I have spent the past two years studying the American Revolution, the still-radical philosophies of Jefferson, the keen and sober codifying of those philosophies by Madison, the framing of the Constitution, and the arguments surrounding the Bill of Rights.
I am convinced that the Revolutionary era remains the most profound moment in the history of human freedom. We have yet to live up to everything it meant.
I have made the First and Second Amendments the particular focus of my study of the Bill of Rights. Philosophically speaking, without them the entire structure of American republicanism falls apart. And when rights are being picked apart in courts and legislatures, philosophy matters.
Jefferson’s knowledge of classical political philosophy was deep and broad. But he was also taking part in a rebellion––living it––so his application of philosophy was immediate, useful, and a matter of life and death.
Jefferson and others wrote of and believed in natural law. The idea was that there are certain rights that come before governments and other institutions. A person, simply by being born, has a right to believe what she wants. She has a right to say what she wants. She does not need the permission of a state. Similarly, a person, simply by being born, has a right to defend himself and his property. He needs no permission to do so, and the idea that he would need permission is nonsensical. These rights are not given to us, nor can they be. They belong to us as human beings.
We often speak of taxation and representation as the major issues that started the war. They were certainly key, but they were also issues most Americans believed could be solved without separation. It was the issues that eventually became our First and Second Amendments that ignited the fires of revolution. Public meetings––the rights to speak and peaceably assemble––were outlawed. And when Gage came to break up an illegal meeting in Salem, 3000 Americans, all armed, were ready to meet him. The British retreated, and then began enacting policies that aimed to disarm Americans. Let slip the dogs of war.
As David Kopel put it: “Derived from political and legal philosophers such as John Locke, Hugo Grotius, and Edward Coke, the ideology underlying all forms of American resistance was explicitly premised on the right of self-defense of all inalienable rights; from the self-defense foundation was constructed a political theory in which the people were the masters and government the servant, so that the people have the right to remove a disobedient servant.”
It wasn’t just self-defense and protection of property for which one needed a gun. If the people were to rise up against an oppressor, they all needed guns. They needed to be able to form militias. (There was no standing army––nor did they intend to have one since a standing army is typically a tool of the state.) Private ownership of guns made this possible. The Second Amendment exists as a statement to the government that it cannot infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms, and, by extension, it cannot inhibit the ability to form militias. Those militias––”well regulated” meaning well organized––are formed by individuals who own their own guns.
A quick note about militias: The claim that the Second Amendment gives militias the right to bear arms, but not individuals, is fallacious. Are we to believe that the enumerated rights in the constitution are all individual rights except where the Second Amendment is concerned? Of course not. All natural rights are individual rights. Imagine if someone insisted you only had a right to free speech if you joined a group. That would be ridiculous. Individuals have an individual right to peaceably assemble with others who have that individual right. In the same way, individuals have an individual right to keep and bear arms and to form militias with others who have an individual right to keep and bear arms.
And what about the arms themselves? The rifle had undergone a technological advancement around the time of the Revolutionary War. The new rifles made a difference in winning and losing battles. When the Second Amendment was debated and adopted, the Americans knew well the importance of having the latest rifle. The idea that they didn’t think we’d ever evolve past the musket is simply wrong. They had watched the musket become obsolete during the war which they had just fought.
Today you have a right to own weapons, just as they did in the revolutionary era––just as, philosophically, all humans always have. That right is foundational to human freedom. Far from being barbarous, it is a mark of civility and civilization. It is not about flag waving or patriotism. It is about life, liberty, and property.
The recent events in Florida are horrific. I too want solutions. I understand the outrage and the emotion. I feel it. Even as gun violence is in decline, these incidents must be considered seriously and, to the extent that it is possible, dispassionately. Our emotions, while certainly understandable and warranted, will not solve the problem of children being shot at school. Nor will taking away the right to bear arms, or foolishly further limiting that right.
While we cannot guarantee a country free of atrocities, I believe we can work to make atrocities less frequent and less likely.
Perhaps the most obvious way is to defend what we value. We defend major institutions, public and private, and yet out of some twisted, oddly Victorian sense of propriety, we refuse to defend our schools. Declaring a school a gun-free zone is perhaps the worst example of magical thinking in the current era.
