Wyoming Liberty Group
A Grizzly Situation: Is the Right to Self-Defense Extinct?
Something is seriously amiss when it comes to grizzly bears and the federal government. At the end of May, a jury found Stephen Westmoreland guilty of illegally taking a grizzly bear. Though he claimed self-defense in his trip to the Greater Yellowstone area, bear management experts testified about the nuances of how bears retreat and argued that the shooting was not justified. During the same time period, an unlucky visitor at Denali National Park happened upon a grizzly bear. Fortunate for himself and his female companion, he fired nine shots into the bear, stopping its assault and saving their lives.
As in the Yellowstone example, government agents have explained that since it is illegal to discharge firearms in national parks, a determination is still pending about whether charges will be brought against the hiker.
The first law of nature is the right to self-defense. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, para. 11 (1690). When faced with the kind of mortal onslaught that a grizzly can bring, individuals must retain the right to protect their lives from dangerous animals. Burdening this right or entirely eliminating it removes a most fundamental claim to personal sovereignty – the ability to preserve your own life. Being wary about eliminating personal sovereignty was a concept well understood by the founding generation because its demise leads to the steady development of tyranny. Its most immediate manifestation is clear here – giving lopsided preference to federal authority or greater protection to dangerous wildlife than we give to individuals exercising the right of self-defense.
Sam Adams aptly supported this principle: “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.” Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists (Nov. 20, 1772). Thus, this first law of nature (of self-preservation) cannot rightfully be extinguished in a free society – any more than the right to your own life or liberty could be.
For too long, these first principles have been muddied due to the overwhelming presence of the federal government in western states and in the most intimate sections of our lives. In the most recent grizzly bear example, claims of unlimited power over federal public lands will undoubtedly come to the fore. Presupposing that federal authority is almost always superior to the exercise of any protected individual right is the very death knell of sovereignty. However popular it may be, this viewpoint is decidedly mistaken and undermines the proud protection of liberty built into our federal and state constitutions.
The right to protect your life against a grizzly bear attack may seem small just now. But a protracted loss of personal sovereignty finds itself in claims about federal wildlife today, private access to life-saving medical treatment tomorrow, and the very sustainment of our Republic in years to come. In each setting, citizens and states must hold firm to these first principles rather than continually bow to exaggerated claims of federal omnipotence. Doing so would mark the genuine re-birth of a sovereignty movement in the United States and restore protection to our antiquated rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.