What Was the Purpose of the Second Amendment?

The recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas have reignited the gun control debate, with some gun control proponents once again calling for a federal “assault weapon” ban. Supporters of such a law often argue the founders never imagined powerful weapons available today in the hands of the people. But this argument completely misses the primary reason the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights in the first place.

The “assault weapon” ban argument tends to go something like this.

“Does anyone think the founders of our nation foresaw weapons like we have today? I think they’d expect us to make common-sense reforms.”

Actually, the founders weren’t dumb.

I’m pretty sure they realized more powerful weapons would come along. I have no doubt humans will develop even more effective ways of killing each other in the future. It seems likely people as smart as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington at least imagined the possibility that more effective and deadly firearms would evolve with time.

But whether they did or didn’t forsee advanced weaponry misses the crucial point. The purpose of the Second Amendment wasn’t to ensure people could always go hunting. It wasn’t primarily meant to allow people to defend their homes and families. Fundamentally, the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to ensure the people would always have the means to match the firepower of a federal army. It was intended to ensure the people could resist tyrannical government with force in the last resort. The founding generation understood that an unarmed populace would open the door for the government to trample its liberties.

In simplest terms, the Second Amendment was meant to ensure the people could take on the government if necessary.

In 1787, Noah Webster wrote “An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution” in support of ratification of the Constitution. He forcefully argued that an armed people would serve as a check against a national standing army.

“Another source of power in government is a military force. But this, to be efficient, must be superior to any force that exists among the people, or which they can command: for otherwise this force would be annihilated, on the first exercise of acts of oppression. Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.”

The American colonists had firsthand experience with government attempts to strip away their means of self-defense. In fact, British efforts to disarm the American colonists led to the first shots of the American Revolution. The Red Coats marched on Concord with the explicit purpose of capturing or destroying guns and powder belonging to the colonial militias. During the Virginia ratifying convention, George Mason referred to British efforts to disarm the colonists as he argued for the need to protect the right to keep and bear arms.

“Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, (Sir William Keith) who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia. [Here Mr. Mason quoted sundry passages to this effect.] Why should we not provide against the danger of having our militia, our real and natural strength, destroyed? The general government ought, at the same time, to have some such power. But we need not give them power to abolish our militia.”

The local militia was the check against government power.

Some will concede this point, but argue this only proves the militia (the National Guard) gets to have access to weapons. They say this does not extend the right to keep and bear arms to individuals. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the makeup of the militia. It wasn’t an exclusive body of military men. The militia was made up, as Mason said, of “the whole people.” The militia existed as a body distinct from the government. It could be called up by the government, but it maintained some level of independence. In fact, Mason expressed fear that without an explicit amendment protecting the right to keep and bear arms, the militia would be reduced to an extension of the federal government itself – not a body of people equipped to resist government tyranny.

Mr. Chairman, a worthy member has asked who are the militia, if they be not the people of this country, and if we are not to be protected from the fate of the Germans, Prussians, &c., by our representation?  I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table [the Constitution] gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor…”

The author of Letters from a Federal Farmer echoed Mason’s argument.

“[W]hereas, to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them; nor does it follow from this, that all promiscuously must go into actual service on every occasion. The mind that aims at a select militia must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle; and when we see many men disposed to practice upon it, whenever they can prevail, no wonder true republicans are for carefully guarding against it.”

The discussions surrounding the right to keep and bear arms during the ratification debates make it clear the primary reason for an amendment specifically prohibiting the federal government from infringing on the right to keep and bear arms was to keep it from being able to control the state militias and effectively disarm the people. With this in mind, it logically follows that the founding generation intended for the people to have access to weapons capable of matching military firepower, and they would in no way be shocked at the idea of the general population owning so-called “assault weapons.”

In fact, that was the point. They wanted the populace to both possess military equipment and the have the ability to use it. They wanted to ensure the people could resist the government – by force if necessary.

When you bring up this truth today, a lot of people laugh it off, claiming a bunch of rednecks with AR-15s could never face down the U.S. military. Well, tell that to Afghani nomads and Vietnamese peasants.

One does not have to be an advocate of violent revolution to recognize the danger of allowing the government to have a monopoly on guns. It’s a matter of balancing power with power. The government will be far less likely to become tyrannical or oppressive when the people maintain the ability to resist. When you remove the option of self-defense, it tips the scales of power toward the government. That opens the door to tyranny.

Technology has certainly changed over the last 250 years. Human nature hasn’t. Government is still prone to abuse the people when it can get away with it. Power still corrupts. Absolute power still corrupts absolutely.

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