Summary: Will the Second Amendment protect us from the US military, as so many gun owners believe? Is that why the Founders put it in the Constitution? What does it do for us today?
“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.”
The right to bear arms has been justified for centuries by many reasons in Britain and America. Perhaps the reasoning that had the greatest influence on the Founders was described in a note by Professor Eugene Volokh (UCLA Law School).
“William Blackstone‘s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in 1765, was widely read in the Colonies, and is generally seen as having exerted immense influence on the Framers’ vision of the rights of Englishmen. …Blackstone’s description of the right comes in his discussions of the rights of the subject. He begins by talking about three “absolute rights” – personal security, personal liberty, and private property – and then goes on to discuss five “auxiliary rights” …”
“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. …
“[T]o vindicate [the three primary rights], when actually violated or attacked, the subjects of England are entitled, in the first place, to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law; next, to the right of petitioning the king and parliament for redress of grievances; and, lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.”
Blackstone was a judge and professor. His dreamy views on the role of guns in the defense of liberty are interesting, but for more practical thinking we should turn to people with actual experience. Such as James Madison, “father of the Constitution.”
In 1774, Madison served on his local Committee of Safety, a pro-revolution group that oversaw the local militia. In 1775, he was commissioned as the colonel of the Orange County militia, serving as its second-in-command. In 1776, he was elected to the Fifth Virginia Convention – which declared Virginia’s independence, wrote its Constitution and Declaration of Rights. He then served in Virginia’s House of Delegates until elected to its Council of State. Elected to Congress in 1779, he served there through the rest of the war. This is a man who saw the operation of a successful revolution, and understood that it requires not just participants willing to risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” – but organization.
In The Federalist Papers #46, James Madison discusses the role of guns in a Republic. His explanation is quite different from anything the NRA says, and points to the great weakness of America’s citizens today.
“The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition. The reasonings contained in these papers must have been employed to little purpose indeed, if it could be necessary now to disprove the reality of this danger.
“That the people and the States should, for a sufficient period of time, elect an uninterrupted succession of men ready to betray both; that the traitors should, throughout this period, uniformly and systematically pursue some fixed plan for the extension of the military establishment; that the governments and the people of the States should silently and patiently behold the gathering storm, and continue to supply the materials, until it should be prepared to burst on their own heads, must appear to everyone more like the incoherent dreams of a delirious jealousy, or the misjudged exaggerations of a counterfeit zeal, than like the sober apprehensions of genuine patriotism.
“Extravagant as the supposition is, let it however be made. 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; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger.
“The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one-hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than 25 or 30 thousand men. 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 governments possessing their affections and confidence.
“It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”
Madison describes the “well-regulated militia” mentioned in the Second Amendment.
The lost insight
“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— The late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF) in “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” (unpublished), August 1987.
Madison understood that organization is the primary defense of a free people against oppression. Not tactics or guns – but people are the key. The Federalist Papers were written for citizens who love liberty and were willing to stand together in its defense – organizing when necessary into leaders and followers for collective action. This combination of spirit and good organization brought us victory in 1783. “Spirit” is one of the most-used words in The Federalist Papers (114 times).
Spirit and organization allowed scores of colonies to liberate themselves from European masters after WWII. Some of those insurgent groups had guns when they began, some did not. All had the desire for liberty and the willingness to pay for it. And they often paid for it with rivers of their own blood.
An armed citizenry makes a rebellion easier. But an unorganized but armed citizenry probably is easily defeated in a rebellion. In our world, getting guns is the easy part. Recruiting and organizing are the difficult parts of building an insurgency.
Unfortunately, we no longer live in Madison’s America. All of his key assumptions for the Second Amendment have been broken.
- Madison believed that only “traitors” would build a massive permanent military. But we call them “patriots.”
- Madison worried that people would “silently and patiently” watch the military grow, but instead they cheered.
- Madison thought that citizens would fear a powerful standing military, but instead it is America’s most trusted institution.
- Madison thought that States would be the source of legitimacy for the American regime, but instead they mean little to most Americans.
- Madison thought that the States would be a center of resistance against big government, but instead the States are big governments – run by bureaucrats identical to those in the Federal government.
The gun owner’s delusion is America’s delusion
I shoot 50 rounds a week (when my schedule allows), and so know many gun owners. Quite a few believe that their guns defend our liberty. Few are politically active (other than supporting the NRA). They are willing to kill for liberty, but not donate money or time for it. Is that sad or pitiful?
