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The right to bear arms: antiquated or essential?

By Zeke Anderson - posted Friday, 9 August 2019

On 15 December 1791, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, which itself was effective from 4 March 1789, was adopted, having been ratified by three-fourths of the states, it stated inter alia that:  ‘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’ (Second Amendment to the United States Constitution). 

Today, that right is specifically protected by the United States Constitution and many state constitutions, which grant a right to own arms for individual use and to bear these same arms both for personal protection and for use in a militia.  The right to keep and bear arms is the people’s right to possess armaments for their own defence, as described in the philosophical and political writings of Aristotle, Cicero, John Locke, Machiavelli, the English Whigs and others. 

Sir William Blackstone wrote in the 18th century that the right to have arms was auxiliary to the ‘natural right of resistance and self-preservation’ subject to suitability and allowance by law.  Evidentially, at many stages throughout history, the possession of arms was considered quite proper and appropriate, so is it the advances in technology and subsequent arms available which now leaves only three nations on earth with an explicit right to bear arms – Guatemala, Mexico and the United States of America.  This raises the question of whether advances in technology alone should be a valid reason in limiting or eliminating a citizen’s access to firearms and thereby effectively eroding the trust between government and the citizens themselves.


Whilst multiple facets and interpretations of the ‘Right to Bear Arms’ have been considered, discussed and analysed since its inception, both in and out of court rooms, this discussion will largely be restricted to considering whether the Second Amendment catered to and envisaged the concept of maintaining some level of parity between the resources an arbitrary government could harness to ‘enslave’ a citizenry and the ability of the citizenry to offer resistance to a tyrannical government, both foreign or domestic.

In a modern democratic society the public is expected to trust the government not to impose tyrannical and draconian limitations and restrictions upon the freedoms of the public at large, yet that level of trust is not always reciprocated to the licensed law abiding citizens who select firearms to be their recreational activity of choice.  Clearly the government has the backing of the police and military to maintain their position of power, the public on the other hand have very limited capacity to respond to an oppressive and dictatorial government/leader.  I suspect that the need for a ‘built in’ failsafe was one of the rationales behind the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution – providing some hope of resistance to the citizens in the case of an omnipotent government betraying the trust of an existing social contract. 

Historical Context of the Second Amendment

Throughout their existence, the American colonies had endured the constant threat of sudden attack by Indians or any of Britain’s Dutch, French and Spanish colonial rivals.  Even if they had wanted a standing army, the colonists were unable either to afford the cost or to free up the necessary manpower.  Instead, they adopted the ancient practice that was still in vogue in England, the militia system.  The ‘militia’ was the entire adult male citizenry, who were not simply allowed to keep their own arms, but affirmatively required to do so.  In the pre-colonial English tradition there had been no police and no standing army in peacetime.  From time immemorial every free Englishman had been permitted and required to keep such arms as a person of his class could afford both for law enforcement and for military service.  With arms readily available in their homes, Englishmen were theoretically prepared at all times to chase down felons in response to the hue and cry, or to assemble together as an impromptu army in the case of foreign invasion of their shire (as detailed in Handgun prohibition and the original meaning of the Second Amendment by Don Kates).

When the American colonies were founded the militia system was in full flower in England.  With slight variations, the different colonies imposed a duty to keep arms and to muster occasionally for drill upon virtually every able-bodied white man between the age of majority and a designated cut-off age.  Moreover, the duty to keep arms applied to every household, not just to those containing persons subject to militia service.  Thus, the over-aged and seamen, who were exempt from militia service, were required to keep arms for law enforcement and for the defense of their homes from criminals or foreign enemies.  In at least one colony, a 1770 law actually required men to carry a rifle or pistol every time they attended church; church officials were empowered to search each parishioner no less than fourteen times per year to assure compliance.  In 1792 Congress, meeting immediately after the enactment of the second amendment, defined the militia to include the entire able-bodied military-age citizenry of the United States and required each of them to own his own firearm, according to Kates.

The Parity Issue


The argument that an armed citizenry cannot hope to overthrow a modern military machine flies directly in the face of history of partisan guerrilla and civil wars in the twentieth century.  To make this argument, one must indulge in the assumption that an armed citizenry will eschew guerrilla tactics in favour of throwing themselves headlong under the tracks of advancing tanks.  Far from proving invincible, in the vast majority of cases in the last century in which they have confronted popular insurgencies, modern armies have been unable to suppress the insurgents.  This is why the British no longer rule in Israel and Ireland, the French in Indo-China, Algeria and Madagascar, the Portuguese in Angola, the whites in Zimbabwe, or General Somoza, General Battista, or the Shah in Nicaragua, Cuba and Iran respectively, not to mention the examples of the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Clearly the ramification is that in 1791 the citizenry had parity with the militia and armed forces of the United States, both of whom would have had access to virtually identical muskets, rifles, sabres and pistols.  Today technology has increased the lethality of equipment available to armed forces worldwide and regular calls to and the actual application of legislation to limit or restrict classes of military style firearms to citizens is ongoing and hence reduce the capacity for citizens to maintain their ability for self-preservation and resistance if necessary.  In terms of parity, governments have access to nuclear weapons and strategic aircraft/vessels/artillery/armour, all of which are denied to private citizens, those being tools of foreign policy, so in effect a clear line in the sand has been drawn with respect to the capacity of individuals to achieve parity with government resources.  Clearly governments have imposed and firearms owners have progressively accepted more restrictions, such as background checks, the need for firearms licenses and increased restrictions on categories of firearms available to the public.

Source: Who Killed More: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?

The United States founding fathers would have seen technological advances and improvements in firearms and all manner of products during their lifetime, so it stands to reason that their deliberately making the link between a militia and private citizens, would suggest that today it should be regarded as legal and appropriate for any citizen of the United States to own any item that might be standard issue to a United States infantry soldier.  It is interesting to keep in mind that within the last 100 years, more people have been killed by their own Government than on the major battlefields:

Whilst I don’t condone the recent mass-casualty shooting events in the United States, wilful blindness as to the reasons why the Second Amendment was implemented in the first instance is not likely to contribute to an appropriate solution.  Criminal activity and mental illness should not become the catalyst that limits legitimate and responsible firearms ownership, possession and use, or undermine the ‘safeguard’ intent of the Second Amendment – treat the cause and not the symptoms of social dysfunction.

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About the Author

Zeke Anderson is a conservative social rationalist who is prepared to adopt a contrarian opinion if the evidence supports it.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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