There is arguably no other right granted to citizens of the United States as hotly debated, and equally misunderstood, as the right to bear arms. Early opponents of the right as an individual guarantee argued that only the militia, which was to be interpreted as the National Guard, was to be armed. Such theories have been thwarted by exhaustive research and literature showing the clear intent of the Framers to have an armed citizenry, each individual being allowed to keep weapons without infringement. As such, opposing arguments have moved beyond the gleaning of false readings of the Second Amendment to assertions that the right is no longer pertinent in our day. It therefore becomes imperative for those interested in preserving the principles behind the Constitution to go deeper than the intent of the Framers to understand their reasoning for giving us this right.
The Historical Foundation
The Founding Fathers were well educated in the histories of past governments, and from this education came advantage of hindsight into the success and failure of ancient civilizations. In reading the philosophies of ancient Greece, Rome and other such empires, the moral reasons behind allowing citizens to be armed would be manifest. The writings of Aristotle, for example, are littered with arguments in favor of having an armed “polity.” In his work titled Politics, he makes several references to this right, saying the “polity” are “those who bear arms,” and that “…a king’s bodyguard is composed of citizens carrying arms; a tyrant’s of foreign mercenaries.”[i] From the earliest forms of government, it was understood that liberty, national sovereignty, and self-defense was best preserved by arming the citizens, and best removed by denying this right.
Equally as important to the Founder’s inclusion of the Second Amendment was the influence of 18th Century political philosophy. Consider the following quotes from the men whose political theory would become the groundwork for the Constitution:
“The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute . . . and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”[ii] –William Blackstone
“Who does not see that self-defence is a duty superior to every precept [of personal freedom]?”[iii] –Charles Montesquieu
“[It is the basic principle of a tyrant] to unarm his people of weapons, money, and all means whereby they resist his power.”[iv]—Sir Walter Raleigh
“Men of republican principles have been jealous of a standing army as dangerous of liberty…”[v]—Adam Smith
The Founders drew upon such references as evidence that a truly free republic would only be sustained if the populace was allowed to defend themselves from both foreign aggressors and domestic tyrants. This defense would only be possible by allowing the citizens to possess arms.
The evidence is plentiful to show the moral reasons behind the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the 18th Century, but the examples above do little to show if this right has any bearing whatsoever in the modern world. Contemporary examples of this right, or lack of it, must therefore be examined in order to find any conclusions.
In the book titled Death by Gun Control, Aaron Zelman and Richard W. Stevens examine several genocidal, mass-murdering regimes from 1933 to the present day. Their findings are astounding. From Nazi Germany to Cambodia to Rwanda, each regime prepared the genocide of a particular portion of their citizenry by establishing laws and regulations denying the universal and individual right to bear arms. Consider the following:
· Nazi Germany: passed two laws in 1938 banning Jews and other citizens “hostile to the government” from the possession of firearms[vi]
· Communist China: during the 1960’s, restriction of weapons to the military only enabled Mao to strip “millions of landowners, bureaucrats, dissenters, intellectuals and Party members… of wealth and power.”[vii]
· The Khmer Rouge: French occupiers enact mass restrictions on firearms in 1938 which were carried over until the Communists assumed control in 1975; unarmed citizens are slaughtered without a fight[viii]
· Rwanda: in 1979, the Hutu controlled government passes a series of gun-ownership restrictions, disarming the Tutsi people and leaving them defenseless against future aggression[ix]
Without the means to defend themselves against tyranny, the unarmed populace of these regimes did not have a chance to defend their lives and their liberty.
Adolf Hitler’s observation on the individual right to bear arms is perhaps the most foretelling of all:
“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjected people to carry arms; history shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjected people to carry arms have prepared their own downfall.”[x]
To say that the modern world is any different than that of Aristotle’s or Thomas Jefferson’s day in respect to bearing arms ignores the evidence of millions of men and women whose lives became forfeit as a result of individual disarmament. Tyrants know as the Founding Fathers knew that the easiest way to submit a nation to the will of the government is to disarm the people. The Second Amendment becomes therefore the safeguard to all other rights guaranteed in the Constitution, as the people are given the means to withstand any encroachment upon these rights.
Sustaining the Right
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the right to bear arms is inferred responsibility we have to actually own them and be proficient with their use. Most are satisfied with knowing that the Second Amendment guarantees them the right to have arms, should they ever want to. However, the language of the Second Amendment seems to admonish citizens of the US to do more with this right than to simply say they have it.
As the Founders intended the right to be individual, the “well regulated militia” refers to the US citizenry. David I. Caplan explains that “well-regulated” in the language of the Framers means “properly disciplined,” and goes on to say that “[p]rivately kept firearms and training with them apart from formal militia mustering was thus encompassed by the Second Amendment, in order to enable… citizens to be trained by being familiar in advance with the functioning of firearms.”[xi] Further evidence in support of this requirement to be skilled in handling firearms can be found in the writings of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas M. Cooley:
“…to bear arms implies something more than the mere keeping; it implies the learning to handle and use them in a way that makes those who keep them ready for their efficient use; in other words, it implies the right to meet for voluntary discipline in arms, observing in doing so the laws of public order.”[xii]
The Framers of the Constitution associated the moral right for citizens to be armed with the practicality that each citizen capable of owning a gun would learn how to use it properly. This would only seem logical, as possessing a weapon for the express purpose of self-defense and preservation of liberty becomes useless if one cannot operate the weapon properly. Furthermore, lack of skill and knowledge with such a powerful weapon can lead to the accidental death and injury that gives gun ownership a jaded image to begin with. It is only through the careful training in firearms that the Second Amendment is lived up to its original intent.
In this light, gun ownership and becoming skilled in its use is not just the right of every American citizen, but rather the responsibility. It is not enough to fight for this right in legislation only. The right must be exercised properly, lest the citizens of the US show they have become incapable of maintaining the right with the responsibility the Framers envisioned.
[i] Aristotle, Politics
[ii] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England
[iii] Charles Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws
[iv] Sir Walter Raleigh, The Works of Sir Walter Raleigh
[v] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
[vi] Zelman & Stevens, Death by Gun Control
[x] Adolf Hitler, Edict of March 18
[xi] Les Adams, The Second Amendment Primer
[xii] Thomas Cooley, General Principles of Constitutional Law
* Much of the research for this essay must be attributed to The Second Amendment Primer by Les Adams, as the work provides numerous sources the literature and fact concerning the right to bear arms.