The Second Amendment Misunderstood

Yesterday the President proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he misunderstands the Constitution’s second amendment. Grammarians can obfuscate, jurists and legal scholars can evolve, and politicians can pander, but key historical facts point in one direction: individual firearm ownership has always been an essential individual right.

More than a decade before the second amendment was even imagined, colonial leaders signed the Declaration of Independence, and thereby wed themselves to these treasonous words: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends (liberty), it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Naturally, it took a war, often carried forward by men bearing a personal firearm, to end England’s control over the thirteen colonies. Thus it is not surprising that the founding generation inexorably linked individual firearm ownership to the cause of liberty.

A few years later, in 1788, James Madison built on the premise Thomas Jefferson established in the Declaration of Independence. Critics of the recently proposed Constitution claimed that it would make the federal government too powerful, and the people’s rights would be in jeopardy. Madison ultimately defended his support for the Constitution with an argument that seems radical today.

Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government…To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by (state) governments possessing their affections and confidence.

Madison’s points were powerful. First, Mr. Madison clearly believed that domestic gun ownership was the ultimate tool to preserve liberty in desperate times. Second, he presupposed that widespread firearm ownership would allow almost 1 in 4 males to bear arms against a tyrannical federal government. Less than two years after expressing these views, James Madison proposed the Bill of Rights.

Initially, Mr. Madison felt a Bill of Rights was unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous. He worried that a solitary list of rights would eventually allow a misguided leader to contend that citizens only possessed the rights on the official list (the ninth amendment addressed this concern). Critics of the Constitution saw the problem from the opposite angle – they believed the absence of a Bill of Rights spelled doom for individual liberty. Madison reluctantly relented. Carefully considered, the debate over the Bill of Rights sheds light on the meaning of the second amendment.

Since the Bill of Rights was an attempt to pacify many of Constitution’s suspicious critics, it would have been exceedingly irrational to propose any amendment that strengthened the federal government’s power at the expense of states and individuals. The only logical purpose for the second amendment was to limit federal power, and thereby allay the concerns expressed by prominent men and women. Furthermore, if the militia clause of the second amendment is taken in the appropriate historical context, it is abundantly clear that the second amendment has little in common with the National Guard, and everything to do with individual citizens that “keep and bear arms.”

Many of America’s founding luminaries valued individual firearm ownership precisely because they were convinced that humans were prone to abuse political power. English statesman Edmund Burke unintentionally described this early American mindset when he observed that “the greater the power the more dangerous the abuse.” For men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, firearms were a tool of last resort, a means by which citizens could defend their liberties from an outrageously abusive government. Yet this view does not justify, either morally or strategically, violence against the US government. Armed violence – particularly civil wars – are rarely justified, and usually end badly for all involved. Violence cannot bridge the cultural divide over firearms, but education might be equal to the task.

A majority of Americans (including the President), lack a cultural attachment to firearms, and therefore find it easy to support a wide array of restrictive new gun control measures. Nevertheless, the Bill of Rights was designed to transcend culture and guarantee tolerance. Every American deserves to be protected from the “insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.” A heart-felt presidential speech about the need for government control over firearms is surely important, and perhaps even moving; nevertheless, presidential policy preferences should be no match for the Bill Rights and a properly contextualized reading of the second amendment. Unfortunately, a century of legal precedent has broadened federal power and made the future of firearm regulation uncertain.


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