The Radical Meaning of the Second Amendment

This is the eighth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The Second Amendment to the United States’ Constitution was meant to strengthen a check on the power of any Federal army: the state militias. The Founding Fathers were prudently wary of standing armies, especially large ones kept in time of peace. Such armies were the concrete means by which tyrannical Federal plans could be actualized in force. The state militias offered the possibility of resistance, but only if they were maintained at readiness.

The Second Amendment is merely the most prominent of several interrelated constitutional checks on the Federal government’s power to raise and maintain a fighting force, and is not the only one concerned with the militia.

  • Article I, Section 8 grants Congress these powers:
    • To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
    • To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
    • To provide and maintain a navy;
    • To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
    • To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
    • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
  • Article II, Section 2
    • Grants that the President of the United States is to be commander in chief of the militia of the several states, but only while the militia is on duty in the actual service of the United States.
  • The Second Amendment states: “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.”
  • The Third Amendment states: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

To be fully understood, the Second Amendment must be seen in the context of all of the above Constitutional provisions, as well as in its larger historical context. I will not here provide the full historical context of the Second Amendment. What I will do instead is break the text down into sections, explicating each from the perspective of that context.

“A well regulated militia” — this means a militia that has all of the military structure and materiel necessary to be an effective fighting force. As we have seen, the Constitution vests the authority for providing organizational structure, arms, and codes of discipline in Congress.

“[B]eing necessary to the security of a free state” — this indicates that the militia is the only force that can provide security for a free state. In other words, internal security is not to be provided by a standing army. The militia exists to repel invasion, put down insurrection, and, if necessary, enforce the law of the land. Regular army forces were meant for specialized, ad hoc missions. It was hoped as well that the larger an army was, the shorter its mission would be. There was to be no perpetual state of war requiring indefinite mobilization. Some long-term missions, such as maintaining frontier security, would be given to the regular army rather than the militia, but these missions would not require large forces. Since providing for national security is one of the core functions of government, and since the founders did not trust regular armies to provide this security domestically, a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security, not of just any state, but particularly of a free state. (The security of a totalitarian regime is best ensured by a standing army, but this same form of security is anathema for a free state.)

“[T]he right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” — this means private individuals, people like farmers, printers, and silversmiths, shall have the right to keep and bear, and this is crucial, military-grade arms. This right shall not be subject to infringement (read “reasonable regulation.”) It might be helpful to think of it this way: A prohibition against infringement is specifically a statement of principle at the fringes. The Second Amendment is, in other words, very specifically crafted to reject the sophistic suggestion that there are some weapons which civilians are to be “permitted” to keep and bear, and other weapons which shall be reserved to the agents of the government.

Putting the Second Amendment back together, “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,” means that, because the United States comprise a free state, intend to remain such, and as such will have no standing army large or powerful enough for full-scale national defense, the people should themselves be as well armed as the soldiery of any contemporary army, and must, in any case, be free to arm themselves as well as their resources permit, but with no other limit whatsoever. Also, since the militia (the popular army, the principal armed force of the United States) will be composed of the people, armed as well as the regular army (or as near to this standard as private resources permit), and a far larger force than the regular army could ever become, it will serve as the final, forceful check on tyranny. It is by the force of the militia that the people can be assured that their right to alter or abolish a government destructive of individual rights is real, actual, and actionable, not merely, uselessly, theoretical.

The ultimate significance of the Second Amendment is this: the Founding Fathers wanted it explicitly on the record that the people, not the government, are to hold the reigns of the power of overwhelming deadly force. The Second Amendment is not about the right to personal self-defense. The Founding Fathers were, it should be remembered, men of self-esteem. Listing the right of personal self-defense in the Bill of Rights would have been beneath them. That man has a natural right of self-defense, for the Founders, went without saying.

What they decided needing saying was specifically that military-grade arms shall not be restricted to the professional army. It was a powerful idea, almost incomprehensibly radical by our present standards. It was a good idea too. If the Second Amendment had been followed in letter and spirit, enduring liberty under the Constitution might have been a real possibility. The constituents of a polity are either citizens, subjects, or slaves. In 1776, the Founding Fathers had refused to be slaves. The Constitution and Bill of Rights then recognized the key difference between citizens and subjects: Subjects proclaim their rights; citizens enforce them.

2 thoughts on “The Radical Meaning of the Second Amendment”

  1. How does this fit in with Article III, Section iii of the Constitution?

    Section 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

    Waging war against the government is illegal per the Constitution.

    Not to mention you neglect Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951):

    The obvious purpose of the statute is to protect existing Government, not from change by peaceable, lawful and constitutional means, but from change by violence, revolution and terrorism. That it is within the power of the Congress to protect the Government of the United States from armed rebellion is a proposition which requires little discussion. Whatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a “right” to rebellion against dictatorial governments is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change. We reject any principle of governmental helplessness in the face of preparation for revolution, which principle, carried to its logical conclusion, must lead to anarchy. No one could conceive that it is not within the power of Congress to prohibit acts intended to overthrow the Government by force and violence. The question with which we are concerned here is not whether Congress has such power, but whether the means which it has employed conflict with the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution.

  2. It would be a short-lived regime indeed that had codified the right of revolution in such a way as to prohibit its own agents from defending it from any putatively revolutionary violence. Certainly taking up arms against the government of the United States is treason, but the right of revolution is predicated on the notion that traitors are sometimes in the right. Consider that the Constitution itself was a consequence of more than a decade of colonial treason against the British. The Second Amendment does not provide legal sanction for any act of violence against the Federal government; it rather ensures that the people retain the means to effect an illegal, treasonous, and just revolution, should it become necessary.

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