"Leviathan" and its Insights about Thomas Hobbes’ View on Gun Laws

Seminar Paper, 2020

30 Pages, Grade: 5.0





1. Introduction

2. Definitions
2.1. “Gun vs. “Firearm”
2.2. “Gun Rights” versus “Gun laws”
2.3. “State”

3. Current Developments
3.1. Ongoing Debates in Europe
3.2. Ongoing Debates in the United States

4. Hobbes on Gun Rights
4.1. Distinguishing Two States
4.2. The Two Fundamental Laws of Nature
4.3. Gun Laws in during the Natural State
4.4. Gun Laws during a State of Absolutist Rule

5. Contextualisation & Discussion

6. Hobbes’ Predicted Gun Policy


7. Bibliography


This paper intends on developing Hobbes’ opinion on gun laws based on his writing of “Leviathan”, and from there answering the question, what gun policy Hobbes would favour nowadays. According to Hobbes, citizens can live in two states. The first one is the natural state, which Hobbes depicts as “war of every one against every one”. In the second state, Leviathan as an absolutist ruler strips people of all their rights but one, leaving them the right to self-defence. If gun laws constrain said right, Hobbes thinks this law is to be considered a crime and illegitimate. Failed states do not have a functioning executive power; therefore they are in their natural state. All gun laws in failed states should be abolished, since they constrain a man’s ability to defend himself. For countries with an effective executive power, Hobbes favours strict gun laws in order for a nation-state being able to maintain its monopoly on violence. He regards the state monopoly on violence as more important than the right to self-defence because the inexistence of the state monopoly on violence would again lead to a war of everyone against everyone which was to be overcome by establishing the absolutist ruler in the first place.

1. Introduction

Throughout the last few years, there have constantly been discussions about whether or not to implement more gun control legislation. In Europe and the United States, the subject of gun control gained more attention with the news reporting on mass shootings and terror attacks. Where should gun legislation go from here on? Either towards further restricting gun rights, or in the direction of liberalising gun laws?

Non-doubtedly, gun rights and gun laws are important topics that need to be discussed. This paper will define terms such as “gun” and “firearm”, in order to spare the reader from unnecessary guesswork. Subsequently, a summary of the most crucial points facing the ongoing debate about gun rights respectively gun laws will follow, so as to provide the context in which gun rights are currently discussed.

The next step will be to elaborate on Hobbes’ two states as well as his two fundamental laws of nature. This is the theoretical fundament from where Hobbes’ opinion on gun laws will be developed. From there it is necessary to put Hobbes writings into context since his work “Leviathan” was published more than three centuries ago. Lastly, Hobbes’ predicted opinion on gun laws will be applied to contemporary society in the form of a Hobbesian gun policy. This paper serves the purpose of integrating the views of a classical philosopher to today’s debate on gun laws, which lacks its theoretical and empirical fundament and is instead fought mainly on the basis of emotions.

2. Definitions

2.1. “Gun vs. “Firearm”

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” As Socrates knew, definitions are crucial before engaging in any philosophical work. Therefore it is essential to firstly define the most vital terms of this paper. Although often used as synonym, guns and firearms are not entirely the same. The main difference here is that every firearm is a gun, but not every gun is a firearm. US Law defines a firearm as “any weapon that will […] expel a projectile by the action of an explosive” (Cornell Law School, n.d.). Not all guns fulfil this technical criterion, speaking of imitation or “toy” guns. Referring to gun rights and gun laws, using the word “firearms” instead of “guns” would pedantically make more sense. Considering the fact that most people as well as political campaigns use these terms synonymously and “guns” is more common, the term “gun” in the sense of a firearm will be used throughout this paper.

2.2. “Gun Rights” versus “Gun laws”

At this point it is required to develop a distinction between the two terms of “gun rights” and “gun laws”. In the following, “gun rights” will be referred to as the “entitlement of individuals to own and carry guns” (Your Dictionary, n.d.). Extending the definition by “[…] which is granted by a constitution” was omitted, since this would come with several legal questions and issues.

