On the Second Amendment

As might be expected, plenty of non-Americans have no idea what the Second Amendment is all about – its history, its purpose, and its meaning. But sadly many Americans don’t know much more about it, so a bit of information and education may be in order here.

Of course America would not exist if it were not for the right of its citizens to bear arms. It was founded by a revolt against what it considered to be tyrannical British rule. Without that ability to bear arms, things today would be far different. So rightly or wrongly, the very beginning of the US as an independent nation has this aspect of gun ownership at its heart.

And this was not unique to the Americans. Indeed, they picked this up from their British ancestors. Way back in the twelfth century King Henry II had ordered all Englishmen to keep weapons to defend the realm. English common law ran with this, so much so that by 1689 this right had become entrenched throughout the British empire in the Bill of Rights.

Thus all of the early American state constitutions picked up this idea of a fundamental right, culminating of course in the Second Amendment. The overwhelming understanding of almost everyone at the time was that this was a fundamental good to be enshrined in law, both on state and federal levels. Plenty of such voices can be cited here:

“A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined.” George Washington, 1790

“The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed. … 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 which is paramount to all positive forms of government.” Alexander Hamilton

“[The Constitution preserves] the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation . Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” James Madison

“No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Thomas Jefferson, Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776

“What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” Thomas Jefferson

“The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” Thomas Jefferson

“The rights of conscience, of bearing arms, of changing the government, are declared to be inherent in the people.” Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts

“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, 1787

But I have gotten ahead of myself. This is what the Second Amendment says: “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.” This short but concise statement is quite clear.

Yet lefty revisionists don’t think so, and they want to change all that. They claim this was only for a “militia” and not the ordinary citizen; that it only applied to weapons of the day; and that it is foolish to think armed citizens can resist modern American tyranny if it should develop.

As to the first charge, some of the quotes above make it clear that this was never the intent of the Founding Fathers. Here are some more quotes to support this:

“I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” George Mason, Co-author of the Second Amendment during Virginia’s Convention to Ratify the Constitution, 1788

“Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man gainst his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” Tench Coxe, 1788

“[W]hereas, to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them; nor does it follow from this, that all promiscuously must go into actual service on every occasion. The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle; and when we see many men disposed to practice upon it, whenever they can prevail, no wonder true republicans are for carefully guarding against it.” Richard Henry Lee, 1788

“Who was the militia? … the body of people capable of bearing arms.” New York Constitutional Convention

The second charge is just silly. One might as well argue that the First Amendment therefore must also be similarly restricted. Following this logic, “the freedoms of speech and press found in the First Amendment should be limited to a town crier, horses and footmen to carry communiques, quill pens, and actual printing presses. This would mean setting type by hand, rolling ink ever the type, and pressing the paper on the raised letters, one sheet at a time,” as one commentator remarked.

As to the third charge, Walter Williams handily debunks it: “There have been people who’ve ridiculed the protections afforded by the Second Amendment, asking what chance would citizens have against the military might of the U.S. government. Military might isn’t always the deciding factor. Our 1776 War of Independence was against the mightiest nation on the face of the earth – Great Britain. In Syria, the rebels are making life uncomfortable for the much-better-equipped Syrian regime. Today’s Americans are vastly better-armed than our founders, Warsaw Ghetto Jews and Syrian rebels. There are about 300 million privately held firearms owned by Americans. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And notice that the people who support gun control are the very people who want to control and dictate our lives.”

But a bigger picture is needed here. Is there a fundamental right to self defence, and to defend ones’ loved ones? Can a moral, even a biblical case be made for the right of self-defence and the resistance to tyranny? I have already tried to answer those questions, at least in part, here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/12/20/self-defence-and-scripture/

However, a recent piece by former Superior Court Judge Andrew Napolitano more fully examines these issues, and is well worth quoting from. He begins, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms is an extension of the natural right to self-defense and a hallmark of personal sovereignty. It is specifically insulated from governmental interference by the Constitution and has historically been the linchpin of resistance to tyranny. Yet the progressives in both political parties stand ready to use the coercive power of the government to interfere with the exercise of that right by law-abiding persons because of the gross abuse of that right by some crazies in our midst.

