Gun rights include the right not to be shot

Op-ed: Gun rights include the right not to be shot.

President Barack Obama recently announced several executive actions that step in the direction of sensible gun policy. GOP presidential candidates have cried foul, claiming that these actions eviscerate the Constitution. Such hyperbole notwithstanding, there is a strong case for gun rights. But gun rights must coexist with other rights.

The Supreme Court has asserted an individual constitutional right to bear arms. Many gun advocates believe that pre-existing this legal right is a moral (or human) right to private gun ownership in the name of self defense. But that line of reasoning can also veer down a different path, one that supports gun control by embracing a right not to be shot.

The right to self-defense is not basic. One's protection can be delegated to others such as parents in the case of young children and the military in the event of foreign invasion. Moreover, if we enjoyed perfect physical security, there would be no need for protection. The right to self-defense is grounded in the fundamental moral right to physical security.

The right to physical security supports other rights as well, including rights not to be assaulted, killed, tortured — or shot. Every innocent or nonthreatening person has a right not to be shot. This right was notoriously violated in several police shootings that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

So the ultimate foundation of the right to private gun ownership — physical security — is also the basis of the right not to be shot. Rights are extremely important, but they also require support. Supporting the right not to be shot requires some limits on the right to gun ownership.

Rights may not be trampled just because their exercise is inconvenient to some or even poses substantial social costs. In this sense, rights are often likened to trumps. Pro-gun scholars often assert that the right to bear arms trumps considerations of social utility — including the possible fact (suggestive evidence abounds) that widespread gun ownership increases homicide, suicide and lethal-accident rates. But, even if rights — including gun rights — are trumps, rights cannot trump other rights, including the right not to be shot.

Rights are useless if they cannot be exercised, so they require support. Grandma's right to vote is useless if she is too disabled to get to a voting station and is prohibited from voting by mail. Reasonable support of her right to vote might include transportation and physical assistance at the voting station, or the prerogative of voting by mail.

The right not to be shot also requires support. Reasonable support for this right includes: measures that make it harder for criminals to acquire guns, improvement of law enforcement's capacity to enforce gun laws, and decreasing the chance that children will tragically misuse their parents' firearms. These measures correspond to President Obama's executive orders to increase background checks and improve the FBI's ability to process them, require dealers to report lost or stolen guns, and invest in smart-gun technology.

We need to do more to prevent violations of the right not to be shot. It is time to say No to those who tolerate the killing of thousands of innocent Americans each year in the name of gun rights. Sensible gun control — accepted in every other developed nation — may limit the scope of gun rights, but, contrary to the gun lobby, such measures do not threaten gun rights at their core.

Gun advocates' strongest argument, rhetorically, is the appeal to a right to bear arms. But the scope of any right must be determined by awareness of other relevant rights. Requiring gun rights to coexist with sensible supports for the right not to be shot is a promising way of justifying gun control.

David DeGrazia ( is a professor of philosophy at George Washington University. His seven books include "Debating Gun Control," which was written with Lester Hunt and is in production at Oxford University Press.

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