As always, open terms such as “gun control” come with several definitions. There are precise definitions from a legal point of view, but there also are more general definitions. The legal perspective defines gun laws respectively gun control laws as “laws regulating the purchase, sale, manufacture and use of guns” (Your Dictionary, n.d.). Since the main goal of this paper does not lay in a legalistic framework, I will from now on work with the general definition, defining gun laws as “Laws governing the ownership and carrying of guns” (Lexico, n.d.). This definition is now directly opposed to the definition of gun rights, which allows for using the two terms as antonyms.

However, at this point one must say that these two terms, through media coverage and political polarisation have gained a massive emotional relevancy. Just saying the word “gun laws” will be the cause for an approving nod from one group, and a disgusted stare from the opposed group. The term “gun rights” lays its connotation on the entitlement to something. Similar to Hannah Arendt’s positive freedom, gun rights describe the freedom to possess or carry a gun. The term “gun laws” brings within a legal perspective and therefore a mindset of guns being dangerous and possibly partly responsible for physical as well as mental damage. Gun laws as a consequence come with the promise to avert said damage, thus promoting the freedom of being harmed.

The definitions of these two terms are now directly opposed. While “gun rights” emphasises the aspect of freedom and comes with a more positive approach to guns, the term “gun laws” comes with a negative image of guns, which is solely explained by the demand to regulate them. In the following term of “gun laws” will be used since gun laws are quantifiable and not an abstract concept such as gun rights.

2.3. “State”

When writing about Hobbes’ natural state, the state of absolutist rule and states in the sense of geography, it is important to distinguish the two conditions “states” from the geographic entity “state”. The two conditions are best described by the German word “Zustände”, while the geographic entity can be called a “Staat”. In order to avert confusion, states and nation-states will be distinguished, where it is not obviously clear. It is legitimate to consider the regional state, which is ruled by Leviathan, as the first nation-state in history (Feinstein, 2020). However, this topic remains disputed and a majority of scholars consider post-revolutionary France as the first nation-state to ever exist. Considering Commonwealth as a nation--state facilitates further the application of Hobbes’ concepts to today’s society.

3. Current Developments

3.1. Ongoing Debates in Europe

In Europe, the number of guns per capita are especially high in former Yugoslavian countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, with 100 Serbian residents possessing 39 guns on average. In Switzerland, a minimum of 27.6 guns comes per 100 residents, with the actual number possibly being significantly higher due to lacking registration (Karp, 2018). In the last few years, terrorist attacks all over Europe pressured politicians in acting against gun violence and in support of stricter gun laws. As an example, the weapons used in the Paris attacks were smuggled into Europe from the beforehand mentioned former Yugoslavian countries. The Guardian writes: “The attacks in Paris involved automatic weapons originally from former military stockpiles in the Balkans that had ended up in the hands of criminals in Belgium” (Burke, 2018).

The European Firearms Directive was originally founded in 1991 (EUR-Lex, 1991) and was created with the aim to create minimal standards for gun control in Europe. As a reaction to the terroristic developments, the European Union decided to amend a directive to the European Firearms Directive in 2015, essentially creating higher hurdles for citizens to acquire guns (The Federal Council, 2019). The directive was accepted by most countries whilst being criticised mainly by countries from the Eastern Block such as the Czech Republic (European Commission, 2015), as well as Switzerland, where the Swiss Shooting Association SSV was able to collect the multiple amount of the signatures that were needed so as to raise a referendum (Schweizer Schiesssportverband, 2019). However, on May 19 2019, the referendum was rejected with nearly a two-third majority, making way for the implementation of the European Firearms Directive into Swiss legislation (Raaflaub, 2019). Article 17 of the EFD reads:

By 14 September 2020, and every 5 years thereafter, the Commission shall submit to the European Parliament and to the Council a report on the application of this Directive, including a fitness check of its provisions, accompanied, if appropriate, by legislative proposals […] -(EUR-Lex, 2017)

Regarding the tendency of gun laws becoming increasingly strict as for example in 2008 (EUR-Lex, 2008) and 2015, the European Union is likely to further restrict citizens’ gun rights in an interval of five years. In five or ten years, the stricter gun laws might ban semi-automatic guns for European citizens (Reuters, 2016).

