The Public Purpose of the Second Amendment
What does the second amendment do? We all know the Second Amendment secures our right of self-defense from criminal violence. The benefits of self-defense are largely private. You defend yourself and those you love mostly for your own advantage. Hunting is largely the same in that most of the benefits are yours rather than your neighbors.
Is there another purpose to the second amendment? There is also a public purpose to the second amendment; a purpose where the costs fall almost entirely on the individual and the benefits accrue almost entirely to other citizens. The public purpose of the second amendment is to promote the means of armed rebellion against tyranny. You read that correctly. The second amendment to the US Constitution promotes violent armed revolution. The means to violently take our government apart was written into the same document that was desperately trying to put our nation peacefully together. The second amendment to our constitution is not a contradiction or accident in a largely legislative document.
What explains this contradiction of including revolution in our Constitution? The men who wrote the US Constitution feared tyranny. Their concern was real. They had seen and fled and fought oppression by a brutal government. They saw their communities, their churches and their families torn apart by government oppression. These men were the survivors, but many of their friends and family had died under despotic rule. The Constitution allows for armed revolution to remove tyrannical government. But its greater purpose is to forestall tyranny.
Revolution is considered too horrible to contemplate in our day and age. People felt that way when the Constitution was written. Like the fire axe kept in the glass case and largely ignored, the tools of revolution were written into the foundation of our government in the hope they would never be needed. The Constitution included the tools of revolution while hoping their existence would prevent the necessity.
Why call it a “public” purpose? Many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were destroyed by the birth of our nation. They paid the price of revolution so that others could benefit from a newly discovered idea; the radical idea of freedom. For the Founding Generation, the costs of freedom were personal and the benefits were public. The radical idea that the average citizen did not need permission to act from government or guild was both expensive and priceless. It cost these revolutionaries their fortunes, their families and often their lives. Widespread liberty gave the survivors a level of general prosperity that lasted for generations. That freedom and prosperity made the US into a world superpower. Our loss of freedom has led to our recent decline.
Are these public and private purposes linked? We could deny the public purpose of the second amendment and retain the private purpose. We could pretend that governments are always benevolent or pretend they are benign. We could pretend there is no obligation to secure liberty for others and claim our countrymen are on their own to resist government oppression. Some of our neighbors are so physically or mentally challenged that they can not defend themselves or defend the state even if they wanted to. Some of our neighbors no longer have the capability to defend the state, but we don’t deny them the right of self-defense. Yes, I said defend the state rather than destroy it with revolution. The original plan for the United States put both burdens on its citizens. The United States was, and is, ours to protect.
What do we defend? The United States is revolutionary in both the power it granted to its citizens and the responsibility it demands from us. The early United States did not recognize the right of kings to rule. Instead, the United States empowered its citizens with the revolutionary notion of the temporary citizen-legislator. Citizens would govern themselves without kings, nobility, or title bestowed on a privileged class. The early United States deliberately avoided a standing army because they had seen standing armies used for domestic oppression and in foreign wars of conquest. The newly formed United States chose a broadly based guerrilla force instead of a standing army. That was the militia comprised of the citizen-soldier. This armed force was as revolutionary for its time as it seems today. The inventors of the United States asked citizens to both govern themselves and protect their country. We as citizens were charged to protect the idea of the United States. We were asked to defend what the country stood for, not merely the current government in power. We were asked to defend the ideals of the United States rather than simply defend the name or the flag. Our Constitution was written with a fresh memory of oppression and revolution. The contemporary literature during the founding went so far as to ask citizens to overthrow their own government if their own government became tyrannical.
Why depend on armed citizens rather than a professional army? The ordinary citizen has the most to lose from tyranny. In the face of tyranny, the rich retain their power of wealth and the poor have nothing to lose. The people are trusted while the loyalty of a hired military can be purchased for money. The ordinary citizen is both the support and the critical pivot point to defend a society built on liberty. He is the person who must know and defend liberty. John and Jane Q. Public are expected to protect themselves, their community AND the ideals of good governance. The second amendment guarantees a parity of force, if not identical tools of defense. That right exists today, even if the tools are denied to us. It isn’t easy being a responsible citizen of these United States.
Read for yourself. “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.”
We would say it differently today. “A properly disciplined and frequently exercised body of armed citizens is necessary for the security of the citizens of a free country. Therefore, the right of the people to possess and use firearms shall not be infringed.”
Rob the shocked historian
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