“When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, he was marrying the nation at its birth to the ancient principles of the natural law that have animated the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West. Those principles have operated as a brake on all governments that recognize them by enunciating the concept of natural rights.”

He continues, “The essence of humanity is freedom. Government — whether voted in peacefully or thrust upon us by force — is essentially the negation of freedom. Throughout the history of the world, people have achieved freedom when those in power have begrudgingly given it up. From the assassination of Julius Caesar to King John’s forced signing of the Magna Carta, from the English Civil War to the triumph of the allies at the end of World War II, from the fall of communism to the Arab Spring, governments have permitted so-called nobles and everyday folk to exercise more personal freedom as a result of their demands for it and their fighting for it. This constitutes power permitting liberty.

“The American experience was the opposite. Here, each human being is sovereign, as the colonists were after the Revolution. Here, the delegation to the government of some sovereignty — the personal dominion over self — by each American permitted the government to have limited power in order to safeguard the liberties we retained. Stated differently, Americans gave up some limited personal freedom to the new government so it could have the authority and resources to protect the freedoms we retained. Individuals are sovereign in America, not the government. This constitutes liberty permitting power.”

He concludes, “The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us. If the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had had the firepower and ammunition that the Nazis had, some of Poland might have stayed free and more persons would have survived the Holocaust.

“Most people in government reject natural rights and personal sovereignty. Most people in government believe that the exercise of everyone’s rights is subject to the will of those in the government. Most people in government believe that they can write any law and regulate any behavior, not subject to the natural law, not subject to the sovereignty of individuals, not cognizant of history’s tyrants, but subject only to what they can get away with. Did you empower the government to impair the freedom of us all because of the mania and terror of a few?”

Quite so. Much more needs to be said on this important issue, but for those who prefer viewing short videos, this clip by Bill Whittle is well worth watching: http://conservativevideos.com/2013/01/bill-whittle-gives-us-a-history-lesson-on-why-we-need-the-2nd-amendment/

In sum, there has been a long standing mindset about the right to self-defence that extended back for many hundreds of years, well before the Second Amendment was penned. And its relevance for today cannot be overestimated.

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jan/10/the-right-to-shoot-tyrants-not-deer/  – nap

[1829 words]

17 Replies to “On the Second Amendment”

  1. Thanks Bill, most informative. Not only to us in Australia, and the USA but a reminder to the citizens of the UK of their little known history.

    Greg Brien

  2. Hi Bill,

    I beg to differ somewhat. When the Second Amendment is read in it’s entirely, it is quite clear that the right is inherently linked to the need for a well-regulated militia. If the Second Amendment was intended to be about personal protection for the individual, I can only imagine that the first part of the sentence would have been omitted. Or if the intention was about personal protection as well as State protection, it may well have been written like the Indiana Constitution: “The people shall have a right to bear arms, for the defense of themselves and the State.”

    In other words, the Second Amendment is all about equipping the people with arms so that they can fight against tyranny should the need arise – it’s not about carrying a handgun in your pickup truck in case someone tries to rob you. Switzerland is a great example of this distinction. As far as I know, homes in that country carry assault rifles on behalf of the military/militia, and I think it is a great idea for a country so vulnerable to rapid invasion and attack. I am only speculating, but I think that the reason why Switzerland has a lower murder rate is people don’t carry guns on their own behalf; they possess them for the protection of their country. It may sound like a shallow distinction, but I think it’s an important distinction.

    But in America, it seems that the Second Amendment has been distorted into something all about personal protection from fellow citizens, and to put it frankly, I think this sucks. Sure, many robberies, rapes and murders have been avoided because a person was armed, but there is just a tremendous cost to be paid when individuals with no sense of community or responsibility are encouraged to carry firearms. If the focus was on equiping the militia (which is about community responsibility not private rights) I think so much of the gun violence in the US would cease.

    Nick Davies

  3. Thanks Nick

    No, the founders would have found it laughable to suggest their only concern was against the tyranny of government but not the tyranny of a criminal. The right to self-defence (from any threat) was always at the heart of their thinking. Even some of the state constitutions specifically mentioned the right of self-defence for individuals with firearms. And a famous 2008 Supreme Court case specifically ruled that personal protection was found in the Second Amendment.

    And even if we did buy your false distinction, having firearms to resist tyrannical governments still is a most valid reason to uphold the principle of the Second Amendment.

