Who will be the President of the United States in 2032? Will future leaders be benevolent and uphold their solemn oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” or will they seek to undermine it, either for want of power or some misguided notion that their role is to rule rather than serve? How will our liberties fare over the coming years; will they remain as they are, increase, or be diminished? How will conditions in America be in terms of crime and security? To what degree will the powers and influence of government change?
When the founders drafted our Constitution, and particularly the original amendments to it—the Bill of Rights—I imagine that these were precisely the types of questions they had in mind. They sought to ensure liberty, not just in their time, but for posterity. Guided by wisdom, the founders knew they could never answer such questions, and that no future generation of Americans could either.
To understand their motivation we need to appreciate what they had just experienced in the Revolution, and we must remember that that is just what it was—a revolution. They had just cast off, by force of arms, what they considered an oppressive, tyrannical government. Indeed, the crucible that bore the document that codifies the freedoms we cherish was one of violence. Our fore-fathers fought for their freedom, and ours.
It is in light of this that we are, once again, arguing about guns in America and the meaning and relevancy of the Second Amendment. Every time some terrorist or lunatic uses a gun to commit murder, debates about this most foundational right ensue. After the recent massacre in Orlando, Florida, the intent and applicability of the Second Amendment is again being called into question.
What is the Second Amendment? What does it say, mean, and do we still need it?
The words are not complicated:
“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.”
Some claim that the right to bear arms applies only to members of an organized militia—what is referred to as the “collective rights” interpretation. Some claim that it is an outdated, unnecessary part of our Constitution that should be repealed. Others contend that while the right is guaranteed by the Constitution, it is acceptable only so far as allowing individuals the ability to protect themselves (within certain limitations of force), or to hunt wildlife. Even some of the most recent Supreme Court decisions celebrated by gun owners, seem to suggest that the primary purpose of the Second Amendment is to allow for personal protection.
But none of these are accurate. The Second Amendment was included in the Constitution as a logical extension of, and intended as the ultimate guarantor of, everything else contained within the Constitution. Again, the men who crafted it did so with their very recent experience of conflict—the American Revolution—a war that necessitated arms in order to prevail against what was then the strongest military in the world.
Today, a great misconception—one promoted by those seeking to weaken or outright dismantle the Second Amendment —is that the right to bear arms is primarily to allow citizens to own and use guns for hunting or sport, or in their most “generous” interpretation, for self defense. But again, these are not what the Second Amendment was or is about.
The Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights because the framers distrusted an all-powerful federal government and sought to ensure that American citizens would forever possess the means to resist, and even to overthrow if necessary, a tyrannical, corrupt or oppressive government. The inherent right of self defense was assumed and affirmed prior to the establishment of the Bill of Rights, first in the Declaration of Independence, as expressed in the first phrase of that document, which reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
While personal protection is contained within its meaning, the primary purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that American citizens shall always have the means to stand against any force, including their own government, that might someday threaten liberty. In fact, the framers thought it not only a right that American citizens bear arms, but a duty:
“The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people; that… it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.” –Thomas Jefferson
Only a Right for a “Well Regulated Militia?”
The only way that a “well regulated Militia” can form is when armed citizens are available to form it. It was clear to the framers that they were not granting the people the right to keep and bear arms, they were affirming that as free people, Americans already had that right, and the federal government must forever recognize and respect it.
As to the point often raised by those who oppose an individual right to bear arms—those who contend that the right only applies to members of a “well regulated militia”—one only need consider the precise wording of the amendment itself. It clearly states, “…the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.” It does not say, “… the right of the militia.” Furthermore, rights never apply to “groups” or institutions—they apply only to individuals (the people).
A Right Granted by Government? No.
In essence, the Second Amendment is simply an affirmation—a statement of a pre-existing state of human existence that cannot legitimately be taken away by any person, power, authority or government, due to the simple fact that it was not bestowed upon mankind by any of these in the first place, but instead by God .