3.2. Ongoing Debates in the United States

In the United States of America, the right to bear arms is written down in the bill of rights, which was ratified in 1791 (National Archives, 2015). The so-called second amendment says, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (Cornell Law School, n.d.). One can clearly see the essentiality of the right to bear arms to the American founding fathers, since the second amendment follows right after the first amendment, which guarantees the freedom of speech and expression.

Long being accepted as the Status quo, gun rights in the US have increasingly become controversial. In contrast to Europe, it was not international terrorism, but rather domestic attacks that changed the US-American citizens’ view on gun. Often, attackers were students which carried out their atrocities in schools. Those were i.e. the case in the attacks in Columbine, Parkland and Virginia (CNN US, 2020). More recently in 2017, a 64-year-old man who stayed at a Hotel in Las Vegas opened fire at cheerful partygoers. All these events attracted immense global media coverage, eventually leading to more people questioning the status quo as well as the constitutional right to acquire, possess and carry a gun.

The second amendment has since been under attack, with supporters of gun rights and supporters of gun laws fighting about what the founding fathers really meant, when they wrote about “a well-regulated militia”. Whilst defenders of gun rights quote the bill of rights in order to defend citizen’s right to keep and bear arms and regard gun laws as infringement of the second amendment, gun law advocates claim that the founding fathers never anticipated the change in society and weapon technology that occurs in two hundred years, and therefore placing limitation on the second amendment may as well be considered legitimate. Not only was the second amendment written when settlers further descended into the lawless wild west and required the means of self-protection, but also did guns advance from a flintlock rifle to a semi-automatic AR-15.

Advanced polarisation in the US was the reason for people to be either “pro-gun” or “anti-gun”, poisoning the debate culture and making fruitful discussions impossible. The situation in 2019 was, that 60% of US-American citizens were in favour of stricter gun laws, while the rest preferred the status quo or less strict gun laws (Treisman, 2019). Often, people feel the need to demonstrate their association with one of both sides, which not rarely ends in violence-fuelled rallies. The National Rifle Association NRA is known for projecting a Hobbesian worldview in order to promote its ideology of people needing guns to defend themselves against a threat (Hallenbrook and Reed, 2018). With Donald Trump, a Republican and supporter of the National Rifle Association, the US-Administration is unlikely to implement stricter gun laws. However, if President Trump were to be replaced by Democrat Joe Biden, the US would likely be taking a stricter approach on who can own guns, since Biden recently urged for stricter gun laws (Biden for President, 2019).

Considering the high number of guns in the United States and a significant percentage of US-citizens regard gun rights as a fundamental human right, it is implausible that the US government could implement major changes in gun laws without using autocratic measures such as threats and extreme punishments for those who will not obey the new laws. Of course, the administration might implement some minor changes, such as a compulsory background check for every purchase. However, if a major change in US gun laws is to happen, which is very unlikely due to the Republican Party and the lobbying NRA, US-citizens are expected to either not comply or even resist (Gunter, 2020). In the US, and especially in gun-friendly US-states such as Texas or Ohio, a disarmament of the population that owns semi-automatic guns is not likely to take place in a peaceful manner as it did in New Zealand in 2019 (Zraick, 2019).

4. Hobbes on Gun Rights

4.1. Distinguishing Two States

Let us dive into Hobbes’ theory. Most importantly, he writes about two states a regional state can be in. Either there is a war of everyone against everyone, or an absolutist ruler. The war of everyone against everyone can also be described as the natural state, which one may also name “Pre-Leviathan”, since this term strikes that the establishment of a ruling Leviathan follows out of the natural state and replaces it.

