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The Second Amendment and the consent of the governed

Thinking it Through

The current debate over the constitutionally guaranteed “right of the people to keep and bear arms” has shed more heat than light, despite a Supreme Court ruling that individuals, and not simply “well-regulated militias,” possess this right. For both liberals and conservatives have sold this right short.

Liberals have been gnashing their teeth over the Court ruling, and are seeking to circumvent it by “regulating” firearms. Thus, President Obama now proposes that certain dangerous-looking rifles be banned and ammunition be strictly controlled. That this proposal has more to do with leftist ideology than public safety is demonstrated by the fact that a bushmaster handgun, was used by the lunatic last month in Newtown, Connecticut.

Advocates of what is known as “gun control” are hoping that emotion can triumph over reason by means of public hysteria over what one conservative commentator rightly called “bright shiny objects,” in utter ignorance of the fact of widespread gun ownership. It is undisputed that more than 300 million firearms are privately owned, an insurmountable barrier to confiscation. Note this fact well.

While liberals have historically emphasized the constitutionality of militias and dismissed the rights of individuals to own guns, they are in fact no fans of militias. Liberal media took great delight in discovering private militia groups when the nation as a whole was more concerned about Islamic terrorism.

When push comes to shove, their rhetorical preference is undoubtedly a ploy to insure that individual gun ownership is subjected to crippling regulations and even made an offense against decency, as revealed by the suburban New York newspaper that “outed” legal gun owners. (That was just outlawed by the New York state legislature.)

Although I believe liberals are wrongheaded, I understand their fears. The last thing they want is a well-armed citizenry providing a barrier to the establishment of an unrestrained bureaucratic state.

That fear ought to empower conservatives who, in their determination to secure the rights of individuals to “keep and bear arms,” seem to have overlooked the role of “well regulated militias.” Our first Congress proposed the Second Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights. No one disputed that citizens had a right to defend themselves, the only question being whether a constitutional limit on Congress was necessary.

The reason is obvious. Militias assisted the Continental Army in winning independence from Great Britain. This was not merely because there happened to be lot of armed men in the soon-to-be free colonies but because guns were indispensable to protecting rights.

Certainly, the best guarantee of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a well-ordered government responsible to the people. But inasmuch as those rights are, as the Declaration of Independence says, “inalienable,” no government can justifiably deny them or the means of defending them.

As a friend reminded me recently, early militias possessed firearms but also more lethal weapons. Cannon balls and mortar rounds boomed across Revolutionary War battlefields too. If citizens are to be a match for the might of despotic regimes, then they need equivalent firepower. This assumes that freedom is better than tyranny. Let that fact not be lost on potential tyrants.

So let us put our political situation into perspective. Under our Constitution we, the people, have the power to control the government through free elections and constitutional checks and balances. But our power depends on the respect our public officials have for these safeguards.

Regarding the Second Amendment, consider by way of analogy the role of the armed forces in our relations with other nations. President George Washington first articulated the policy which keeps the peace, viz., a nation must at all times be prepared for war. Weakness invites aggression.

Similarly, the possession of 300 million lethal weapons by American citizens is a deterrent to tyranny. A people jealous of their rights will not hesitate to defend them. It is not necessary for Americans to brandish their weapons. It is sufficient that our governments are aware that citizens are armed.

It is surely essential that we have enough firepower to protect ourselves against criminals. All attempts to limit the number of rounds are therefore misguided. That young mother in Georgia who recently fired five shots against an intruder fortunately was not so limited.
But whether the threats come from private or public malefactors, the citizens, both individually and collectively, are, by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” entitled to adequate protection.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause”  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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