Furthermore, the Second Amendment not only asserts absolute liberty to be an irrevocable, absolute condition, it also states that no authority or government may legitimately even interfere with or impede the complete, unfettered ownership and use of firearms, as it clearly states that the right “shall not be infringed.”
The word “infringed” is especially relevant in relation to claims that the Second Amendment is subject to so-called “reasonable” restrictions. I contend that the words “shall not be infringed” were included precisely to address the concern the framers had that future leaders may attempt to diminish, limit or impair this basic right. “Infringe” was used intentionally, as opposed to words like “negate,” “cancel,” or “remove.” To the chagrin of many, this means even so called “military style assault weapons” (a wholly inaccurate term for semi-automatic rifles, intended to frighten and manipulate those who are ignorant when it comes to firearms) are within the domain of weapons referred to as “arms.”
What did the framers Intend?
Knowing something of how the Second Amendment came to be helps explain the reasoning behind it and why it is still relevant today.
Lengthy discussions concerning the Right to Bear Arms are nothing new, as prior to the ratification of our Constitution they were often included as the framers debated the apportionment of power and responsibilities between citizens, states and what was to become the federal government. An analysis of these debates provides clarity as to what the framers were thinking as they weighed various expressions of governmental powers and their relationships to states’ and individual’s rights. Eventually, these debates concluded and our Constitution was drafted, along with a robust, declarative list of amendments—the rights and specified restrictions on federal powers we call “The Bill of Rights.”
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
What is obvious from the text of their debates is that the right of individual citizens to bear arms was an obligatory, pre-assumption. If need be, the power of the people, as expressed through spontaneously formed state militias, would provide an inherit counter-balance to any federal force (standing army) gone awry. And these militia, while “well regulated,” could only form if individual citizens were already armed.
The discussions of Federalist 28, 29 and 46, in particular, unambiguously extol the framers’ mistrust of an “all-powerful” federal government; indeed, the entire volume known as the Federalist Papers is all about this distrust. The debates that comprise these documents—the Federalist Papers—are the discussions of John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. In these, much discussion involves how armed citizens would stand as the final guarantors of freedom and the last line of defense against a federal government run amok.
While I suppose most Americans would doubt the possibility of our federal government today ever becoming repressive to the point of being like England before the Revolution, I would ask them to reflect upon the reality of federal power today, compared to what the framers intended.
In Federalist 46, James Madison stated that, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” Once the Constitution was drafted, the framers sought to clarify the bounds of federal government powers as they relate to the powers of the states and the people, by including in the Bill of Rights, the tenth amendment which states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Is this the reality today? Are the powers of the federal government “few and defined” as the founders intended? I think not. Indeed, we live in a time when these descriptions have been turned upside down.
There is a stark contrast between the framers and many of today’s leaders in so far as how they perceive the Right to Bear Arms. The framers affirmed it as a basic right and fully trusted the people, while many leaders today not only distrust the people, they are openly hostile toward the Second Amendment and any person or organization that supports it.
To my way of thinking, one of the danger signs that our leaders are beginning to stray off course is when they begin picking and choosing parts of the Constitution to ignore or when they fail to uphold their oath of office.
Considering that the Second Amendment is, in fact, part of our Constitution—indeed it is one of the first basic “rights” specified—should not our leaders do all in their power to support it? After all, the President as well as every senator and member of congress solemnly swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” By their actions and words, do these leaders appear to be doing all they can to preserve, protect and defend your right to bear arms, or are they ignoring their solemn oath in this case, even going so far as working to infringe upon that right?
Unless one is able to answer with certainty the questions posed in my first paragraph, it is in our best interest, and more importantly, in the interest of posterity, that all Americans support and defend the Second Amendment. Our security and liberty, and more importantly, that of our children, may someday rest on that single, important right.
For more about guns and gun control in America, see my comprehensive article published in the February 2013 of ALIVE, by going to http://aliveeastbay.com/?s=guns or simply go to www.aliveeastbay.com and enter “guns” in the search box.