Balancing individual liberty, social responsibility

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Weeks have passed since the community of Parkland, Fla., became known throughout America. What constructive insights can we draw from three weeks of reflection on the horrifying events of the afternoon of Feb. 14?

America’s mass shooting epidemic is not strictly a firearms issue, but undoubtedly, firearms are a part of the equation. Firearms are instruments of power, granting an individual the capacity to instantaneously subjugate the foundational human right — life — of innumerable others.

This suggests why discussion on the place of firearms in American society is so heated — it is a proxy for a more fundamental question: how do we balance individual liberty and social responsibility?

In light of Parkland, let us pass on debating this question at its existential level. Rather, the germane correlate question is this: is there ever a moment where social responsibility should outweigh individual liberty?

With children dying in the very institutions built to secure their futures, the answer should be obvious.

Firearm ownership is an individual liberty; our social responsibility compels us to better govern this liberty in today’s society. An electronic national firearms database; a robust, multi-step process with rigorous background check for firearms purchasing or transfers; removal from the civilian market of militarizing accessories — i.e. the high capacity magazines and bump stocks that we have unfortunately learned so much of recently. These concrete, actionable steps should be a starting point while we engage in a more fundamental, nuanced societal reflection on our relationship to firearms.

The unique — and potentially devastating — power of firearms must be acknowledged and accounted for. To suggest otherwise is to imply that at no point should social responsibility trump individual liberty. And if that is so, it’s unclear how a community or society holds together and endures.

Jonathan Peterson