    Oh, and I think ‘many robberies, rapes and murders’ ‘suck’ when they could have been avoided by using a firearm as a deterrent. Those are the real ‘terrific cost’ – not firearm ownership.

    And the right to self defence of course goes far beyond the Second Amendment. It goes back to the Bible in fact, as I wrote elsewhere:


    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. Bill your response does not properly address my fundamental point about the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment does not read, “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”. The right is clearly referable to a well-regulated militia. The reference to a militia was included to shape and explain the basis for the right. Now if the Second Amendment did not include the first part about the militia, I admit that there would be little ground for argument about the constitutionality of private gun ownership. But the fact is it does so refer, and it is therefore reasonable to contend that without the militia, a citizen’s right to possessing arms pursuant to the Second Amendment is on shaky constitutional ground.

    You know this, which is why your article goes into detail suggesting that ‘militia’ is merely a description of ‘the whole people’. But anyone with a dictionary can see that a militia is a bit more than a group of people – it’s an army of ordinary citizens and it always has been. It’s not Joe Citizen looking out for “number 1” down the street.

    Ultimately, you have not provided conclusive evidence as to why the Second Amendment dedicated so many words talking about the State and a well-regulated militia if it was just a carte blanche right to give everyone a right to a gun.

    And finally Bill, pro-gun advocates (of which I consider you to be one) are quite good at coming up with reasons to let people carry arms, whether it be for self-defence or protection against tyranny. But the glaring problem is the bare facts, because despite America having 300 million guns among the population (which is apparently supposed to keep citizens safe), the US murder rate is 4.8 times higher than the Australian rate, and the gun homicide death rate is 40 times higher than it is here. Likewise, Australia has not had one single massacre since the gun reforms of 1996, although it had many massacres before these reforms.

    Not bad for a country of convicts, and quite bad for a country that claims to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. And don’t get me wrong, I like guns and I’ve used them too. But it is simply safer here than in the US, and I am convinced that one reason for this is because we have a better approach to gun ownership.

    Nick Davies

  5. Thanks Nick

    But of course I fully did answer your charge, as anyone can see, but you just don’t happen to like it. That is your problem, not mine. And my mind boggles that some Australian without any background in American Constitutional Law thinks he knows more about the Second Amendment than the US Supreme Court. Staggering actually.

    And I realise your side likes to play fast and loose with stats, all the while ignoring the wealth of evidence which in fact undermines your case. The truth is almost all international comparisons on such matters are always fraught with great difficulty. A much more fair examination will be intra-national comparisons. Thus for example we find that Chicago’s murder rate is amongst the highest in the US, but it also has one of the strictest gun restriction laws in the nation. There are plenty more such inconvenient truths for the gun control activists.

    And here you are again ignorant or resistant to the Australian data. As many studies have shown, violent crime and homicide rates have basically remained unchanged in this country, as noted studies by Deakin University, the Australian Institute of Criminology, and others have shown, for starters. As one of these studies concludes, “The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.”

    As for America, well over 98 percent of all gun-related homicides are not committed by those 90 million legal gun owners, but by criminals and others who illegally possess firearms. And over 98 per cent of those 300 million legal and registered firearms have never been used to murder anyone. By your reasoning there should be millions of gun-related murders every year in the US. But there are not, thus you again make my case for me. Violent crime rates have been going down in the US while rising in places like Australia and the UK, both with much more stringent gun control laws.

    And so what about “massacres”? If people are still being killed – and even more so – by ones or twos or threes, then we still have the exact same situation: people being murdered. Who cares if people were killed in a group or individually? They are still dead. So it is the data here we must deal with. And one must also factor into all the number of lives that might have been saved had innocent people still been allowed to defend themselves, and so on.

    As a very important study in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy concluded, “The burden of proof rests on the proponents of the more guns equal more death and fewer guns equal less death mantra, especially since they argue public policy ought to be based on that mantra.” But I realise that facts and figures seldom change the minds of those pushing ideological agendas.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. You didn’t answer his statement about the fact that a Militia under any definition is not about an individual, but about a group. Too many people have applied this amendment individually rather than for groups instead. The right to bear arms is for militia, not for individuals. When you get a group of individuals together for the purpose of them being an army, then they become a militia.

