This is a follow-up to some of my recent columns, Posse Comitatus, A Short History of Gun Control in America, and others. The Second Amendment and its subject matter have been in the news recently as part of the never-ending “debate” over gun control. The Amendment has also received special attention from the U.S. Supreme Court twice in the past five years.
My purpose here is to explain what the Amendment means and what most commentators (even pro-firearms authors) miss in their reading and application. Even if you do not own guns or have an interest in them, this issue affects you and your Liberty. Somewhere in the writing process I realized I should have divided this into several segments. My apologies for the heft of the article. Sadly, I didn’t even get to add in half of what I should – maybe a book is in order? certainly a follow-up’s follow-up.
“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.” Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1791)(entirety).
(Minutemen staring down British Regulars. Google Images.)
The Second Amendment has absolutely NOTHING to do with hunting, sport shooting, and weapon collecting. Those activities are important and are rights which derive from Natural Law. However, they are ancillary to the purpose of the 2nd Amendment. Ancillary also are the issues of self-defense and defense of others and of property from attacks by common criminals. They to are the absolute rights of the People (absolute, under appropriate circumstances). However, none of these things, which are commonly attributed to the true nature of the 2nd Amendment and gun ownership, fall under the actual purpose of the Amendment.
There are two primary reasons why the 2nd Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights. First, the Founders wanted a heavily armed population so that the nation and the constituent States might be well defended from foreign or outside aggression and invasion. Second, and most important, the Founders wanted the People heavily armed in order to overthrow or repel the State governments or the federal, national government in the event said government ever became tyrannical in nature and operation. The true purpose of an armed people is to resist tyranny. This is not only the right of the People, it is also their solemn duty.
Politicians do not like being reminded of this fact these days. Perhaps their guilty consciences get the better of them given the nature of modern government – as close to tyrannical as just about any in history. For reasons given herein and, those which I plan to elaborate on in a future column about arms, the ticks have little to fear. As I have written elsewhere, most humans like to be controlled. In the absence of fair masters, they will take any master that comes along. I hope you, by your nature or by reading this article, are a member of the few who prefer freedom to slavery. Your existence makes the tyrants sweat.
For the longest time the Second Amendment was largely written off by the legal “profession.” When I was in law school I was told the Amendment (and a few others) didn’t really exist. I found this strange. The Amendment was there in the text of the Constitution and its plain language made perfect sense (the 10th Amendment was the same way). Try as I could, I could never locate the provision which allowed for the murder of babies. The law school community regards this right, in blasphemy, as if it had been written by God himself.
Then again, law school has little to do with the law. The one thing that was not required reading in my Constitutional law classes was the Constitution. No mention was made of the natural underpinnings of the Constitution. It’s no wonder most attorneys emerge from this environment without the slightest knowledge of whence our laws are derived. I was different, I always am. I read the old documents and inquired as to why certain things were included and excluded textually. I read a lot. At the time, the only legal textbook in print which even mentioned the 2nd Amendment was the one compiled by Laurence H. Tribe of Harvard law fame. His mention was very brief, but at least he had the curtsey to include it at all.
Most Consitutional law education focuses on two things: 1) the supreme power of the government and; 2) a few pet rights with plenty of case law material for professors to quote (the 1st Amendment, for instance). I also have columns underway to explain both the Constitution (briefly) and the convoluted subject of Constitutional law. You’ll have to wait for those.
As I said, the 2nd Amendment received little official attention for many years. Early in our history and it that of our English forebears, the concept of a well armed population was well enshrined. It was taken as a given that men would be armed. The Founders went the brave extra step and set the armed people as defenders of their own Liberty against the heinous forces of organized government.
Thomas Jefferson was rightly fearful of the problems posed by a standing government army. The Declaration of Independence was full of accounts of the crimes committed by King George through his armies. The mandate for a militia rather than a professional army found its way into the Articles of Confederation, Article 4. While armies are allowed under the Constitution, they are supposed to be limited to a two-year duration, they were meant as an emergency measure. U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8.
In the debates leading to the Constitutional Convention, both the Federalists (in favor of the Constitution) and the Anti-Federalists (fearful of a strong central government) denounced the practice of standing armies as grave threats to liberty.
