December 14, 2016

The Second Amendment in Context

American militia firing at the British infantry from behind a split rail fence during the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, March 15, 1781

It seems to me that there are three important words in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that always get left out in contemporary discussions. Here is the Second Amendment with the three words to which I refer in bold:
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.
When one considers the Second Amendment in the historical context in which the Constitution was passed by Congress (1789) and subsequently ratified (1791), it seems like quite a stretch to argue that it was about the right of every American to hunt, shoot targets at the range, or even to defend himself or herself from home invaders. Instead, it seems that the purpose of the Second Amendment likely had something to do with the idea that an armed populace had a better chance of overthrowing a tyrannical government if it became necessary to do so.

At the time the Constitution was drafted, many of the authors (i.e., the Anti-Federalists) were adamantly opposed the idea that the U.S. would ever have a standing army. Why? Because they feared that a government with a standing army could become tyrannical far easier than one without a standing army. Makes sense, doesn't it? The original purpose of the Second Amendment, then, was to make it easier for the people to defend themselves against such a possibility.

Of course, we have a standing army today. If you listen to Democrats like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, you might come away with the impression that it is the greatest, best equipped, most powerful military force humanity has ever witnessed. On the other hand, if you listen to most of the Republicans who recently ran for president, including Donald Trump, you might come away with the impression that it is tiny, weak, and ineffective.

Regardless of which narrative you believe is closer to reality, the fact is that we have a standing army with access to weaponry the authors of our Constitution never could have imagined and to which we civilians are denied access. We also have highly militarized civilian police forces in every major city and many less-than-major cities. The possibility that an armed citizenry, even one as heavily armed as we are today, could overthrow the U.S. government is...well...remote at best.

And this brings us to one of the most interesting things about the Second Amendment. If it is really about making it possible for the people to overthrow their government as it almost certainly was when it was originally drafted, then it seems obvious that there should be no restrictions whatsoever on the weaponry that civilians can own. We should have access to fully automatic assault rifles, armor piercing rounds, white phosphorous, rocket propelled grenades, landmines, tanks, and so on. Anything the military has, we should have an absolute right to own. In 1789, it is a good bet that the people had the option of owning the same weaponry as the army.

On the other hand, if we have decided that this is not what the Second Amendment is about, then we probably need to be honest about that. We have already passed a number of restrictions on the sort of weaponry that civilians are permitted to own. There are all sorts of things that soldiers can get their hands on that civilians are not allowed to access. If we decide that making it easier for the people to rise up and overthrow our government is not what we are going for, then there seems to be little harm in passing additional restrictions.

And while we're on the subject of the people rising up and overthrowing their government, have you ever noticed how those who talk incessantly about how valuable this is and how it might need to happen sooner than later (because Obama is a tyrant) always imagine that they will be the ones to do it? They never stop to consider the possibility that another group - a group with goals completely opposed to their own - might be the ones to attempt such an overthrow. What if the next American revolution was an overthrow of our government by the unholy alliance of radical feminist social justice warriors and Islamists (this would be their leader)? All joking aside, I do wonder if those saying that we need guns to fight tyranny have ever considered the possibility of someone else deciding to overthrow their government.

Is the U.S. Constitution a "living document" as most liberals believe? If so, we should feel free to restrict civilian access to the weapons of war (as we already do) and stop pretending that the Second Amendment has anything to do with tyranny. If not, we need to grant civilians access to the same firepower the military has in order to make it possible for groups of civilians, including those with views very different from our own, to overthrow our government even if we do not wish to see it overthrown.
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