear arms as a natural extension of the right to self-defense.
In its two most recent interpretations of the right to self-defense, the Supreme Court characterized that right as “pre-political.” That means the right pre-existed the government. If it pre-existed the government, it must come from our human nature. I once asked Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the majority’s opinion in the first of those cases, called the District of Columbia v. Heller, why he used the term “pre-political” instead of “natural.” He replied, “You and I know they mean the same thing, but ‘natural’ sounds too Catholic, and I am interpreting the Constitution, not Aquinas.”
With the Heller case, the court went on to characterize this pre-political right as an individual and personal one. It also recognized that the people who wrote the Second Amendment had just fought a war against a king and his army — a war that they surely would have lost had they not kept and carried arms that were equal to or better than what the British army had.
They didn’t write the Second Amendment to protect the right to shoot deer; they wrote it to protect the right to self-defense — whether against bad guys, crazy people or a tyrannical government bent on destroying personal liberty.
In Heller, the court also articulated that the right to use guns means the right to use guns that are at the same level of sophistication as the guns your potential adversary might have, whether that adversary be a bad guy, a crazy person or a soldier of a tyrannical government.
But even after Heller, governments have found ways to infringe on the right to self-defense. Government does not like competition. Essentially, government is the entity among us that monopolizes force. The more force it monopolizes the more power it has. So it has enacted, in the name of safety, the least safe places on earth — gun-free zones. The nightclub in Orlando, the government offices in San Bernardino, the schools in Columbine, Newtown and Parkland were all killing zones because the government prohibited guns there and the killers knew this.
We all need to face a painful fact of life: The police make mistakes like the rest of us and simply cannot be everywhere when we need them. When government fails to recognize this and it disarms us in selected zones, we become helpless before our enemies.
But it could be worse. One of my Fox News colleagues asked me on-air the other day: Suppose we confiscated all guns; wouldn’t that keep us safe? I replied that we’d need to start with the government’s guns. Oh, no, he said. He just meant confiscation among the civilian population. I replied that then we wouldn’t be a civilian population any longer. We’d be a nation of sheep.
• Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is a regular contributor to The Washington Times. He is the author of nine books on the U.S. Constitution.