Thursday, March 08, 2007

The 2nd Amendment

I have been thinking lately, and have about come to the conclusion that the second amendment to the United States constitution is partially obsolete. The amendment states (in full):
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.
Looking back at the writings of the early leaders of our government, you see that there are two purposes for this right. The first is to provide for powerful defense of our country in the event of war; the second is to allow the citizens the ability to protect themselves from the power of the federal government. As examples of the second, consider the following quotes:
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. 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. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.

---Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia 1787).
Clearly, Webster is arguing that an armed citizenry provides protection against the central government. Patrick Henry, at the Virginia ratifying convention, made the same point:
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 ruined.
The question I ask is: does anyone really believe that today, with modern military weaponry, that armed citizens possess any power to stand in the way of their government? Please know that I am not arguing for violent overthrow of the government, nor am I arguing for the repeal of the second amendment.

What I am saying is that we need to think carefully about what the second amendment does actually provide in this day and age. While defense against armed invasion remains a real benefit of an armed citizenry, the risk of actual invasion of our country is truly minimal. The ability to defend our personal property against criminal behavior, while very real, was not (to my reading) part of the original intent, and it is in many ways regulated by our government. Are we now left with a right without a purpose?

This matters because there is a very real push by many in our country to gut, if not downright repeal, the second amendment. Those who wish to defend it need be very clear exactly what it is that they are defending. We live in a society that does not by default accept the judgement of those long dead as sufficient reason for any action. The question now for those who defend the second amendment: what exactly are you defending? If you do not come up with an adequate answer, you are destined to lose.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't see where the right of the people to keep and bears arms translates to the reason of protecting themselves from the power of the federal government. The reason for the right to keep and bear arms, at least here, is not clearly stated.
Could the reason be left up to the individual citizen, and taken as a right for self defense whenever deemed necessary?

Dr. Don said...

Indeed it could. But the very fact that the reason is not stated in the text of the amendment compels each generation of Americans to determine the reason for themselves.

My point is that failing to be clear on this will make it more difficult for all defenders of the 2nd Amendment to make their case in the face of unreasoned attacks.

Andy said...

"Are we now left with a right without a purpose?"

Technically, yes. By extrapolation, no.

What's the principle behind the right? To safeguard liberty by the freedom to bear arms--a patently libertarian notion. Will we ever change the ammendment? Probably not. So we'll just have to let it support the right to have weapons. It isn't perfect, but it's pragmatically acceptable.

Yes, it's somewhat outdated. Yes, it probably won't change. And yes, it gives us the right to bear arms.