Why Is America Still So Free? Maybe the Second Amendment Has Something to Do with It

Image via The Nation

Critics of gun rights seem to forget that guns are not, first and foremost, for hunting or preventing a burglary but rather to ensure that governments don’t get out of control.

One of the most hotly contested flashpoints of politics today is the right to keep and bear arms. Politicians run campaigns around the issue, celebrities take to the screens to demand an end to guns, and countless dollars are pumped into advertising and lobbying. 

The root of the issue is far from recent, long removed from Sandy Hook or Aurora. Rather, it lies in the birth of the Constitution.

In the wake of a failed attempt at decentralizing government under the Articles of Confederation the Founding Fathers decided the colonies needed a stronger federal government to unite them. However, there were detractors who were unwilling to relinquish their freedoms to a powerful centralized government, reminding them of the very tyranny they had just defeated. The aptly named Federalists and Anti-Federalists came to a conclusion: the addition of a Bill of Rights, which would keep government in check.

Among the rights promised was the Second Amendment.

 The Second Amendment clearly establishes two ideas: that a people’s militia is instrumental to the existence of a democratic nation and that government may never abridge the right of the people to keep and bear arms. These two ideas stand independent of one another. The most important feature of the Second Amendment is the final four words: “shall not be infringed.”

George Mason, one of the primary architects of the Bill of Rights, said: “To disarm the people … is the most effectual way to enslave them.”

The right to keep and bear arms was not intended for hunting or self-defense but to safeguard the people from overbearing governments, the entities  most responsible for bloodshed, time and again, throughout history. 

In nearly every instance of modern despotism, the people were systematically disarmed. In perhaps the most infamous example, Hitler used the pre-existing gun registration laws of the Weimar Republic to target and disarm the so called “undesirables” of German society. As a result, the victims of Hitler’s eugenics and genocidal programs were unable to resist or fight back.

The Founding Fathers possessed the foresight to see that defeating the British was not the end of tyranny in the world. One day another form of tyranny could, very well, rise from within. The Second Amendment ensured that the American people would be able to resist the fates, which would befall innocent people across time, from Nazi Germany to modern-day North Korea.

In the modern era, groups such as the Brady Campaign or the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence actively work to abridge and, in some cases, erase the right of the American people to keep and bear arms. They presume that modern firearms could never have been conceived by the Founding Fathers and that as a whole the American public would be safer with more limited access to firearms.

The Founding Fathers lived in the era of the Enlightenment in which new inventions were being introduced frequently. Single shot muskets were the standard arm of the era. However, there was a novel invention, which could be considered the forefather of automatic weapons: the Puckle Gun. It was invented by James Puckle in 1718 and designed to defend ships against piracy. Firing at three times the rate of a musket, the Puckle Gun was a formidable weapon.

Today’s world is very different than the 1700’s, but it is reasonable to say that the Founding Fathers knew that innovation would never cease. If the Bill of Rights only applied to technology available during the colonial era then no Internet speech would be protected, the electric chair would not be banned under the Eighth Amendment, and DNA evidence would be inadmissible in court.

Even though the Second Amendment was not intended as much for personal self-defense as for protection from central governments, according to a 2000 study, published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Americans use firearms to defend themselves from criminals over 900,000 times per year.

Since the 1990’s private gun ownership has increased, while the homicides involving a handgun have been in steady decline. To see the effect of a gun ban, just examine Great Britain. In the years following the total handgun ban, murders spiked to record highs. Only by greatly increasing law enforcement personnel did the homicide rate recede back to the pre-ban numbers. 

We have been fortunate in the United States that we have yet to experience outright tyranny at the hands of the federal government. But the reason for this could, very well, be that the Second Amendment has kept a check on overbearing governments for the past two-and-a-half centuries, just as the Founders intended.

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