In the current climate, the second amendment to the United States Constitution has become hotly debated. Until the recent Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the second amendment was of little moment Heller largely turned the focus on the right of self-defense, but its analysis, besides twisting the words of the amendment itself (by among other things considering all able-bodied males the militia) ignores the history against which the amendment was created and our experience since then. I submit that today the founders would be among those questioning the lack of gun control.
As many civil libertarians like to say, the purpose of the second amendment was a check against a bad government. The drafters of the second amendment had themselves overthrown British rule, something accomplished through a revolution begun with local militias. The declaration of independence itself asserts that government ceases to be secure basic liberties and is no longer based on the consent of the government “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government”
The founders accomplished this not with words but with guns. The American revolution was an armed revolution. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”
However, the founders were also empiricist, men of science, who valued to the teaching of experience. At the adoption of the second amendment, the American Revolution had occurred, and the founders probably recalled the English Revolution of 1688. In those revolutions, English Kings yielded power when confronted with citizens bearing guns. History since 1791 when the Second Amendment was adopted, however, has taught a different a different lesson.
The first revolution out of the box was the French Revolution. Almost immediately after the passage of the second amendment, that revolution turned violent, and rather than resulting in a democracy, collapsed into a military government. In the ensuing years, there have been many violent revolutions, and few have resulted in democracies. It turns out that those with guns are the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the fascists, ISIS and the like. Those with guns rarely yield to the ballot box.
The founders did not take these experiences into account because they occurred after their revolution.
Other provisions of the Constitution turned out to be far more central to democratic government. Truly democracies, it turns out, cannot survive without free speech and free press. Free speech has caused many revolutions, and have been led by people like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi. The founders likely thought that the Minutemen were far more critical to their revolution, then Thomas Paine’s writings, but history. teaches something different. Those who overthrow governments by armed revolutions rarely give up power easily. Armed revolutionaries themselves become worse tyrants than the leaders they expel.
The notion that widespread gun ownership is essential to a free society persists in conservative circles. Dictators, we are told, disarm their citizenries in order to impose power. But no American thinks if the president is out of control we should storm the White House with guns. Indeed, the most ardent supporter of gun rights does not flinch at a rule that prohibits citizens from bringing guns into the White House, the capital building, or even the local courthouse. What we most assuredly do not want is for our government to be violently overthrown. Even the advocacy of changing the government by violence is a criminal act. 18 U.S.C. § 2385.
In short, the very purpose of behind the second amendment has vanished. The Supreme Court, in Heller, retreated to self-defense and hunting as the justification for the amendment, topics I will address in future essays. It is notable, that the Court yielded up the central core of the amendment. History over 227 years has taught that the assumptions behind the second amendment were wrong. And if its drafters were alive today, I submit that they would be the first to recognize the error.