Writing for the Federalists Alexander Hamilton, himself not the greatest proponent of decentralized liberty, reiterated the common saying of the time that standing armies “ought not be kept up, in time of peace.” Federalist, No. 26. In No. 28 Hamilton asked mockingly, against the fact of armed State militias, when could the federal government ever amass a sufficiently threatening army? As Monday morning’s historical quarterback, I suppose the answer was “in about 200 years.” Hamilton also thought the two-year budgetary limitation placed on the army would render it ineffective for tyrannical purposes. Federalist, No. 24. Out of the pocket again, we now have a standing army fighting numerous “wars” despite the absence of a federal budget for four years.
The Anti-Federalists were equally fearful of a central army. In his Tenth Letter, January 24, 1788, “Brutus” (most likely New York judge Robert Yates) warned of two dangers presented by a standing army. First, it could be used by leaders against the people in order to usurp power. Second, the armies themselves could “subvert the forms of government, under whose authority they were raised…” As examples he cited the once free and constitutional Roman Republic and British Empire.
Interestingly, the Second Amendment could have contained anti-army language. The Virginia Convention proposed a Bill of Rights (June 27, 1788), which would have had the second amendment as seventeenth. It would have read: “That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in times of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as circumstances and protection of the community will admit, and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.” I rather like that. The Pennsylvania Minority had put forth a similar proposal on December 18, 1787.
During the forty-fifth Congress, Rep. William Kimmel of Maryland, author of the Posse Comitatus Act, echoed the sentiments of the Founders as he quoted Tacitus, “Is there any escape from a standing army but a well-disciplined militia?” 7 Cong. Rec. 3579. He also quoted Lord Bacon, who remarked of the Tudor years of English history, a “mercenary army is fittest to invade a country but a militia to defend it.” Id. Many were the quotes from members of the House and Senate on similar points.
The issue faded as the 19th Century progressed because it was still taken for granted that free people should be armed. As I noted in Gun Control, the States and the federal government from this period to the present, began to enact various illegal, and progressively worse restrictions on gun ownership. The 2nd Amendment did make appearances in law and court cases though during this period of general dormancy. I will discuss two such cases here.
In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), the Supreme Court ignobly affirmed black slaves were property as opposed to people. However, the Court’s reasoning touched on the 2nd Amendment. If slaves were considered human beings, then they would be entitled to human rights – such as the right to bear arms. This case gave silent acknowledgment to the 2nd Amendment, which law professors somehow overlooked or wrote off. It also slaps their Supreme Court worship in the face. The fallibility of their god also seems lost on them.
In United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), the Supreme Court held the 2nd Amendment only protected firearms with militia “value.” Mr. Miller was arrested for illegal possession of a short-barreled shotgun, one of the weapons regulated under the UnConstitutional 1934 National Firearms Act. I always thought this case made some sense. If the only guns protected are those of use to the militia or the military, then it would seem the people have a right to own those types of weapons. And, if they are entitled to own those, why not allow them all lesser guns (like short-barreled shotguns). Subsequently, shotguns of reduced length came in useful to the army GIs and Marines in Vietnam and other tight, uncomfortable places.
The delusional legal community took Miller to mean something else, something only a law professor could belive – that the 2nd Amendment protects a government’s “right” to keep arms. The deliberate misinterpretation of Miller during the last half of the 20th Century gave rise to the idiotic “collective rights” theory, an impossibility in and of itself. The theory lead to the belief of leftists and statists alike that the 2nd Amendment gave the government the “right” to organize a body such as the National Guard. This was ludicrous. Only individual persons have rights. Individuals with rights can join together in the exercise of those rights, but the rights themselves never acquire group status. The status certainly never transcends from the people, individually speaking, to the government. Governments have powers, not rights.
The point was finally clarified (as if such a plainly worded sentence needs clarification…) by the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases early in our current Century. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) the high Court overturned D.C.’s illegal law restricting handgun ownership. The Court also held the Second Amendment did in fact confer upon the people a fundamental right to keep and bear arms. The collectivists were crushed. The Court actually noted the Natural Law right of self-defense. The law professors were confused. The opinion limited its reach to federal laws and enclaves (like D.C.) and appended certain language regarding “traditional” uses of firearms. The Court also made notable mention of the proper relationship between the people and the militia, but they did not reach my ultimate conclusion from Miller.
In my humble but professional opinion (I are a Constitutional and firearms law litigator person, after all), the legal opinion rendered by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in its earlier hearing and decision of Heller, D.C. v. Parker, 478 F.3d 370 (2007)(Parker was then a co-plaintiff with Heller and several others), was a far better recitation of the 2nd Amendment, its meaning and origins. Judge Laurence Silberman went to great lengths to explain the original meaning of the “militia” and its prerequisite condition of an armed people. I will comment on this subject a little later, in my own words.
