Alexander's Column

On the Second Amendment

By Mark Alexander · Jan. 1, 2000

“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, United States Constitution

(For Constitutional context, read “To secure these rights…” on The Bill of Rights and A “Living Constitution” for a Dying Republic. For additional resources, see our Historic Documents page.)

From the earliest days of the Republic, arms have always been an integral part of American life. Nowhere is this clearer than in the writing of Thomas Jefferson. According to Jefferson the gun is connected to, and a partial source of, the American character. He gave this advice to a friend, Peter Carr, in a letter dated 1785: “A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.”

Jefferson even goes so far as to declare his love for arms as the guarantors of freedom from tyranny. With the War for Independence still a recent memory and tensions with Britain again on the rise, Jefferson wrote to George Washington in 1796, declaring, “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”

For Jefferson, though, the possession of arms is never limited to the context of militia service in the national defense. Nor is the right to bear arms a simple matter of the citizen’s right to self-defense, hunting or sport. Rather, bearing arms is essential to the proper function of republican government. Writing to John Cartwright in 1824, Jefferson goes so far as to call bearing arms not only a right, but an express duty. Of self-government’s “important principles,” Jefferson notes, “The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, in all cases to which they think themselves competent, (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves, in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved,) or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”

The key here is Jefferson’s premise, the same premise he lays out in the Declaration of Independence: Government derives its power from the people. This power is prescribed, limited and when abused, may be rescinded. Consequently, it is the right and duty of the people to retain the means of coercion – arms – to keep government true to its purpose.

Some forty years earlier, others among the Founders affirmed Jefferson’s rationale for bearing arms, which was central to the debates over ratification of the Constitution. Defending the proposed Constitution, Alexander Hamilton was unambiguous on the importance of arms to a republic, writing in Federalist No. 28, “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense….”

Like Jefferson and Hamilton, James Madison stressed the necessity of arms to republican government and the new nation’s would-be federal arrangement. In Federalist No. 46 (1788), Madison writes, “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”

In “An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution” (1787), Noah Webster stressed the imperative of an armed citizenry as he reflected on the rise of absolute monarchism in Europe. “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom of Europe.” Webster continues, “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 pretence, raised in the United States.”

In “A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States” (1787), John Adams condemned restrictions upon the possession of arms as contradictory to the maintenance of the rule of law. “To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, counties or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government,” writes Adams. “The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.”

In the ratification debates of the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Samuel Adams demanded, “The Constitution shall never be construed … to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”

Ultimately, the Constitution’s Second Amendment prohibition against government interference in the “right to keep and bear arms” is the singular right that ensures all others. As noted by Justice Joseph Story, appointed to the Supreme Court by Madison: “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”

Prior to the debates over the Constitution, the issue of arms in the hands of citizens framed America’s declaration of independence from the British crown. Apparently mindful of the tyrant’s need to disarm a populace, in his Commonplace Book for 1774 to 1776, Thomas Jefferson copied the words of Cesare Beccaria from his seminal work, On Crimes and Punishment (1764): “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms … disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. … Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”

At the same time and in the same vein, Thomas Paine wrote in “Thoughts on Defensive War” (1775) that, “Arms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. … Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.”

Today, few remember that the context for Benjamin Franklin’s famous words condemning those who “can give up essential liberty” was his discussion of the refusal of Virginia’s colonial assembly to adopt Jefferson’s 1759 proposal on colonials' inalienable right to bear arms: “The thoughtful reader may wonder,” Franklin wrote, “why wasn’t Jefferson’s proposal of ‘No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms’ adopted by the Virginia legislature? They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The Founders understood that the disarming of a citizenry, even incrementally, is the first and most essential step to dismantling a free society. Nor was this reality lost on the British in the colonies' battle for independence, as Britain systematically sought to disarm the colonial militia. “[W]hen the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, – who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people;” warned George Mason in his speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 14, 1778, “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.”

Mason’s words were surely on Patrick Henry’s mind when Henry addressed the Convention the following day, giving the delegates his famous admonition against British encroachments on American liberty: “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.”

Our Founders' observations on the importance of an armed citizenry are no less true today than they were two centuries ago. In the wake of any mass homicide by a psychopathic killer – most recently and most notably the massacres at Columbine (1999), the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA, (2006) and Virginia Tech (2007) – Second Amendment opponents are the first responders, and predictably, endeavor to convert the blood of innocents into political capital for gun confiscation.

Typical of the confiscators' rhetoric was this comment from Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke following the Virginia Tech murders: “It is well known how easy it is for an individual to get powerful weapons in our country. [After many school] killings, we’ve done nothing as a country to end gun violence in our schools and communities. If anything, we’ve made it easier to access powerful weapons.”

Conversely, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Robert Levy recently noted: “Many politicians have exploited a few recent tragedies to promote their anti-gun agenda. But gun controls haven’t worked and more controls won’t help. In fact, many of the recommended regulations will make matters worse by stripping law-abiding citizens of their most effective means of self-defense. Violence in America is due not to the availability of guns but to social pathologies – illegitimacy, dysfunctional schools and drug and alcohol abuse. Historically, more gun laws have gone hand in hand with an explosion of violent crime.”

Gun restrictions in Britain today, for example, did not stop a sociopath from slaughtering 16 kindergarteners and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, three years before Columbine. As a result of that shooting, in 1997 private gun ownership was outlawed (similar to Sen. Diane Feinstein’s proposal after Columbine).

The result? By 2002, England and Wales had the highest incidence of “very serious” offences (18 crimes per 100 people) among the 17 developed Western nations. Injuries involving guns more than doubled. The incidence of “violent crime” is 3.6 per 100 in the UK, compared with 1.9 per 100 in the “gun-saturated” U.S.

Right behind the UK is Australia, where automatic handguns and pump shotguns were outlawed in 1996. Australia has 16 “very serious” offences per 100 people.

Like any form of violence, gun violence is always a culture problem, not a gun problem. In the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, circa 45 AD, Quemadmoeum gladuis neminem occidit, occidentis telum est – “A sword is never a killer, it is a tool in the killer’s hands.” Indeed, contrary to the critics' claims, arms in the hands of American citizens have not destroyed but preserved our way of life; they have not twisted American culture but assured its continuation. If we are, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, ‘keep the republic we have,’ Americans must always echo Jefferson’s sentiment to Washington: “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”

GUN CONTROL – HISTORICAL REVIEW

In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.

China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated' people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century: 56 million. Now you understand why, in the words of Justice Joseph Story (appointed to the Supreme Court by James Madison), “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”