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Rue 89, France

Why Freedom Includes the Right
to Bear Arms in the US

By Camille Pollet

Translated By Tara Ferguson

18 December 2012

Edited by Lydia Dallett

France - Rue 89 - Original Article (French)

Following the shooting in Newtown, multiple reactions from French and European media in relation to the debate on carrying weapons in the U.S. confirm that on either side of the Atlantic there are two very different conceptions of public freedom.

The right of each subject to bear arms comes from England. Suspended for a time by King James II (1685-1688), who was trying to restore an absolute monarchy, it was reinstated by the Declaration of Rights of 1689, which theorized the freedoms of the English parliamentary monarchy, among them the right to bear arms, guaranteed to Protestant subjects.

It was nevertheless against the British rule, and by the weapons of citizens, that America put forth its own liberal model. The U.S., in fact, built itself up against the British Empire during the Revolutionary War, which took place from 1775-1783.

An Armed Population: Guarantee against the Return of Imperialism

The reasons for the American Revolution are complex. In general, the independence-seekers believed that, on the political and economic level, the British Crown infringed upon the liberties of the colonists. Let’s not forget the denunciation of the standing army, sent by London to the thirteen colonies.

Once the war ended and independence was achieved, the thirteen colonies established a constitution. In their minds, the text was clearly hostile to imperialism. If the federal model had been chosen, they would have had to avoid falling into the shortcomings of the British era. The separatists, who had rebelled against the domination of London, did not delegate their powers to the new capital, Washington. So, the federal constitution gave a large amount of autonomy to each state.

To prevent any risk of slipping into an imperial model, it was decided that citizens would be guaranteed the right to bear arms. Never would U.S. citizens be defenseless against the federal state that attempts to reduce their freedoms.

This right is guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, enacted as part of the Bill of Rights of 1791. This amendment also confirmed a fact: At the end of the war, the separatists, of which a large number had fought in the militias, were armed.

The Various Definitions of Civil Liberties

In Europe, and especially in France, it is recognized that it is mainly the responsibility of the state to ensure public safety. This conception of the role of the state in security and civil peace has become absolutism in England, as well as in Europe since the seventeenth century.

In the history of political ideas, it is theorized especially by the famous “Leviathan” of Hobbes: In their natural state, men tear each other apart, while under the authority of a state dominated by a sovereign, civil peace is guaranteed.

In France, in addition to Hobbes, we must mention the contribution of Rousseau, according to whom freedoms are guaranteed by a pact of association, which emanates from the state. By delegating some of their freedom to the state for the general interest, the citizens finally reach a greater degree of freedom. In other words, in France, as in Europe, it is public liberty that guarantees individual liberty — and security — and not vice versa.

Marketing Strategies and Powerful Lobbies

U.S. political culture, however, invites us to distrust any directive from the federal government. The president himself, it must be remembered, is not directly elected by the citizens but by electors from each of the fifty states, which limits the legitimacy of his initiatives for Americans.

From the point of view of political culture as institutions, the flexibility of Barack Obama on the issue of weapons is actually quite limited. As for the insurgence of arguments in favor of carrying weapons since the Newtown shooting: If it seems incongruous on our side of the Atlantic, it is fully integrated into the U.S. liberal tradition.

Of course, this debate cannot be reduced to historical references. Arms trade in the U.S. also involves marketing strategies and powerful lobbies. Yet these aspects could also of course be challenged in terms of public and individual freedoms.



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