There is a deeper problem. We appear to have lost our capacity for collective action. Instead many Americans dream of individual saviors. This is a change from teamwork and powerful institutions that in the past populated not just our history books but also our legends. Such as Marvel Comic’s SHIELD, E. E. Smith’s Triplanetary, Robert Heinlein’s Space Patrol, U.N.C.L.E. (as in “The Man From”), and Star Fleet (in the Star Trek stories), and Spectrum (in the Captain Scarlet TV series).
No longer. During the late 1960s and especially the 1970’s we became alienated from our institutions. Organizations that should have led us into the future, like NASA, failed us. We learned that institutions which should protect us, such as the FBI and CIA, were often criminal oppressors. Institutions that we admired, like the military, often displayed gross incompetence. Now organizations most often appear in fiction as irrelevant, inept, or evil.
So our mythical heroes fight their enemies alone, with a partner, or as part of a small group (the ubiquitous Scooby Gangs, unrelated people who inexplicably bond into tight groups). This makes these stories useful entertainment – to our rulers, for whom our collective action is their worst nightmare. (See more about this here.)
Many gun owners live this dream in their fantasies. Using their gun as a Lone Ranger, not as a private in the Minutemen. No matter how many guns one has, or how big the caliber, an individual alone is just a target before the power and organization of the government’s law enforcement and military forces. Operating alone they are just miscreants to be picked off one by one.
Only together are we are strong – and together we probably do not need guns to maintain our liberty.
What can we do to reform the Republic without guns?
See suggestions at Reforming America: Steps to a New Politics.
For More information.
Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about gun violence and regulation, and especially these …
- The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia.
- Let’s look at the Second Amendment, cutting through the myths and spin.
- Second amendment scholarship (using money to reshape America).
- Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.
- The number of children killed by guns in America makes us exceptional, not better.
- Cut thru the lies and myths to understand guns in America.
- Why Americans love guns and don’t care about the blood.
- Is an armed society a safe society? – Spoiler: no.
- Gun regulations made the West not so Wild.
Interesting books about guns
See reviews of these books: Don’t just mourn. Remember what we know about guns.
- Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America (2011) by Adam Winkler (a professor of constitutional law at UCLA). See David Cole’s book review at the NY Review of Books (gated).
- Guns across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights by Robert J. Spitzer (2015).
- Do Guns Make Us Free?: Democracy and the Armed Society by Firmin DeBrabander (2015).
- The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture by Pamela Haag (2016).
For something different, see Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment by Craig Whitney (2012).
21 thoughts on “Will the Second Amendment protect us from the US military?”
“In our world getting guns is the easy part. Recruiting and organizing are the difficult parts of building an insurgency.”
So true Larry. It is time to get granular on issues of organizing and recruiting.
Does building an insurgency/social movement disrupt the normal order of things?
Does it have to be tested over and over again?
What are relevant historical studies of insurgency?
What types of technical expertise are needed?
What specific acts need to be performed in order to recruit people?
What types of social experience lead to insurgency?
How does this fit with the idea of guns for self defense?
Totally different subject. For posts about self-defense, see the links in the For More Information section.
Just a question. Is the post a discussion about the second amendment referring to armed militias, rather than armed citizens? Like Madison was advocating for militias being like unions? Sorry if I seem obtuse
Ps being seeing talks about Charlottesville since the virgins gun rally. Did trump really do a both sides on Charlottesville or was it a smear. I saw the transcript of his remarks and think it was the later, but would like your take.
Asking questions is the first step to wisdom. We should all be doing so every day.
“Is the post a discussion about the second amendment referring to armed militias, rather than armed citizens?”
Both. This is discussing on one specific reason for the Second Amendment: to allow the citizenry to push back should the US government become oppressive and illegitimate (both). It does not discuss personal self-defense.
Armed citizens are unorganized. A militia is the organization of citizens, who can then become armed (ie, having guns is not a necessary condition to create an armed militia – although it makes it somewhat easier).
Armed citizens are just targets for an oppressive military. The many successful insurgencies since WWII waged using 4GW shows that a militia (whatever the label) can be effective.
“Did trump really do a both sides on Charlottesville or was it a smear.”
Trump’s statement was an inconvenient truth. Hence unacceptable to the leftists who run the US news media. Neither side were angels, both had violent agitators. As we have since, the Leftist violent agitators (eg, ANTIFA) are larger in numbers, better organized, and more active. Another inconvenient truth.
