The second amendment has been a hot topic lately, especially with the talk of new gun control. Perhaps one of the main reasons why it is being so hotly debated is because people have long forgotten the purpose of the amendment and because of that, its ability to protect the nation has been greatly reduced. There is a lot of confusion regarding the second amendment. Questions about who gets to bear arms, and why, do not have clear answers without an understanding of the core purpose of the second amendment.
Versions of the Second Amendment
James Madison’s original draft
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
Revised form of Madison’s bill
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.
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.
What it Means
So, first, what does this mean? It seems likely that a “well-regulated militia” is, in fact, a well-maintained militia. That is, properly trained and equipped. Next, who is to comprise the militia? An elite set of security enforcement, like the police? No. It’s pretty clear from the process that, anyone capable of bearing arms, is to be included in those who can form the militia.
However, why have the militia if we have a strong military? Well, when the nation was originally formed, we did not have a strong military. In fact, the many of the founders were very opposed to a long term standing army of any great power. When people quote the second amendment as protecting us from government tyranny, what it really protects against is the need for a powerful military. Without that, a government has very little power to coerce its citizens to act against their will.
In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of war, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people. ~ James Madison
If you want to look at the results of a strong, long standing army, simply look at WWII Japan. The nation was basically controlled by its military. Of course America has seen the consequences of a powerful army or police force. Again going back to WWII, we saw the internment of Japanese American citizens. In more recent years we have seen the abuse of a powerful military in nations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and many others.
How it Protects Us
So we have that the primary purpose of the second amendment seems to be to protect us from tyranny. However not so much in the way people seem to think. It is not that the founders wanted the people to be able to rise up against a corrupt government. I think they were aware of the destruction that generally can be caused by populist uprisings. Instead the founders never wanted a government powerful enough to suppress its people in the first place. So, the second amendment was meant to ensure that no standing army formed would be stronger than the militia as a whole.
Of course let’s not forget about all the benefits of going back to “the old ways” of relying on militia over the military. We could reduce government spending by quite a bit, or transfer some of that spending from researching destructing into researching creation. There are so many alternative uses for our military spending, it’s rather astounding once you start to think about it.
The fifth amendment states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law. The fifth amendment therefore protects economic and property rights and so protects the purchase, sale, and ownership of armaments. The second amendment has a very important function, but that function is not to protect gun ownership rights. The second amendment reiterates the right to bear arms and explains the importance of exercising that right. History has shown us just how destructive our standing army became, and we need to remember the purpose of the second amendment now, more than ever before. So whenever someone says something silly like the second amendment being outdated and that it needs to be revoked, perhaps it’s important to remind them of the purpose of the second amendment, and the consequences of ignoring it.
Contributions by Brian Kirby. Edited by Daniel Goldman