Speaking to the Denver Police Academy on April 3, President Obama made some controversial remarks as part of his post-Newtown push for more gun control.
Most of the speech was ho-hum. It was the following that caught the right’s attention:
You hear some of these quotes: “I need a gun to protect myself from the government.” “We can’t do background checks because the government is going to come take my guns away.” Well, the government is us. These officials are elected by you. They are elected by you. I am elected by you. I am constrained, as they are constrained, by a system that our Founders put in place. It’s a government of and by and for the people.
At first glance these remarks may not seem so very terrible. After all, the Founders did try to put in place a government structure that would constrain elected officials from exercising untrammeled power. And those elected officials are indeed answerable not only to the Bill of Rights (including the Second Amendment) and the Constitution, but also to the will of the people as expressed through elections. And certainly, the idea that the Constitution acts as a constraint on the power of government officials did not originate with Obama; there are law review articles devoted to exploring the concept.
So what’s the problem? Just this: shouldn’t Obama have added something about what a wonderful thing those constraints are, how necessary and appropriate and important and even crucial, and how he himself is appreciative of them? Wouldn’t many previous presidents (with the probable exceptions of Wilson and FDR) have done something like that? And wouldn’t many of those presidents (Reagan in particular) have almost certainly included something to the effect that, although it was the Founders who put those structures in place, and it is the people whose votes preserve them, the entire edifice rests on the solid bedrock known as “natural rights”?
“Natural” vs. “legal” rights are concepts explored here:
Natural and legal rights are two types of rights theoretically distinct according to philosophers and political scientists. Natural rights are rights not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable. In contrast, legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system.
In its familiar and oft-quoted second paragraph, the Declaration of Independence makes a stirring statement of natural rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Although the Constitution is a legal document and therefore codifies and enumerates rights in a legal way, it attempts to ensure that those natural (rather than merely legal) rights will be protected–that is, to secure those already-existent natural rights that are inalienable and God-given. And note the definition of that all-important word “inalienable,” which means “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.” In other words, inherent and permanent.