The Right to Bear Arms - Protecting Democracy

Most of the argument surrounding gun control laws and gun rights argues about the effectiveness of civilian owned guns as a deterrent to crime and the effectiveness of gun control laws in reducing gun violence. The Second Amendment of the Constitution, where the right to bear arms finds its home in the legal world, seems to address a different context.

"Amendment II

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."

Naturally, we couldn't expect the authors of the Bill of Rights to address the modern context in which prevalent gun violence can be a significant concern for the average law-abiding citizen in many urban neighborhoods. So what was their concern? It is that concern, independent of the problems of prevalent gun violence that we face today, that I would like to discuss.

The text of the second amendment addresses not the safety of individuals from criminals, but rather the security of a free State. It appears that the intentions of the authors were to protect the State from outside aggressors (as in foreign attackers) but also to protect the State from a tyrannical government in order for the state to remain free. The context of the time just after the Revolutionary war lends itself to this interpretation. It makes sense too: a well-regulated militia of ordinary arms-bearing citizens would have played a key role in keeping a state free and democratic.

In the case that one adopts the interpretation that the Second Amendment refers singly to the protection of a free State against outside aggressors, one could argue that the modern military makes such a militia unnecessary and frankly impractical. A counterargument to that could very well be that just as civilians bearing arms was necessary then to protect from outside aggressors, today civilians bearing arms is necessary to protect against a different enemy (the perpetrators of violent crime) against which the government's armed forces and law enforcement cannot respond adequately.

(Regarding the gun violence argument , comprehensive studies and research reveals that increased legal civilian gun ownership does not increase gun violence and if anything can decrease the crime rate. Well-publicized mass gun training programs have significantly reduced violent crime rates in the area in question.)

Alternately, another interpretation supports a reading that would uphold the right of civilians to own and carry guns in order to protect against the possibility of governmental tyranny, perhaps through the pretext of a threat to national security and then the establishment of military law and then the long-term extension of governmental power at the expense of individual rights... etc.

Should civilians have the right to keep and bear arms in order to protect against the eventuality of a 'hostile' government? On the other hand, should the government have a monopoly on firearms and the power to decide who wields them? If democracy of this nation depends on the government deriving its powers from the people, shouldn't we maintain a situation in which protests cannot be met brutally without retaliation?

I know that the idea of a right to bear arms to fight the government seems not only far fetched but drastic in this day and age, but should we allow the rights that at one time were essential to the protection of democracy to be slowly abridged because political stability has convinced us that such necessities are limited to the 18th century?


cody said...

While I don't doubt the data on widespread civilian gun ownership decreasing rates of violent crime, I wonder about "accidental" shootings. How often do self-defense shootings occur in such situations? How often are they actually justified by a clear and present danger? A decrease in crime doesn't necessarily mean less gun-related deaths or shootings, since many such incidents aren't crimes to begin with. It's not a crime to shoot a Japanese boy who stops at your door asking for directions to a party on Halloween (a story I mentioned in an earlier post), but it is still deplorable that such "accidents" can happen.

And as for guns protecting democracy, well, it was certainly true in the 18th century. Whether or not it is true today, I'm not so sure. I think however, that we would all like for it to not be true. I mean, in 300 years, you would hope that humanity has progressed somewhat, that eventually we won't need to have such antiquated concerns. Still, if people feel it is necessary, then so it shall remain. I don't foresee the Second Amendment going away anytime soon, but I do believe we should strive towards a society where it is not needed.

mmk said...

While I agree, as Estragon suggests, that we should not allow fundamental principles of our democratic nation to slowly erode in the face of overly zealous reformers and unwarranted fears, I’m not sure he stressed enough his opposing point that “we could not expect the authors of the Bill of Rights to address the modern context in which prevalent gun violence can be a significant concern.” The constitution and the Bill of Rights were constructed as living documents for a reason; our forefathers could not possibly predict what the coming centuries would hold and they knew it. Thus, these documents were intended at their inception to be organic by nature—we were supposed to be able, upon evaluation of our modern context and modern concerns, to adjust our rights at our discretion.

When the Bill of Rights was drafted to include the “right to bear arms” I don’t think the authors had in mind .50 Caliber anti-armor sniper rifles, for instance. According to the Violence Policy Center’s “National Security Expert Report on Unrestricted Weapons Sales,” These “anti-material” sniper rifles, striking accurately from distances of up to a mile, can down helicopters, destroy commercial aircraft and penetrate bulk storage tanks filled with lethal explosives. This exact weapon is available for sale in Idaho and Nevada on a cash-and-carry policy. No background check, no questions asked. Furthermore, though it is banned in many other states, it is not at all illegal for a citizen of New York to fly out to Idaho and purchase one. It is impossible to underestimate the potential devastation that such loose regulation could hold if exploited by the wrong person. Perhaps our “war on terror” should start a bit closer to home.

While the anti-armor sniper rifle is certainly an extreme example, the protection of a citizen’s “right” to carry assault rifles and other weapons of war such as the above falls well under the protection anti-gun control lobbyists are pushing for when they cite our “right to bear arms.”

The “original right of self defense” is certainly not a modern-day concoction, nor is it an out-dated right no longer necessary in our current times. Still, however, I disagree with the pro-gun concept that moderate gun control infringes on a constitutionally inherent and inviolable right. Indeed, I think the extent to which one is allowed to “defend” oneself against bodily harm and ensure the “protection of a free state” deserves thoughtful scrutiny. The scope of this individual right must be weighed against the unquestionable threat that its allowances pose to the very things the right was intended to protect. Ultimately, it is hard to understand how the unregulated dispersal of modern weapons-technology serves the protection of body and defense of free state.