Now, resulting out of men’s discontent with the natural state and their willingness to give up their right to everything in order for stability and security, the Leviathan regional state is being created. The right to everything is laid down in exchange for other men doing it too, which results in less violations in the rights of others due to the fact, that men gave up their right to everything, which includes the right to impede others in their liberty. After the process of men giving up their right to everything in order to escape the constant war, society is now being governed by an absolute ruler instead of terrified by everlasting anarchy and war. The situation at this point differs fundamentally from the natural state. A regional state has been created, who implements laws and enforces them by using its monopoly of power. In a regional state where people are governed by a leader with absolute power, citizens are stripped of all of their rights but one. They do not have the right to associate or speak freely anymore, since they gave up those rights in an attempt to escape the consequences of a condition of war.

When talking about citizens giving up most of their rights in exchange for security, one cannot oversee the similarity between the Hobbesian process of the establishment of an absolute ruler and Rousseau’s social contract, which strengthens the “general will” by imposing duties on citizens (Rousseau, 1796).

4.2. The Two Fundamental Laws of Nature

When writing about Hobbes’ opinion on self-defence and gun laws, it will be referred to as follows: “Leviathan or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil”, which was published in 1651. In his most famous work, Hobbes portrays two fundamental laws every man was given by nature:

[…] every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves. -(Hobbes and Hay, 1651, p. 81)

The first law of nature describes how it is a man’s duty to always seek peace and act peacefully. If peace cannot be fulfilled, the fundamental law of nature enables man to defend himself by all means as well as use the “advantages of war” (Hobbes, p. 81). This second law directly results from the first law, “by which men are commanded to endeavour peace” (Hobbes, p. 81). Since the right to defend oneself results from the law of nature to seek peace and follow it, self-defence must therefore, according to Hobbes, be a way of endeavouring peace. That is a legitimate point, since justifiable, meaning proportionate self-defence will reduce the amount of violence that occurs.

4.3. Gun Laws in during the Natural State

Hobbes is well-known for his conception of a natural state in which anarchy rules. In such a natural state, which could also be characterised as Pre-Leviathan state, men have the “right to every thing”, which allows them to pursue their goals and ends by every means. The right to everything is being legitimised by the second fundamental law of nature: “[…] the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend our-selves” (Hobbes, p. 81). Since there is no superordinate power, men make use of their natural right to defend themselves by all means and thus create a “condition of war” (Hobbes, p. 80). This condition then in turn leads to a war of everyone against everyone, which Hobbes describes with the words “Homo homini lupus”, which translate to “[…] Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe” (Hobbes and Warrender, 1983, p. 24). Hobbes’ main conception is thus, that man’s condition of war leads to a war of everyone against everyone. Out of the natural right to defend oneselve by all means follows that in such a situation, men have the right to everything, including murder and plunder. As long as this right to everything persists, there cannot be any security to man, but only the security “what their own strength […] shall furnish them withal” (Hobbes and Hay, 1651, p. 78). This concept is best summarised in Hobbes’ own words:


Excerpt out of 30 pages


"Leviathan" and its Insights about Thomas Hobbes’ View on Gun Laws
University of Luzern
Die moralischen Grenzen des Marktes
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Guns, Waffen, Rights, Rechte, Gun Rights, Waffenrechte, Gun Laws, Waffengesetze, Monopoly on Violence, Gewaltmonopol, Natural State, Naturzustand, Legislation, Gesetzgebung, Firearm, Feuerwaffe, State, Staat, Self-defense, Selbstverteidigung, Absolutism, Absolutismus
Quote paper
Nathanael Schabrun (Author), 2020, "Leviathan" and its Insights about Thomas Hobbes’ View on Gun Laws, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1139767


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