Passed in 1791, our Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment reads “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”. Why was this provision needed and what has happened to it since its passage? Those questions will be addressed in what follows.
Our Founding Fathers had a keen sense of the history of their own forbearers who had suffered under the tyrannical rule of England’s King James. In the late 1600’s they codified their own bill of rights that included a provision for private citizens to own arms, all the better to oppose an oppressive government.
When framing the Second Amendment, Madison and Jefferson, the principal authors of our Bill of Rights, took into account this history and other factors related to our need for national security. In particular, by 1791 when George Washington’s volunteer army had been disbanded, we had no force capable of defending us against an invasion by a foreign power. So, the need was seen for the establishment, at the least, of state-run “well-regulated militias”. Not only would these armed units stand against hostile countries, they could also help with local law enforcement including the suppression of domestic insurrection. Just as importantly, giving private citizens the right to “bear arms” allowed those individuals to defend themselves against local criminal elements. Finally, an armed citizenry could also oppose our own governments at the state and/or federal level should one or both actively strive to subvert the Constitution and deprive us of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. As will be shown, it is this latter contingency that is now playing itself out in our national debate over the possession of assault weapons.
Over the 220+ years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights many of the reasons for the Second Amendment have become irrelevant. We have a standing military to defend our borders and fight our foreign wars. Each state has a National Guard which, on rare occasion have been used to control public unrest and agitation. Their use to integrate colleges and universities against racially-motivated, crowd agitation is a good example. What then is left?
The obvious answer is for an individual’s self-protection both when out and about, and in one’s own home. The need to defend one’s self has never been infringed or successfully challenged in our courts. Nor has there been an attempt by any arm of government to engage in the widespread confiscation of legally owned firearms. Still, gun rights advocates and lobbying groups (e.g. the NRA) have been largely successful in extending the Second Amendment to include the private possession of assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips. The manifest rationale for this expansion has been self-defense. But, less publicized has been the belief that such fire power will be needed to oppose a tyrannical government. A previous blog at this site (“Meet Larry Pratt”) details the thinking of one such individual and the organization that he heads.
Attempts to legally curb assault-grade weapon ownership have met with varying degrees of success. In 1994, an assault weapons ban passed Congress, but with a ten-year life span. So, in 2004, it lapsed. Almost immediately thereafter, there began a string of legislative attempts to re-institute the ban. Ten were initiated by Democrat members of Congress; two by Republican members. All failed to gain sufficient support in the House of Representatives, then controlled by a GOP majority.
Supporters of assault weapon ownership cheered, believing that the ban was an infringement on their Second Amendment rights. Yet, our courts have consistently ruled otherwise. A ban on assault weapon ownership has been in effect in the city of Denver for over 23 years. New Jersey is just one of about a half-dozen other states with a similar ban on their books. Each one of these statutes has been unsuccessfully challenged at some court level, including all the way up to the US Supreme Court. Indeed, the High Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does not protect an individual’s right to carry any weapon whatsoever, in any manner whatsoever….the sorts of weapons protected are those in “common use at the time” (see D.C. vs. Heller; 2008). It is hard to imagine that assault weapons could be excluded from this decision.
From the foregoing, it must follow that the Second Amendment cannot be used to justify assault weapons ownership. We are left then with the rationale that such weapons are needed to hold off a tyrannical government. Yet, not once in the 237 year history of our country has any arm of our federal government engaged in a widespread attempt to abridge our Constitutional rights. The fear that such might happen was never seriously contemplated until the election President Obama; a fact that likely says great deal about the mentality of those who believe in such conspiracies that have no basis in reality.