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.
- 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).