One of the most controversial parts of the United States Constitution is the Second Amendment, which 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.”
Unlike the previous entries in this series, this will not be an argument against the substance of the Second Amendment. Rather, this will be a case against both the exact language of the Second Amendment, its efficacy, and the effect of having it explicitly codified in the United States Constitution.
Let us begin with the words themselves and how their meaning has changed over the centuries. This is a common problem for those who view the Constitution as a dead document, as well as a common exploit for those who view the Constitution as a living document that they can interpret to mean whatever they wish it to mean. In the eighteenth century, ‘well-regulated’ simply meant ‘functioning properly.’ But with the growth of the administrative state, regulation has taken on the novel meaning of law without proper legislation. Likewise, the concept of a militia has also changed from that of all able-bodied males of military age to that of fringe anti-government extremists, as the federal government has usurped the role of the militia and handed it to the National Guard, which it may more easily command and control.
Next, there is the matter of security of a free state. In one sense, ‘free state’ is a contradiction of terms because the presence of a state is a guarantee of an absence of freedom. In that sense, those who seek liberty should not want the state to be secure, but rather to be continually imperiled by its own subjects. But in the language of the time, a free state was one which was sovereign over its geographical area rather than one which was subject to another, more powerful state. In this sense, the Second Amendment is correct to observe that a heavily armed populace is the most effective deterrent against foreign invasion.
The Second Amendment concludes by saying quite plainly now as then that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ This is an absolute standard, setting a zero tolerance for infringement of the right to keep and bear arms. But how effective has this been? Given that the National Firearms Act of 1934 imposes taxes on certain categories of arms, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 forbids private nuclear weapons, the Gun Control Act of 1968 mandates licensing of arms dealers and manufacturers, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 outlaws private ownership of machine guns manufactured after that date, and numerous other federal, state, and local measures further restrict what kinds of weapons one may own, it is clear that the Second Amendment is mere ink on a dead animal hide rather than an authentic protection of essential liberty against the whims of legislators.
Another concern with the Second Amendment is the same as with any other part of the Constitution. The interpretation is decided by judges who are paid by the state in courts which are monopolized by the state. Thus, the Second Amendment means whatever people in black costumes say it means, which need not be in keeping with common usage or dictionary definitions because there is no effective challenge to their power once the appeals process is exhausted. (There are the possibilities that a judge will be impeached and removed or that the Constitution will be amended, but these possibilities are rare enough to dismiss in most cases.) The incentive of people who are paid by the state is to encourage the health of the state, which in the case of the Second Amendment means that there is a conflict of interest between defending the rights of the people to keep and bear arms and eliminating the danger to agents of the state that an armed population presents. This incentivizes judges to rule in favor of restrictions on arms, which constitutes a threat to individual liberty and tends toward infringement upon natural rights.
That being said, the case law on the Second Amendment is somewhat more favorable than the legislation. In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court struck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the court ruled that there is an individual right to keep and bear arms rather than solely a collective right. The McDonald v. Chicago (2010) decision extended Heller to the state and local level, while Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016) extended these decisions to all forms of bearable arms. However, other decisions leave much to be desired. In United States v. Cruikshank (1875), the court ruled that the Second Amendment “was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens” and “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.” (McDonald v. Chicago largely reversed this decision.) The Presser v. Illinois (1886) decision found that states may prohibit their citizens from forming private military organizations, which protects the coercive monopoly of the state over military defense. In United States v. Miller (1939), the court found that the Second Amendment does not protect particular classes of weapons if they are not ordinary military equipment and legislators cannot imagine how the weapon could contribute to the common defense, thus hindering innovation in defense. The Lewis v. United States (1980) decision says that felons may be prohibited from possessing arms, which is troublesome due to the wide variety of peaceful activities that are considered felonious in the United States. United States v. Rybar (1996) affirmed that Congress may regulate possession of homemade machine guns, thus infringing upon the private property rights of citizens. Overall, the courts occasionally defend the right to keep and bear arms, but are generally unreliable, especially for more powerful weaponry.
To Codify Or Not To Codify
To quote Frederic Bastiat, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Perhaps the most damaging effect of the Second Amendment is ideological in nature; it encourages people to rely upon it as an argument for their rights instead of making a stronger case from first principles. This helps to perpetuate the erroneous beliefs that rights come from the state or from the Constitution, as opposed to the correct view that rights are logical corollaries of the most fundamental right, that of self-ownership. As soon as one accepts such a statist basis for one’s rights, those rights are instantly jeopardized, for what the state giveth, the state may taketh away. The implication at that point is that there would be nothing wrong with gun confiscation if the Second Amendment could be repealed or reinterpreted by a future Supreme Court packed with progressive liberals, which is the goal of many leftists in the United States. In other countries which do not have counterparts to the Second Amendment, the laws concerning keeping and bearing arms are much more strict and invasive. But in many places with strict gun control measures, a large number of people still maintain firearms; they just do so illegally. Note that when a product is in demand and legal markets are forbidden from providing the supply to meet the demand, illegal markets will step in and make the banned goods easier to obtain than if the goods were legal but strictly regulated.
The Second Amendment is excellent in aspiration, but thoroughly insufficient in practice. Both the legislative and judicial branches have infringed upon the right to keep and bear arms, in flagrant violation of the promise made by the Framers. It is thus necessary to make a stronger case for private armament on both the theoretical and practical fronts. Theoretically, the case for keeping and bearing arms should be made from the first principles of self-ownership and private property rights. Practically, those who seek liberty must recognize and make use of the fact that one effectively owns that which one can take and defend. Put plainly, the right to keep and bear arms is not secured by some magical parchment or by agents of the state, but by the ability and willingness of the owners of those arms to use them in self-defense against anyone who would attempt to take them.