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A Natural Right is an inherent right, not drawn from the government, but intrinsic to personhood. The story of the 2nd amendment begins here, philosophically, but more specifically in the 1689 English Bill of Rights. At this time there was much upheaval between King James II (who was Catholic) and the growing Protestant nation of Great Britain. King James II began to strip Protestants’ their right to bear arms in an attempt to subjugate them. The “Glorious Revolution” finally overthrew King James II, and the successors had to sign and agree to the English Bill of Rights of 1689 which included this passage:
The English Bill of Rights declared that the right to have arms for one’s self defense was an “ancient” one. It did not say that citizens had the right to bear arms, it took that right a priori. Instead, it maintained that the crown had no right to disarm them. It was, as I previously mentioned a ‘natural right.’
In 1776, William Blackstone wrote, “The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute, and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
Blackstone was commenting on English law, and once again asserts that the right to self-preservation and resistance is a ‘natural right.’ That means it is not a right given to you by the government, or society, but by virtue of being born. In his book, The Constitutional History of England (1938), Mark Thompson affirmed, the English Bill of Rights did “little more than set forth certain points of existing laws and simply secured to Englishmen the rights of which they were already possessed.”
The point here is, once again, the right to bear arms is an inherent one – derived by virtue of existing. It is auxiliary to the right of self-preservation and can not be taken away by a governing authority. Removing the 2nd amendment, for example, would not remove one’s right to bear arms. That 2nd Amendment only states an existing right, it does not grant you a new one. It is like the ingredient list on a can – the ingredient list doesn’t dictate what is in the can, it only tells you what is in a can.
Our Supreme Court has even upheld this view. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court argued, “This meaning is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment. We look to this because it has always been widely understood that the Second Amendment, like the First and Fourth Amendments, codified a pre-existing right. The very text of the Second Amendment implicitly recognizes the pre-existence of the right and declares only that it “shall not be infringed.” As we (the United States Supreme Court) said in United States v. Cruikshank, (1876), “[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed …”. Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents.”
The court opinion goes on to say exactly why the natural right to bear arms is necessary in civilized society, “These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” 1 W. & M., c. 2, §7, in 3 Eng. Stat. at Large 441 (1689).”
A good lawyer buddy of mine posited the opposite was true – that the reason we had a 2nd amendment was to allow ordinary citizens to repel an invading faction because we didn’t have a standing army. I will provide evidence to show this view is not only incorrect, but ironically so. The reason the 2nd amendment was written down was because the Federalists wanted a standing army. Not because we did not have a standing army.
If you remember, following the Revolution, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation. The AoC greatly reduced the federal government’s power and our standing army down to as low as 80 men total. Federalist did not like this, and in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, it was proposed that Congress should be able to raise a large standing army for the protection of the nation. This idea was catching on, so in response the Anti-Federalists took pains to establish a Bill of Rights (praise God) to limit Federal Power.
James Madison drafted the 2nd Amendment, and it was Alexander Hamilton who explained why in 1788, “[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude[, ] that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens” (Federalist Papers #29).
Thus, the 2nd Amendment was added in response to a standing army forming, not in order to let the body of citizens act as a standing army in lieu of one. The idea is to balance not just political power, but also military power. James Madison takes a jab at European nations in Federalist Papers #46 by writing, “Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
When people try to compare America to other nations when it comes to gun control, they really need to read, once again, why we have a second amendment to begin with. Yes, many European nations do not “trust their people with arms” and there is an insidious reason for that. Tyranny can spread much more quickly, and our founders knew that because they lived through it. If you remember, the British Empire first tried to embargo arms to the Colonies because Patriots were stock piling arms away from Loyalists. The very first thing Britain did to try to quell an uprising was remove the Colonies’ arms. One of my forefathers wouldn’t stand for that crap because he knew, as all should know, that the right to bear arms is auxiliary to the inherent right of self defense. The government, once again, does not have the right to take that away from the people it governs.
Democide, or the murder of citizens by their government, has been one of the primary vehicles of evil in the 21st century. In the last century alone, roughly 260 million citizens were murdered by their own governments. One of the first things these governments did, prior to these murders, was take away their victims’ arms. The reason, once again, the 2nd amendment was written into our Bill of Rights, was in order to prevent this. As a centralized government becomes more and more powerful, the people must do so likewise in order to prevent, at the minimum the subjugation of citizenry, and at the most, the democide of them.
In 1787, Noah Webster wrote, “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.”
It is important to note that Noah Webster was also a Federalist, and not an Anti-Federalist. The 2nd amendment, at this time was not controversial in the least bit. Everyone agreed that an armed population was a rational check on potential tyranny. Years later Theadore Sedwick, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and a lawyer, would write, “a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved … Is it possible … that an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves or their brethren? Or, if raised, whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands?”
One of the important aspects to what both Noah and Theadore wrote was that the populace had to be armed. It was taken a priori that, “yes, we are good with a large federal government so long as the people value liberty and maintain their arms.” If you take the arms away, then you no longer have that check.
George Mason, a delagate to the US Constituional Convention in 1787 wrote two very important things. The first is what we already know, “to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them … by totally disusing and neglecting the militia.” The second is what exactly constitutes the “militia.” To answer the question, he wrote, “Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” This is important because many people will try to tell you that the 2nd Amendment
wasn’t talking about ‘everybody’, but merely the ‘militia.’ As you’ve already learned, they are patently wrong based on where the 2nd Amendment derived from – a natural right given to every person. The Supreme Court agrees.
Finally, while we are still going back to the source (ad fontes), it seems prudent to quote Patrick Henry, “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.”
All of these men understood the importance of keeping the populace armed. They spent a great deal of their lives living under an increasingly tyrannical government. There should be absolutely no doubt that the 2nd amendment was created in order to hold the Federal government in check, militarily.
Now, I turn to the question as to whether or not the American government has become so powerful that an armed population would be useless to stop it if it turned tyrannical. We only have to turn to precedent to dissuade this doubt. First, you have the American Revolution itself which pitted the most powerful nation in the world against farmers and merchants. Second, you have the examples of the Vietnam and Iraq wars which also featured the most powerful military in the world pitted against what may as well have been 3rd world countries in comparison (if you measured GDP).
In the previously listed cases, the fighting was that of an insurgency. Except, in those cases, the insurgents were poor and had to rely on foreign powers to arm them. In the case of modern America, we are already armed and wealthy. The American people would win the war far quicker because of these two attributes. Not to mention, the military itself would face dissension as it is tasked with protecting the Constitution, and not a despot or oligarchy, and to defend it against enemies both foreign and domestic.
I would like to end my essay by quoting the very first record of commentary we have on the second amendment, made by St. George Tucker.