Volume > Issue > Can There Be Any Right to Life Without a Right to Self-Defense?

Can There Be Any Right to Life Without a Right to Self-Defense?


By David C. Stolinsky | May 1997
David C. Stolinsky, M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is semi-retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

Washington, D.C., has strict gun-control laws that virtually prohibit bit private ownership of handguns. In addition, rifles and shotguns must be registered and kept disassembled and unloaded. That is, the laws forbid residents from using effective means for self-defense. Some time ago, three women were attacked by a group of men who broke into their home. One woman managed to phone the police, who arrived and knocked on the door, but the police got no response, so they departed. The women were repeatedly raped and beaten for 14 hours. Later they sued the police for negligence, but lost their case. The court held that the police have a duty to protect society but no duty to protect any individual. Courts elsewhere have made similar decisions. Thus in our nation’s capital, the police have no duty to protect individual citizens, but the citizens are forbidden to protect them- selves effectively. Despite its strict gun-control laws (or perhaps in part because of them), Washington has an extremely high rate of homicide and other violent crimes.

Is this bizarre situation merely some temporary aberration or legal quirk? Or is it symptomatic of a deeper malady? What possible basis could there be for denying the right of self-defense? Isn’t the right to life the most basic of all rights: And how can anyone have a right to life if his life is constantly at the mercy of any criminal who wishes to take it? How can anyone have more concern for the violent criminal than for the law-abiding citizen who simply wishes to remain alive? What is the explanation for this turn of events? Is it pacifism?

Until recently, pacifists have come in two varieties. The strict variety holds that all violence is wrong. Overcoming a violent evildoer often requires force, but strict pacifists reject this approach as unethical. Still, one can respect the sincerity of their beliefs. The second variety of pacifist allows certain exceptions. Particularly horrible examples of evil may be opposed with force if absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, these horrible examples usually seem to he in the past. In the 1930s the horrible example was often Genghis Khan, and in the 1980s it was Hitler. Thus isolationists in the 1930s opposed rearmament, despite the rise of Hitler, by pointing out that no Genghis Khan was at the gates. Similarly, isolationists of the 1980s opposed rearmament, despite the growth of the Soviet empire, by pointing out that there was no Hitler on the horizon. Thus the second variety of pacifist hardly differs from the first; the exceptions are irrelevant to current problems.

Recently, a third variety of pacifist has appeared. This type differs from the others in two important respects. First, this new type holds that while all violence is wrong, defensive violence is worse than offensive violence. Second, rather than being mere bystanders in the struggles of humanity, these new pacifists are forced by their beliefs to become participants, but on the wrong side. The following examples may suffice to show that such persons actually exist and hold such odd beliefs.

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