The right to life takes priority over the right to bear arms

Central to America’s debate over gun ownership are the implications of the term “right.”
Peace & Justice

The Second Amendment, adopted in 1791, justified replacing a standing army with properly controlled civilian militias responsible for defending certain inalienable rights held in common and derived from a self-evident, divinely ordained equality of all human beings. Inherent in human nature, these rights are nevertheless individual and have come to be understood as justifying the actions taken for whatever purpose the right serves. In pursuit, for example, of the inalienable right to life, there is the derived right to self-defense, therefore the right to own guns. 

In my book No Place for Ethics: Judicial Review, Legal Positivism and The Supreme Court of the United States (Rowman & Littlefield), I argue that, in its entirety, the Bill of Rights represents a radical moral shift toward individual citizens’ innate freedom to exercise rights as the measure of his or her personal behavior. While the emphasis on rights as the embodiment of human freedom is commendable, it constitutes, as Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray recognizes, a serious risk of resulting in absolutizing these rights at the cost of the common good and the principles of social justice.

Following the Uvalde school massacre, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich echoed this concern, observing in an interview with NPR that “the Second Amendment, unlike the second commandment, did not come down from Sinai.” He continued on to say, “There is an understanding that we all have in our hearts . . . a natural law about the value of human life. And there is no amendment that can trump that.”

Like Courtney Murray, Cupich advances the belief that the role of the church is to foster within the body-politic a moral consensus that can effectively influence public policy. To do this, in the case of the Second Amendment, requires a sustained counter-offensive against the National Rifle Association (NRA) whose absolutist understanding of the Amendment continues to protect gun ownership as a right from all but the most limited control. As a result, the NRA continues to reinforce a national gun culture, despite the fact that this causes a level of gun violence in the Unites States not seen anywhere else in the world. The right to a gun, the NRA insists, supersedes all other rights, including the right to life. 


Given the church’s role, people of faith must critically consider how untenable, in terms of both social justice and constitutional integrity, is the position of the NRA and its allies, including members of the Supreme Court.

Thinking it an obvious defense of gun rights, the NRA likes to say it is people, not guns, who shoot people. But the NRA ignores something even more obvious: to shoot you need to have a gun. And having a gun makes using it more likely, especially in a gun culture built on a constitutionally protected right to guns. At the time of this writing, the United States as already passed 400 mass shootings in 2023. And, between 1966 and 2019, 77 percent of mass shootings involved legally acquired guns. These statistics demonstrate how difficult it is to prevent guns’ use from becoming abuse once they are acquired.

If constitutional protection is part of the problem, how can the prevailing interpretation of the Second Amendment be part of the solution?

With about 40 percent of Americans living in a household with a gun, there is no denying America’s gun culture. Understanding this culture requires appreciating how integral the defense of the Second Amendment is to defending it. Unfettered gun possession for self-defense, in this case, becomes a right overriding all other rights. This includes—when considering the almost 49,000 victims of gun violence in 2021—the right to life.


Absurdly, the NRA’s insistence on the right to guns has led to sacrificing the right to life, which then has led to losing the right to guns. In his concurring opinion in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, grounds the constitutional right to guns in the natural right to self-defense.

Noting that the dissent considers the ubiquity of guns and the high level of gun violence justification for New York State’s gun-control law, Alito criticizes this opinion for failing to understand that it is for these exact reasons citizens desire to carry guns for their defense. He cites two cases where legally owned guns were used successfully in self-defense, while ignoring the thousands of cases where legally owned guns were used in mass shootings.  

If guns are the problem, how can even more guns be the solution? This is the toxic logic of a gun culture premised on the false belief there is a right to a gun grounded in the Constitution.  

It may well be that the Second Amendment to the Constitution houses a right to guns, but should it? As written, the purpose of the Constitution is to secure justice, domestic tranquility, and liberty. Where then are the justice, domestic tranquility, and liberty for those who victim to gun violence? Given the appalling loss of life due to legally owned guns, is the constitutional protection of guns reconcilable with the larger purpose of the Constitution?


The loss of innocent lives due to legally owned guns makes nonsense of the distinction between criminal and non-criminal use of guns. Further, in 2018 there were 484,800 instances of gun violence compared to 70,040 instances of gun use for defense, thus pointing to a feeble association between guns and self-defense. Why then persist with asserting gun rights that secure so little benefit, especially since we know that without guns there is no gun violence?

Self-defense is a right. But that doesn’t make guns, as a means of self-defense, a right. Since it is the nature of rights to justify actions taken in their exercise, endowing guns with the status of a right disposes us to justify their ownership without qualification. As a result, given a constitutional protection of guns for self-defense, state laws to expand gun possession have been enacted without difficulty, while state laws to impose restrictions on gun ownership have had great difficulty succeeding. Combined, the result has been more gun violence and ever-increasing degrees of lethal violence.

As long as guns enjoy the status of a right, America’s gun culture will thrive and gun violence will grow. If America is to acknowledge that the only effective antidote to its gun violence is to eliminate its gun culture, then its only choice is to deny, as the rest of the civilized world has, gun rights and abandon the fatal delusion that the only alternative to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Otherwise, the 1994 description offered of the United States by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rings true today: “A nation born in a commitment to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ is haunted by death, imprisoned by fear and caught up in the elusive pursuit of protection rather than happiness.” Hardly surprising, as long as we allow the right to guns to hold hostage the right to life.


Image: Unsplash/Bermix Studios


About the author

T. Patrick Hill

T. Patrick Hill is associate professor emeritus of Rutgers University, where he taught ethics and law. He is the author of the recently published book No Place for Ethics: Judicial Review, Legal Positivism and the Supreme Court of the United States (Rowman and Littlefield).

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