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The following op-ed submission was rejected for publication in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Rarely have I seen an English professor (and a linguist to boot!) ignore the meaning and context of words like I witnessed in University of Utah Professor Thomas Huckin’s recent op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune, “There is no individual gun right in the US Constitution.”
Huckin aimed his sights on the Second Amendment, a clause in the U.S. Constitution he pejoratively called “archaic,” to argue that “The framers of the Constitution never intended an individual right to own guns.” Instead, Huckin claims, the semantic structure of the clause itself specifies that owning guns is a collective right, and not an individual one. In other words, in his view, nobody has the inherent right to possess a weapon of self defense such as a firearm.
To support his claim, Huckin argues that the reference to “We, the People” in the Constitution’s first sentence refers to Americans “communally, not individualistically.” He further states that the Constitution addresses individuals by using the word “person” rather than the collective references to “people,” and therefore “the right of the people” to keep and bear arms is not an individual right recognized by the document.
A casual examination of the Constitution explodes his theories, unless one believes that the First, Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments, which all refer to “people”, were never meant to recognize and protect an individual right. The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of he people to be secure in their persons,” and the First Amendment refers to the “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Huckin would have us believe, at least if he is consistent in his beliefs, that no individuals have the right to do these things, and therefore the government may at any time, and for any reason, invade a person’s privacy, property, and prevent them from protesting its actions.
But let’s ignore those amendments for a moment and return to the Second, that which deals with firearms. In the professor’s interpretation, the right to own guns is a communal one; only certain groups of people which operate with the government’s blessing may own and operate such a tool. This idea is completely unsupported by the historical record.
For example, the Federalist Papers are littered with examples offering the context Huckin seems so willing to ignore, namely, that the Second Amendment only made explicit what was then commonly understood. Individuals had then, and have today, the inherent and unalienable right to defend themselves, including with firearms. In Federalist 28, Alexander Hamilton referenced the “original right of self-defense” including using firearms to repel a tyrannical government. Madison echoed him in Federalist 46, noting that armed individuals in America served as a “barrier against the enterprises of ambition,” unlike the “tyranny in Europe” in which “the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Far from mere hunting tools, firearms were considered an important last resort for individuals to resist an oppressive state.
During consideration of a bill dealing with the militia in 1790, Representative Roger Sherman, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and signer of the document, noted that it is “the privilege of every citizen, and one of his most essential rights, to bear arms, and to resist every attack upon his liberty or property, by whomsoever made.” The Supreme Court of the United States went so far as to note, “The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.” The Constitution does not confer a collective right, but rather recognizes and aims to protect a pre-existing individual right. The foregoing quotes and a litany of others like them completely disprove Huckin’s central claim.
We should not stop there, for there is a philosophical contention made in Huckin’s article which likewise merits a response. He argues for collective rights as somehow being superior to and separate from individual rights. In short, he believes that the government can confer, and thus deny, rights to individuals because they are only possessed by the body as a whole.
Again, this argument is unsupported by this nation’s founding documents as well as the contextual and supporting arguments made by the framers of those documents. But a simple analysis of how government operates drives a final nail into Huckin’s thesis. Legitimate government operates by exercising powers it has been delegated by those who comprise it. A collective or communal right must therefore be predicated on a pre-existing right by the individuals within that group. If a collective right of the people to own and use guns exists, then it necessarily implies an underlying individual right which cannot be infringed.
Perhaps for those of us in Utah, Huckin’s incorrect claims on the subject are ultimately moot, since the Utah Constitution makes explicit what is contextually and historically understood by the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. Our state’s founding document states, in Article I Section 6, that it is an “individual right of the people” to own and use firearms. No amount of linguistic gymnastics can get around that.