    The second amendment is the only amendment in the US constitution that states why it is there. “being necessary to the security of a free State” So many guns in America will never have this purpose, which is why it is against the spirit of the words of the 2nd amendment.

    Ian Nairn

  7. You gun controllers have a funny view of where Australia is at with guns.

    I was a criminal once and i can tell you that there are lots of guns in Australia…i used to hold a 12 gauge pump action shot gun with rounds and rounds of solid shot…many are held today by criminals.

    As for the issues of Port Arthur Bryant had no gun license and was on a pension for mental problems. Howard took opportunity to push his personal thoughts on gun ownership and persecuted responsible gun owners. Banning the guns wasnt the answer, read the account of what Bryant did and ask yourself if there were more people who responsibly carried guns for the self defence against such would his rampage have been cut short?

    The answer of course is a very possible ‘yes’. Even his actions in his rampage wreak of the presumption that no citizen amongst those he brought violence against held a gun…he was free of threat.

    The best cure for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and myself as a Christian minister would not have even thought twice as to my role given me by God to stop the evil in that moment had i have been there and armed.

    I wonder if you had of been armed in that moment whether you would comment that you still would have done nothing or whether you would have shot the man…and what you would call this?

    Dorian Ballard

  8. Thanks Ian

    But all you are doing is regurgitating the same old leftist ideology, totally devoid of facts. I have of course already fully answered this foolishness both in my article and in my comments. The Founders themselves knew exactly what they were talking about, and they themselves have answered your charge as clearly as possible. They ought to know – they are the ones who wrote these documents. And the Supreme Court has reaffirmed all this as well. Yet you come along and claim you know more about this matter than the Founders did! Remarkable! Sorry, but I will stick with the historical facts rather than ideological revisionism.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Thanks for that Dee

    I tend to keep plenty busy here, without wading into other people’s websites. Indeed, with over 35,000 comments on my site, I am more than busy. But it is easy enough to answer this guy. Like others, he tends to be long on emotion and vague notions of what Christian spirituality might be, but very short on any facts, evidence or data. I speak to this in part here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/12/20/self-defence-and-scripture/

    His conclusion is a good example of this very thing: “Why should Christians, above anyone, support gun control? Simply because our Creator God sets the highest value on all human life. (Gen 9:5-6). No person’s life is of lesser worth than internal security.”

    There are far too many problems here. For one, he fails to understand that it is God himself who has declared that the taking of life is at time fully acceptable and morally licit. But I speak to that elsewhere as well: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/

    He seeks to take the high moral ground here, but simply shoots himself in the foot (no pun intended). He implies that his concerns about saving lives is purely the domain of the gun-control crowd, and those who disagree with him must therefore be pro-death, or at least have no concern about preserving innocent life. (And ironically, if not hypocritically, he rambles on about how I and others like me offer ‘caricatures’ of the opposing side! One could argue that his piece is one big caricature of our position.)

    But if the concern is to save lives – which it should be – then he should change sides at once. Because it is not his side which is in fact saving lives. His position in fact puts far more innocent people at risk. Explain to me how in the world that is being more Christlike? I would have thought that if the bulk of social science data on this demonstrates that lives are more at risk with gun control, then the Christian thing to do would be to follow the data where it leads, and change one’s position.

    I let Thomas Sowell, who has written and taught on this extensively, have the last word here. He moves from some specific data to some general considerations: “When it was legal to buy a shotgun in London in the middle of the 20th century, there were very few armed robberies there. But, after British gun control zealots managed over the years to disarm virtually the entire law-abiding population, armed robberies became literally a hundred times more common. And murder rates rose. One can cherry-pick the factual studies, or cite some studies that have subsequently been discredited, but the great bulk of the studies show that gun control laws do not in fact control guns. On net balance, they do not save lives but cost lives. Gun control laws allow some people to vent their emotions, politicians to grandstand and self-righteous people to ‘make a statement’ – but all at the cost of other people’s lives.”

    I would rather side with the empirical evidence here, and side with policies which in fact save lives. That certainly seems to me like the Christian thing to do.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. The simple way to point out to someone who claims that taking guns away is a moral position is to cite this statistic from the US:

    In fatal shootings where the incident is stopped by someone from law enforcement (when they arrive), the average number of people killed is more than 14.
    In fatal shootings where the incident is stopped by an armed civilian at the scene, the average number of people killed is less than 2.5
    That’s almost 12 people saved each time due to ordinary people having guns.