I met Judge Silberman at a legal education luncheon (CLE) in 2008, while Heller was pending the Supreme Court. I thanked him for his contribution. However, as is so often my way, I was disgruntled that afternoon and made my usual sarcastic comments to kick off the meeting. CLE’s do that to me. Imagine paying a good sum of money for a decent lunch which you can’t enjoy because some dude or dudette is babbling on about the law. Anyway, I recall referring to D.C. as “the District of Corruption.” I did this before a small gathering of government attorneys and government-dependent attorneys. Judge Silberman gave me a nervous chuckle, the rest of the crowd was aghast at my … honesty.
Anyway, the 2008 opinion was good enough of a start. Two years later the Court added to the new body of 2nd Amendment law.
In MacDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 3025 (2010) the Court, in striking down an illegal Chicago law, “incorporated” the effect of the Second Amendment to the States, via the 14th Amendment. Many libertarian scholars are dubious of the theory of incorporation but I will not touch on that here other than to say the 2nd Amendment must be respected by the States. This makes sense, as far as it goes, as no entity may legitimately violate fundamental human rights. The Court also included some dangerous language in the decision, particularly regarding the possibility laws may place “reasonable restrictions” on firearms ownership. The reference may prove a trojan horse for gun owners, especially in light of those restrictions already in place (NFA and GCA) which are now taken for granted. I do not take them so and I have no faith in government to keep any additional restrictions “reasonable.”
Other, newer cases are working their way through the courts, generally with good success. I think the Amendment is finally getting some of the respect it deserves. I also don’t think Congress will act to rashly regarding new restrictions, yet, even in the face of the ridiculous hysteria raised of late.
I began by stating the Second Amendment is about the people resisting government tyranny. I do not advocate herein the violent overthrow of the government. Such action, even if warranted, would likely end in disaster. Besides, given the suicidal tendencies of the federal and most state governments, such action would seem pointless. I said “even if warranted” because once any government exceeds its scope and purpose to the point it becomes a threat to, rather than a defender of, the Liberties of the People (the only real reason for the existence of government), then again, it is the right and duty of the people to shrug off such tyranny. When such action is taken legitimately, it is not an act of rebellion. In fact, at such point, it is the government which is in rebellion and deserving of correction. This may be subject matter for another future column.
The Founders, being highly suspicious of standing armies in the service of a central government, determined to set up a militia as a proper alternative. A “militia” is merely the organization to some degree of all the armed men in a jurisdiction. Every State in the Union still maintains a militia, completely separate from the National Guard. The militia of a given state is generally divided into two classes – the “organized” militia and the unorganized. The organized consists of members of the State defense force, whatever it may be termed. These are voluntary citizen forces under control of the Governor. They are generally neutered these days but retain the ability to become a combat ready force. The unorganized force consists of all able-bodied males (and certain females) between certain ages (adults, generally). I am a proud member of the unorganized Georgia militia!
These militias are primarily at the disposal of the States and can only be utilized by the federal government in certain cases. The main point of this system is that the weapons are supposed to be in the hands of the people, not the government. This is specifically true regarding infantry weapons. A militia member should, today, be able to report for duty with any weapons available to a modern infantryman. This would include fully automatic rifles (including SAWs) and shoulder launcher systems (Stingers, etc.).
We currently are restricted from such weapons, illegally, by the NFA and the GCA and amendments. Also, as a counter to my central premise of militia dominance, the federal government has done a terrible job regulating the militias. The States have all but abdicated their independence and authority to Washington. Washington has also taken advantage of this situation by raising and maintaining huge standing, professional military forces in perpetuity. This is all contrary to the intent and the language of the Constitution. The American people have also undergone a dramatic transformation. Regarding these instant issues, the populace tends to regard militias as dangerous bands of domestic terrorists while literally worshipping the federal Imperial military. How many yellow ribbon decals have you seen promoting the militia?
This leads me to my final point, the concept that so many people miss regarding the Second Amendment. Most historical analysis has focused on the “militia” preface and the “right of the people” action clause, or both together (see Judge Silberman). What everyone seems to miss is the “security of a free state.” A state, according to the Founders and their wisdom could only be preserved by an armed people serving as the militia. The key word here is – “FREE.” Given the decline of liberty, seemingly demanded by the people, can we be said to live in a free state anymore? If we do not, is anything else important? I would, of course, answer affirmatively. I’m not so sure about my fellow countrymen. This may provide material for a future column. Your thoughts?