“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 Bill of Rights, United States Constitution, Amendment II.
I never thought much about the Second Amendment, just took it for granted while growing up in western Pennsylvania, then traveling around as a Navy wife. I never heard the phrase “gun control” until I moved to Massachusetts in my late 20s. I had no idea what that meant and was shocked when I found out.
For those who also hadn’t thought about this much: first, read the actual amendment, above. Note that there is a main phrase — “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Our Founding Fathers understood that we have certain rights given to us by God or by the nature of being human; the right to have arms for hunting and defense is one of them and always will be.
The qualifying phrase about a well-regulated militia seems to me just a reminder to all able-bodied men to be always prepared for bigger battles. They had just fought a war against Great Britain, a country well-armed enough to have accumulated its own world empire. Our new country had won its independence only because we had our own arms to bear.
We don’t use the word militia much now, but the concept is the same: If our other freedoms are threatened, we all have the right to grab our guns and run to the battlefield.
The Colonial-era weapons they grabbed, combined with their revolutionary attitudes, were a match for the superior firepower of the better-funded professional redcoat military. No one should argue that, had the latter carried more modern “assault weapons”, the colonials didn’t have a right to bear that same category of arms.
Next, we need to understand that we do not live in a historical vacuum, that the threat of an overreaching government is as much a concern to us as it has been to citizens of powerful governments everywhere. Let’s break this down into an understanding of human nature, one part of which doesn’t apply to good people like most of us, who have no desire for power over each other.
But we all know bullies — from our school days, our workplace, books and movies, the news. We don’t pretend that individual bullies don’t exist or can’t be a threat to us. We count on the government to protect us: school authorities, the police, the courts, and our elected representatives passing laws against bullying. If they fail, we are justifiably angry.
Now take one step beyond this, and imagine the bullies getting themselves into the government, into positions of power — not to uphold the Constitution, not to do good, not to have an important, fulfilling job, but to use the extraordinary power of government to make themselves more important than they are, to push people around, to enjoy inspiring fear. Imagine them attracting others like themselves and eventually seizing control of a government. Now take a few minutes to check out today’s world news.
Why do we assume our own government wouldn’t turn against us? For one thing, we have the Constitution with its Bill of Rights to protect us from government abuse. But some in government don’t honor this grand document, are eager to discredit it and the extraordinary men who wrote it. Already, the First Amendment has been weakened by political correctness and freedom of religion is always being debated; some government officials assert that the war on terrorism justifies violating other individual rights specified in other amendments.
We understand that there can be some necessary restrictions on rights when some people abuse them and are clearly unable to behave themselves. As you can’t call “fire” in a crowded theater, you can’t get a gun license if you are crazy. We can all have legitimate, intelligent conversations in these gray areas.
But incredibly, there are those who want the Second Amendment repealed! Fortunately, it takes years to amend the Constitution. Just in case someone wants to propose this, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to join the National Rifle Association, which is always defending my right to keep and bear arms.
I’m not enthusiastic about the NRA’s proposal to arm teachers, submitted in response to the slaughter of children in a Connecticut school. Those of us who defend constitutional rights should not act as if we are required to come up with alternate solutions to violating those rights. But once the basic premise is safe, anyone can try to be helpful with suggestions.
For many reasons, I would like to see much more attention paid to mental illness; never heard a taxpayer object to funding programs for the mentally ill, yet notice that these are often among the first services cut during state fiscal crisis. I’m often surprised by judicial decisions that release dangerous people into society. I think it makes sense to confirm the sanity of people who want to buy guns and ammunition.
But for the rest of us law-abiding citizens, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, or the freedom of all Americans inevitably shall be.
Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.