But it’s the intangibles that will make the real difference, and that’s why this is so hard. You cannot legislate intangibles, so addressing them doesn’t feel like “doing something.” But I believe they are the actual answer. In short, we have to love each other.
This is, without question, the greatest time to be alive on this planet. By nearly every measure, things are getting better. And yet we feel the opposite. Most people believe things are getting worse. In fact, the media assures us daily that things are getting worse. We are more anxious and more insecure than ever, though we have the least reason to be so. Our anxiety is infectious. It breeds suspicion. We refuse to listen to each other. We believe that if someone disagrees with us that they must be out to get us. We’ve created an online culture of constant self-righteous fighting and bickering. To articulate an idea or belief is to put your entire future on the line. This undermines feelings of esteem and security in ourselves and our children.
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that the culture we’ve created is in part responsible for the disengaging of our children––particularly our young men? We see performance levels, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates leaving young men behind, but we are not allowed to ask why they are disengaging. Might a few of these disengaged young men––these highly impressionable young men––turn to violence? We’re not allowed to ask. To do so is to be accused of wanting to halt the progress of our young women. What nonsense.
We can either do the work of cultivating a culture of love, and a culture of understanding each other and our children in this still-new digital age, or we can continue the absurd fight against windmills. After all, it’s much easier to blame the weapon than to look in the mirror.
The solution to school shootings does not lie in taking away a natural right. It lies in getting down to the truth about who we, the adults, have become.
As unimaginably horrible as it is that children––sometimes very small children––have been murdered while at school, it is both right and rational to stand up for the Second Amendment. States, not individuals, have been the greatest mass murderers in history.
Writing for the Washington Post a few months ago, Charles C.W. Cooke put it this way:
“Then, as now, [the Founders’] logic was clear: It makes no sense to allow the representatives of a free people to disarm their masters. Reacting to this argument, we often hear advocates of gun control propose that the Founders’ observations are irrelevant because they could “not have imagined the modern world.” I agree with the latter assertion: They couldn’t have. As well-read in world history as they were, there is no way that they could have foreseen just how prescient they were in insisting on harsh limitations of government power. In their time, “tyranny” was comparatively soft––their complaints focused on under-representation and the capricious restriction of ancient rights. In the past century, by contrast, tyranny involved the systematic execution of entire groups and the enslavement of whole countries. The notion that if James Madison had foreseen the 20th century he would have concluded that the Bill of Rights was too generous is laughable.”
It is cool-headed wisdom to insist on the right to keep and bear arms. It is action to love each other and pay attention to what is happening to our young people.
1. The AR-15 is simply a modern rifle. It is a semi-automatic rifle, meaning it shoots one bullet each time you pull the trigger. It is not an assault rifle. “AR” stands for ArmaLite Rifle, because ArmaLite was the name of the company that made them. “AR” does not stand for assault rifle. An assault rifle is a machine gun, only available to military personnel and civilians with a very difficult to obtain permit. The term “assault weapon” is a political term given to guns like the AR-15 for no other reason than that they look like a machine gun. (http://www.assaultweapon.info/)
2. The NRA does not buy senators or representatives, and it doesn’t vastly outspend other organizations. According to the left-leaning Politifact, the NRA spends an average of just over 11 million each year. That includes donations, lobbying, and ads for themselves. Planned Parenthood spends about 10 million each year. The NRA does spend significantly more during presidential election years (54 million in 2016). Compare that to America’s labor unions who spent nearly 2 billion in 2016.
But the NRA is not buying politicians with this money. Some of the money is donated to politicians who already support the Second Amendment. Would you believe someone who told you that politicians change from being pro-life to pro-abortion when Planned Parenthood gives them enough money? Of course not. And they can’t simply donate however much they want anyway. Politicians are not bought by lobbyists as your favorite Netflix show would have you believe. Gun control advocates simply find it unbelievable that people support the Second Amendment, and so some powerful bogeyman must be buying them off. In reality, politicians are bought by favors from other politicians. They are bought with pork projects (your tax dollars) and positions. If you want to read about how this works, google “Obamacare New Louisiana Purchase.”
3. I keep seeing mindless comparisons between Second Amendment rights and vehicle regulations. Second Amendment: fundamental natural right. Car: not.