“There is a deeper problem. We appear to have lost our capacity for collective action. ”
If this were true, this conversation would not be taking place. What is the NRA, if not one the most successful collective actions of our time? Whatever one thinks of guns or the Second Amendment, there has been a great deal of collective action in defense of the right to private ownership of firearms in America. The collective action of gun owners has been far more effective than the collective actions of gun grabbers, who have little to show for their efforts since the sunset of the so called “assault weapons” ban.
Anyone who argues for or against the Second Amendment just doesn’t get it. Whenever the Government wants to carve out an exception to the Constitution, the means and the justification can nearly always be found. The Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have some theoretical right to own a gun, but they don’t seem to ever strike down a lot of gun control laws. Gun laws in New York City and Massachusetts are fairly draconian, and no one expects that to be changed by the Supreme Court. Second Amendment or no, enough gun control laws can be passed to eviscerate that right in any jurisdiction where anti-gunners gain the upper hand. It is happening in Virginia now, and if you watched the coverage of the protest in Richmond you saw collective action by people who aren’t happy about it.
People have this weird idea that evil Second Amendment rays come down from the sky and stop the implementation of gun control. They don’t. What stops gun confiscation in America is collective action by gun owners. If you want to say that their collective actions are misguided then so be it. It might be more profitable to ask why Americans have collectively defended the right to own a gun so tenaciously, and what might change their minds.
For now Americans retain enough faith in the political process to make insurgency unthinkable, The conditions for it simply do not exist. I have no idea whether they could be created, but we just had a serious attempt to overturn a Presidential election in this country, and I am far from confident that the outcome of the next election will be respected, or that it can even be implemented. So maybe at some point we’ll find out.
Well stated, Man Who Laughs!
“If this were true, this conversation would not be taking place. What is the NRA, if not one the most successful collective actions of our time? ”
The NRA is an example of what the Founders called “factions” – and greatly feared.
“Anyone who argues for or against the Second Amendment just doesn’t get it”
Whenever I hear “means you just don’t get it”, whatever follows is pretty likely to be gibberish.
“Whenever the Government wants to carve out an exception to the Constitution, the means and the justification can nearly always be found.”
We elect the government every two years. It is not a group of alien rulers from Mars. Your sentence has no substantive meaning.
“The NRA is an example of what the Founders called “factions” – and greatly feared.”
Are gun controllers a faction? If not, why not? Were all of those people in Richmond a faction? Or were the mass of Federal workers in Northern Virginia and the immigrants who voted Democrat a faction? What’s the difference? Who decides? If one group of Americans is working for goal A and another group is working for competing goal B, then what determines who is a faction? Does it depend on whether you personally support goal A of goal B? Is it simply a question of whose ox is gored?
Gun laws in this country are mostly the product of elected officials. The ATF, like a lot of other Federal agencies, writes rather a lot of regulations, but the Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution (or making it up as they go along, depending on your point of view) hasn’t got much to do with what the gun laws in any given jurisdiction are. People arguing about the second amendment do seem, at times, to be oblivious of this fact.
Yes, we still elect our governments. For now. Although it seems to be getting bit harder to make that stick these days.
The NRA is a pressure group lavishly funded by a small group of plutocrats and gun manufacturers. The NRA is a faction because it is a group focused on its own little interests, not the well-being of the Republic. You might as well consider al Qaeda, the Mafia, and the Cartels to be “collective action.”
Gun Industry Financial Support of NRA.
How The Gun Industry Funnels Tens Of Millions Of Dollars To The NRA.
How America’s Gun Industry Is Tied To The NRA.
The NYT got detailed data about the NRA’s funding – and funding difficulties. A few donors drift off, and an organization with a small donor base gets into trouble.
Another good article, Larry. Keep them coming!
Unfortunately, I’ve fallen back into writing provocative articles beyond the leading edge of public opinion – so pageviews have fallen from last year’s level. It’s beyond art and science to sense the edge of public interest. Not giving the familiar – the rote content that generates boos and yeas at the popular websites. Or going into the unfamiliar – as this post did.
I can tell when I do the latter by the befuddlement in comments. Some, like Isaac, ask for clarification. Some, like The Man, totally miss the point. He sees fractions (the NRA, the Tongs, the Cartels) as “collective action” – a nice demo that we no longer even understand the concept.
