When discussing the concept of “rights” with any conservative, or right leaning individual, I find that the one “right” that engenders the most passion and fervor is the right to “keep and bear arms”.
I’ll say it this way: conservatives loves their guns and the “right” to have those guns.
In fact, if I said, “We are about to lose all semblance of our right to free speech” that would definitely stir up some angst in the conservative community but angst and some grumbling would be the extent of it.
Or I could say, “We’re close to losing our right to a trial by jury” and I’d get some murmuring and griping, but that would be about it.
But if I said, “We’re about to lose our gun rights”, boy, you’d think someone just made a war cry. I may have well have said, “Comrads, take up your arms!”. Without fail, a threat to our right to keep and bear arms always results in a “You better not come to take my guns! I’ll fight you for that.”
Has anyone else noticed this?
It’s a unique response when compared to responses given to other rights being threatened, when indeed losing the right to “free speech” or “religion” is, on a practical level, more damaging. In other words, you lose your right to free speech, your life is going to change quite drastically on a very real, day to day, basis. That’s not practically true if you lose your right to own a gun.
Literally, the only thing that would change is that you once had an item and now you don’t. In other words, you can’t have a gun in your home or strapped to your side anymore but nothing practically changes other than the fact that an item that was previously in your possession is no longer in your possession. That’s a far less dramatic change from having to censor your speech everywhere you go or you could be arrested and imprisoned for something you said.
Now I know, I can feel the tension rising in all of you as you read this. You all have your reasons and explanations for just how different your life would be if you couldn’t carry that gun around anymore or couldn’t defend your home. I get that, and I’m going somewhere with this, but humor me.
So, why is it that, when it comes down to it, we hold so tightly to this “right to keep and bear arms”?
I think a little historical context and a slight exposition on what the Second Amendment means and the reason why we even have the Second Amendment in the first place, is needed.
And remember, we really shouldn’t need the Second Amendment because our government, based on their enumerated powers, should not be able to write laws that would limit our right to own guns. Never forget this.
The Second Amendment: Militia?
Let’s start with what the Second Amendment actually says and we’ll go from there.
“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.”
And that’s it. It’s one of the shortest amendments and yet one of the most controversial.
Let’s take a look at the language for a moment. The amendment says, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” .
Pay attention to that. This amendment is necessary to the security of…what? A FREE state.
Very literally, the founders felt that a militia (and I’ll get to what that is in a second) was essential to liberty. Get this. They’d watched far too many countries in their time and before their time, fall to tyranny because the people were unarmed and therefore subject to the power and will of the government and the government’s standing army.
And this is where things get interesting. Not all of the founders were in favor of a standing federal army, while some were in favor of a standing federal army. Madison and the Federalists felt that the U.S. must have a standing army in order to protect the country from outside invasion. The problem was, Madison, as well as the other founders, felt that a standing army was very literally the antithesis to a free state.
So, what was to be done about this quandray? Well, they assumed that, if they made sure every able bodied and capable citizen were part of a constant standing “militia” (usually of the state), then there was no way the “army” could ever threaten the liberty of the citizens, if the citizens were a militia unto themselves.
Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, I Annals of Congress 750, August 17, 1789 said, “What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty …. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.”
And Richard Henry Lee, Federal Farmer No. 18, January 25, 1788 says:
“A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves…and include, according to the past and general usage of the states, all men capable of bearing arms… To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.”
And James Madison, I Annals of Congress 434, June 8, 1789 said, ““The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.”
So, a militia is made up of the whole body of the people, people that would drop their day jobs, grab their guns, defend their country and come back to their day jobs. That’s it.
There’s a lot to this “militia” concept that I could continue to unpack for you, but I think the simplicity of what I’ve laid out here is enough for today. In the minds of the founders, if the people were not themselves trained and armed, a free society could not exist.
Perhaps this is why we respond so strongly to the threat against our guns? Is it that we still somehow have that same fervor that our founders did? Do we innately know that, should we ever all be disarmed, every other “right” would disappear along with guns?
This quote from an article published in The Washington Post sums up the founder’s, and quite frankly, today’s conservatives’, perspective quite simply:
“The only way to be both free and secure was for citizens to be armed, organized and ready to defend their society. The choice was a stark one: a standing army or a free nation.”
The Second Amendment: Shall Not Be Infringed
The second half of the Second Amendment says, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Again, remember that this means that Congress cannot make laws that infringe upon this right. There are some that argue that this right is a communal or “state” right. In other words, the state militias have the right to keep and bear arms and the Second Amendment is not an individual right.
My simple response is. What right isn’t an individual right? The debate about whether gun rights are for individuals or collectives is flawed. If you pay attention to the Bill of Rights only one amendment specifically states that it is protecting a (communal) state right; all other amendments speak directly about protecting the individual rights of the individual citizens of the United States.
The founders wanted to avoid tyranny and governmental abuse at all costs. An armed citizenry was necessary to do so. That’s it.
Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833 sums this issue up quite nicely:
“The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”
The ability to keep and bear arms is unique and beautiful. It is one of the key reasons this country is rarely invaded by other countries and is the key reason our government is continually held at bay. No other country in history has had the luxury of an armed citizenry to protect and defend liberty. Can this right be abused and misused? Yes. As all liberty and rights are, and at a high cost.
But it was a cost our founders were willing to pay because they’d seen the higher cost that citizens pay when only those in power possess a means to defend themselves, their property, their families and their power.
So, I’ll come back to my initial question. Why is it that some Americans consider it “fighting ground” for someone to take their guns?
Perhaps because they know what the founders knew long ago; disarm the citizenry, and you have a people easily conquered and controlled.
Disarm the citizenry, lose liberty. There is a cost to having an armed citizenry sometimes—as many today continue to point out, but as Jefferson so beautifully said,
“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.”
The Liberty Belle
2 thoughts on “The Amendments Series: The Right to Bear Arms”
Well argued . It is the foundation upon which all other rights flow .
The founders drew heavily on their knowledge of Greek and Roman history too . It was custom in Greece and initially Rome for a farmer to join a local militia to defend their city state . For example it was really a rag tag bunch of farmers that defeated the Persians at marathon.
The romans started that way too but circa 100 or so years after the Greek Persian wars , Rome still a small city state at the time was sacked by the Gauls and hence Rome the rage yer decided on a standing army and then went one step further institutionalising a professional military with the Marion reforms a few hundred years later and the rest is history but equally standing armies were always seen as a doubled edge sword ( ironically exactly what a gladius is ) as they paved the way to dictatorships as was the case with Caesar himself who crowned himself dictator for life. So standing armies were always seen down through the dark and Middle Ages with deep suspicion as a way for tyrants to embed power .