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The issues surrounding the right to bear arms are many and varied. Most often the debate centers around the lethality of modern firearms, especially “assault weapons” that can fire rapidly with large magazines. Yet one element of the debate frequently referenced obliquely in the mainstream media concerns the actual intent and function of the Second Amendment. Some progressive groups have been endeavoring to turn the originalist position against itself, so to speak. Their arguments are often baffling to those unprepared for them, but they are easily beaten with a little preparation.
The first argument often rolled out by gun-grabbers is a textual one, claiming that the Second Amendment itself does not actually defend individuals’ right to keep and bear arms, but instead outlines the need for an armed “well-regulated militia.” According to progressives, that first phrase, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,” indicates that the purpose of the amendment is to establish and maintain a regulated militia whose purpose is to defend the state. On this interpretation, the amendment does not secure the right of individuals to own weapons as individuals.
There are two counters to this claim that demonstrate how facile it is. The first argument is simply a matter of understanding the grammar of the actual text of the Second Amendment. The first phrase is under proper grammar, and as confirmed by the United States Supreme Court, a prefatory phrase. It is not a statement of the sole purpose of the right to bear arms, but is an understanding of the way in which the right would be used in the defense of the state.
Furthermore, the Second Amendment clearly identifies right as belonging to ‘the people.’ This identification clearly shows to whom the right belongs. As Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out in one of his most magisterial opinions:
“Nowhere else in the Constitution does a ‘right’ attributed to ‘the people’ refer to anything other than an individual right. What is more, in all six other provisions of the Constitution that mention ‘the people,’ the term unambiguously refers to all members of the political community, not an unspecified subset.”
If “the people” does not apply to all the individual citizens in the Second Amendment, then how can it do so for those other amendments? The meaning of the statement is clear, despite the obfuscation of progressive activism.
The second counterargument relies on examining what the framers of the Constitution meant. Fortunately for supporters of the right to bear arms, and unfortunately for their opponents, many of the people who wrote the Constitution wrote elsewhere about its meaning. Many of the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Samuel Adams all explicitly endorsed individual ownership of arms. Even Alexander Hamilton, the founder most in favor of big government and a standing army, agreed that private citizens ought to be allowed to own weapons.
The founders were also clear about what they meant by the term militia. Richard Henry Lee stated it very succinctly: “A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves… and include all men capable of bearing arms.” In other words, whether a militia is the proper holder of arms or the people is irrelevant, because they are one and the same. Only by ignoring the words of the founders, as well as the basic rules of grammar, can the progressives’ case even appear valid. Once the ignorance is cured, their case crumbles to dust.
Some progressives pursue a different tack and argue that the defensive purpose of the Second Amendment has been made obsolete by the establishment of a standing army. There are two critical problems with this line of reasoning. First, the presence of standing army was exactly the sort of overbearing and asymmetric power the Second Amendment was meant to be a defense against, so it seems to make little sense that the right would somehow be invalidated by this.
Second, Americans are now more than ever subject to the possibility of being “called up” to military service. Conscription was not even considered by the founders as a means of raising troops. Today most citizens are required to be registered in the Selective Service system. The pressures of over-mighty government and the possibility of being drafted serve as joint forces in favor of the maintenance of the Second Amendment rights as they are now understood.
Another bizarre argument wheeled out in recent years that has a similar line of reasoning is the claim that the right is moot with regard to overthrowing domestic tyrants or oppressors because the federal government is so asymmetrically powerful that any such resistance would be quickly dealt with. This argument is laughable for two reasons. First, it seems to suggest that the force discrepancy is so asymmetric that people ought to just give up the weapons they have. Yet that could only further diminish the capacity of citizens to defend themselves, both against criminals and a potentially aggressive government.
Second, the idea that asymmetries of power render a group militarily helpless is little better than a joke. The lessons of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan ought to be enough to put to rest the idea that a smaller, less well-armed force cannot put up a lasting resistance to a mighty military.
In the end, it is important to realize that the Second Amendment is just as relevant today as it ever was. Human nature has hardly changed in 200 years, and the rights we possess are no less inalienable or self-evident. Anyone trying to erode our constitutionally-enshrined rights should be immediately held suspect. If we do not protect our own rights, who will?