As a European, this whole discussion about firearms and their possession is in equal degrees alien and fascinating for me. I understand, but do not share the argument on self-defence, but the argument about the well organised militia and opposition to an oppressive centralised government is, as far as I can see invalid, due to purely technical reasons:
In the 18th Century, one could expect a militia to meet a standing army in battle with rifles and perhaps some artillery. But now, a regular army has in its disposal heavy artillery, armed helicopters and Fighter Jets, machines that no-one in that time could have possibly imagined. The infrastructure to maintain these weapons is beyond the means of many modern nations, certainly beyond the means of any individual-except perhaps some multibillionaire. How could a militia armed with small firearms resist a government in possession of M1A2 Abraams, AH-64 Apaches and F-16 Jet Fighters? This militia should have access to the infrastructure for ATGWs, Surface-to-Air missiles and similar weaponry, at the very least. Or am I missing something?
“How could a militia armed with small firearms resist a government in possession of …”
That is a remarkable statement to make in 2020.
That was said of the insurgents in every anti-colonial conflict since WWII. How could they win? Yet the great powers have all lost their colonies.
That was said with equal confidence about the insurgents in Afghanistan. Yet they fight on despite the worst that NATO has laid on them. By now everybody knows that it just a matter of time until we give up and leave.
I suggest reading these posts about 4th generation warfare.
In regards to US/NATO in Afghanistan. I think this analogy is somewhat weak if we are discussing the situation of the US military operating on US soil. That would be a civil war situation, not an imperial army operating in a foreign country with no knowledge of culture, language, terrain or politics. Perhaps the Irish “Troubles” would give some guidance, but even there the British were largely operating on hostile ground, which would not necessarily be the case of a civil war in the US.
You are right. But that wasn’t the point I was replying to. Rather it was an assertion about the inevitable victory due to the superior hardware, of the military. The side with superior hardware has an impressive record of losing since WWII. To keep replies of a reasonable length I give replies focused on what the commenter said. Otherwise replies would be 500 word essays.
“Perhaps the Irish “Troubles” would give some guidance, but even there the British were largely operating on hostile ground,”
Any army operating in a low-legitimacy state – which is where most internal revolutions arise – is operating on “hostile ground.” The complex dynamics of revolutions is beyond the scope of this post, however. It was focused on the Founder’s concept of the Second Amendment – and their understanding of “militia.”
Many insurgencies have failed. The Irish troubles is one example I wanted to mention myself, but also the Greek Civil War of 1946-49 is a good case study of an insurgency that was crushed by means of superior weaponry and material (the Curtiss Helldiver dropping napalm bombs on Communist partizans in the last stages of the war is a famous incident here). The Basque insurgency in Spain was equally unsuccessful, as were the Guerrilla War of the FARC in Colombia, and that of the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, who are fighting the Turkish Government since the mid 80s without any visible success.
Successful insurgencies usually require either a foreign power supplying the insurgents with weapons (Vietnam), or the enemy to be a foreign power without any legitimacy in the eyes of the local population (Iraq, Afganistan). Insurgencies against the central government are often unsuccessful (Syria, Egypt in the “Arab Spring”) or require the assistance, again, of a foreign power (Libya).
“Many insurgencies have failed.”
Please name the foreign nations still kept as colonies by the great nations – or anyone – due to failed mass insurgencies.
Your point about the inevitable superior of military tech is contrary to history since WWII.
That does not mean that every insurgency succeeds, or that there are not other factors. As rebuttals, those are irrelevant to your original point – an attempt to move the goalposts. Nice try.
Pingback: Will the Next Amendment secure us from the US armed service? – Investment Observe | CRTYPRO
Pingback: Will the Second Amendment protect us from the US military? – Fabius Maximus website | Prometheism Transhumanism Post Humanism
“Please name the foreign nations still kept as colonies by the great nations – or anyone – due to failed mass insurgencies.”
Why should I? The article concerns the Second Amendment and the US Government. The US is not occupied by a foreign power, unless you consider the Federal Government to be one. If you seek a parallel, the correct one would be the Syrian Government under Bashar al Ashad, who is about to finish off the last remnants of the insurgency in his country.
“As rebuttals, those are irrelevant to your original point ”
My point is not that all insurgencies are doomed to fail, my point is that the Second Amendment does not seem likely to protect your rights, due to the might of the American Armed Forces and the fact that they are not an occupying army, but actually the army of your own nation.Perhaps I did not make myself clear.
“I suggest reading these posts about 4th generation warfare.”
I have, 4th gen warfare can also be used by Goverments and occupying forces, not only insurgents. See, for example, the use of armed drones by Turkey to supress the Kurdish insurgency.