Grassroots Commentary

Firearms Discussion (Part III): 'We Will Preserve Your Second Amendment Right to Hunt?'

By T. David Gordon · Jan. 16, 2013

Editor’s note: This is Part III in a three-part series on the topic of firearms. See Part I and Part II.

One commonly recurring statement from gun-control forces, including in Congress and the White House, is the supposedly reassuring comment: “We will preserve your Second Amendment right to hunt.”

I will be generous here and assume that those who make such statements are prevaricating; it would be entirely too painful to believe that elected officials (or those who desire to become so) could be quite that ignorant. The Second Amendment, after all, says nothing about hunting or about any other sporting uses for weapons. I would like to think that a Junior High School student could easily write a paper on the matter and correctly conclude – on both textual and historical grounds – that the Second Amendment says nothing about hunting.

First, there is the textual issue: What does the amendment actually say? Does it say anything at all about hunting (or sporting uses for weapons)? Here is the text, in its entirety:

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.

Constitutional scholars remind us that the operative clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) is essential to the force of the amendment, and that the justification or preambulatory clause or clauses (“well regulated militia … security of a free state”) need not be regarded as comprehensive. That is, the non-infringed-upon firearms might be used for purposes in addition to the two that are expressly mentioned. Perhaps such firearms could be used for home or personal defense (the Supreme Court has said so in Heller), and perhaps they could also be used for hunting (no American court or legislature has ever criminalized hunting per se). Having said this, the justification or preambulatory clause also cannot be dismissed; at a minimum, non-infringement of the right to keep and bear arms expressly addresses a militia and the security of free states. That is, the Second Amendment says nothing expressly about killing game animals, and everything expressly about killing humans.

On the basis of the text alone, it is entirely gratuitous to suggest that the Second Amendment says anything at all about hunting; and those who say they will preserve our “Second Amendment right to hunt” may as well say they will preserve our “Second Amendment right to throw Frisbees.” Frisbee-throwing may or may not be helpful to our society, and it may or may not be a matter that needs to be addressed via legislation; but the Second Amendment does not address Frisbee-throwing, and it does not address hunting. It also says nothing about trapping game animals. “Traps” are not mentioned; “arms” are.

On two historical grounds, a clever Junior High School student would also conclude that the Second Amendment does not address hunting. The one is fairly obvious: The various colonies had just completed a successful military campaign against their own former monarch, George III of Great Britain. The colonies sent militias to General Washington to employ as he saw fit in that military endeavor. The framers of the Constitution may have had middle-aged memories, but surely they could not possibly have forgotten that just several years earlier the term “militia” was employed to describe those who killed British soldiers, not game animals (British or native). Game animals were no threat to “the security of a free state,” but humans wearing red coats were. The Second Amendment (like it or not) protects the right of the several colonies (now states) to employ firearms to preserve their liberty and security against human tyranny or human aggression.

The clever Junior High School student might also address a second, less obvious historical matter: We today, in our largely urban and agri-business setting, might be pardoned for assuming that hunting was a common way of providing nourishment in the 18th century, and that (therefore) the Second Amendment preserved the right to provide nourishment via hunting. But the clever Junior High School student would remind us that hunting was not the primary or ordinary manner of providing for nourishment at that time. The colonies were not hunter-gatherer, nomadic cultures (though many of the Native American cultures were); the colonies were agrarian cultures. They planted crops and raised livestock; some also trapped, and some hunted. Raising livestock is far more predictable than trapping, and trapping is far more predictable than hunting (the trap does not need to be awake and in the woods at night, dusk, or dawn; it works around-the-clock). While some colonialists may have augmented their diet with game, none would have depended entirely on it, and few would have done more than the occasional supplement. Fishing nets, cultivated vegetables and grains, traps, chicken yards, and fenced-in grazing land were the ordinary methods of providing sustenance during the colonial era.

When people therefore pledge to “preserve” our Second Amendment “right to hunt,” our proper response is that we do not need nor have any right to hunt according to the Second Amendment; the Second Amendment preserves the right to kill aggressive or tyrannous humans. If people desire truthfully to relate the Second Amendment to hunting, they should pledge to “invent a Second Amendment right to hunt” rather than to preserve one.

T. David Gordon, Ph.D., is a professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College and a contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values.