Understanding the Second Amendment
Why the Second Amendment? What purpose does it serve?
Personal protection? Put food on the table? A rule to make it legal for gun nuts to run around and put holes in tin cans and explode watermelons?
Yes, yes and yes, but these are the active interests of only a relatively few American individuals — not the population at large, even in colonial times.
Then why embed this rule as part of the United States Constitution, a document created to express only the very most important rules of government for an entire nation? Turns out that some of the Founders had a very deep distrust of a strong central government, in part because of the recent war to escape British rule. The Founders also understood from the recorded history of the world at that time, the inevitable, insatiable drive by all governments to consolidate all power in the hands of just a few select individuals. Therefore, the newly created United States of America was designed to keep all political power in the hands of the people, thus making it unique in the history of the world.
However, the Founders were also very careful to avoid a pure democracy. Because, to put it bluntly, an unfettered democracy gives no political strength to minority views, and is simply mob rule by another name. Instead, the newly created Republic, as embodied in the Constitution, was designed to distribute, and dilute, central government power across the several states, yet ensure that all citizens have an opportunity to be heard through their elected representatives.
The same history that warned the Founders to avoid a pure democracy also predicted that no matter how carefully it was constructed, the American government could, over future generations, gradually find the motive and means to get around the original Constitutional limitations on legitimate government power. In an effort to counter the expected erosion of personal liberties, the Founders added 10 amendments to strengthen the Constitution, the so-called “United States Bill of Rights.”
The U.S. Bill of Rights is not a list of gifts from the government, but a list of prohibitions against government interference with the inherent rights of free people. Nine of the amendments seem easy to understand, but for some reason, the Second Amendment is not. Whether because of writing style or willful misinterpretation, the “problem of the Second” has generated a great deal of controversy, which clouds discussion of the purpose of the right to bear arms.
One of the barriers to understanding the Second might be the sentence construction which leads some readers to conclude that only militia members may be armed; that exercising the right depends on militia membership. However, if the Second Amendment is restated using different words, so that the sentence structure remains the same, it is easy to see that it says a militia is in fact completely dependent on the existence of an armed population. For example, the statement, “A well-educated electorate, being necessary for the functioning of a free republic, the right of the people to read and write books shall not be infringed.” Notice also that the “people” used here means the same at-large population of citizens as described in the first, second, fourth, ninth and tenth amendments, again giving lie to the claim that only militia members may be armed.
But why the entire citizenry as an unorganized militia anyway? Why not extra police, perhaps an enormous national police force as proposed by former President Barack Obama on July 2, 2008? The reason, of course, is power to the people. By recognizing in the Second Amendment the inherent right, even the duty, of every citizen to protect their own lives and property, the Founders attempted to ensure that the American government would never have a complete monopoly on deadly force.
To fully understand the purpose of the Second Amendment, we should ponder the words of Fredrick (sic) Douglass, the first black Supreme Court justice (sic), who, in 1867, stated that, “A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box.”
Lee Howard, Washougal
Editor’s Note: Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American Supreme Court justice, appointed in 1967. Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, was an escaped slave who made his way from bondage in Maryland to New York, where he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement known for his powerful antislavery writing and speeches. His 1867 speech was chastising the federal government for failing to give African American men and all women the right to vote. The rest of the quote is: “Let no man be kept from the ballot box because of his color. Let no woman be kept from the ballot box because of her sex.