    Even allowing for some statistical error, that’s a massive difference.

    Claiming the moral high ground from a position of disarming ordinary citizens is a level of ignorance that deserves the highest contempt. Guns save lives and if you love life and truth above shallow emotionalism you will recognise that. It took me several years to come around to the evidence, but in the end you have to admit the truth inherent in what Dorian wrote above: “The best cure for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The sooner that good guy arrives, the better. Best of all is when the good guy is already there.

    Furthermore, effectively the gun control position is that is somehow morally better for a woman to be at the mercy of a rapist and/or killer rather than being able to shoot him dead if necessary.

    And I just don’t know how people could watch a 5 minute clip like this one below from a woman who lost both her parents to a madman and still think they are more concerned about life than someone who wants to legally own and carry a firearm. Legal owners are almost never the problem. It is absolutely beyond me that people can be so sanctimonious, callous and impervious to evidence. This woman lost her parents because of well-intentioned, but nevertheless BAD, gun control laws! I think this clip, which I’ve linked to before, should be required viewing before any debate on the issue.

    By the way, this page below is a gold mine of resources. The list of specific cases where guns have saved lives is not short.

    Mark Rabich

  11. Thanks Mark

    But you are not being fair; you are using evidence, facts, statistics and rational arguments. The other side just can’t cope with all that. Indeed, after dealing with so many of these folks, I have come to understand that they realise they do not have the data or the evidence to make their case, which is why so many of them resort to emotional kneejerk reactions, abuse and anger. Or they try to take the high moral ground, when in reality their position is not moral at all – it simply results in more innocent people being attacked, raped, burgled and killed. Yet somehow they think that is more ‘Christlike’. Go figure.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. Thanks Bill,

    I probably would have sided with those wanting to reduce the # of guns in society in the past (thinking of the potiential for domestics ending in people being shot), but your logic and evidence has me thinking that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun (or a rapist etc) is for a good citizen to have a gun. I also imagine that if I lived in the middle of a bunch of Koran abiding Muslims I’d feel a lot safer with a gun available!

    David Roberts

  13. Hi Bill, thanks for the article.I wonder how do we correlate that with countries who don’t have the right to bear arms in their constitutions, eg Australia. Is one right and the other wrong? Are there unique circumstances which justify this seeming contradiction? I know there are gun crimes in Australia, but they do *seem* to be less per capita than USA. What is your take on that?
    John Bennett

  14. Thanks John

    I have already discussed this in various places. As to rightness and wrongness, it seems to me the real issue is how many lives are saved all up, and how much violent crime is reduced, and so on. Which policies best deal with these sorts of issues? Do strict gun control laws make people safer, etc, or not? Those are the sorts of empirical questions which need to be asked and addressed here.

    The actual data and facts, in other words, need to be our main concern here. Very briefly, it is usually unhelpful to compare country with country, as it is often a case of mixing apples with oranges. So a more fair comparison is to, say, look within one country. For example, Chicago and Washington DC have amongst the highest murder rates in the nation, yet have some of the strictest gun control laws.

    And the issue is not so much how many murders are due to guns, but how many murders and violent crimes there are. A nation with zero guns will have zero gun deaths of course. But that is not the real issue. Violent crimes have shot up in both Australia and England after their strict gun control laws went into effect, and homicide rates remained largely the same according to studies. Moreover, one must ask how many lives might have been saved if people were allowed to defend themselves with firearms, etc.

    But entire books have been written on all this, offering mountains of data on such matters, so it can’t all be repeated here in a mere comment.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Hi Bill,
    I think gun control in the US would be like introducing beer control in Australia. Right or wrong, it won’t work. If they really want to reduce the overall amount of guns, they would need to tax firearm and ammunition purchases. I have always been in favour of gun control here in Australia, but following what is going on over there, I have re-thought my position somewhat. Also, I stumbled across this paper here. It has challenged my position. I do wonder what other effects gun ownership rates have on society other than just homicide rates, and whether the are beneficial effects or not. Thank you for another well written and informative article.


    Will Taylor

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