If the Second Amendment protected everyone’s right to own firearms, it would not be constitutional to deprive felons, the mentally ill, or those with a history of domestic violence of the right to buy guns. The reason why it is possible for legislators to restrict the manufacture, sale, distribution, and possession of weapons is because the Second Amendment placed the right to keep and bear arms in the hands of a well-regulated militia.
The Bill of Rights was designed to impose limitations on the powers of the federal government, because many Americans feared that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government, and took too much power away from the states. Under the previous Articles of Confederation, the states wielded nearly unlimited power, and the federal government had very little power even to collect taxes or raise an army or navy for the national defense.
The Second Amendment was meant to safeguard the people’s right to form well-regulated militias under the authority of the states. Many Americans feared that a standing army or navy would give the executive too much power, and pose a threat to freedom and democracy. The popular militia was thought to be a much more egalitarian and democratic institution, which could restrain the federal government, but it was still supposed to be accountable to the community and subject to the authority of the states.
The militia was meant to include all able-bodied, military-aged males. Hence in 1791 George Washington signed “The Second Militia Act” into law, which required every man between the ages of 18 and 45 to purchase a musket and powder. In the event of a crisis, like a foreign invasion, Congress could quickly raise an army or navy, drawing on the pool of citizens enrolled in the state militias, without maintaining a standing army or navy in peacetime. The Constitution limited appropriations for the military to two year increments.
After the beginning of the Imperialist Era in American history, we began to drift away from the founders’ original concept, because militias have never been an effective tool of overseas aggression. Militias are always reluctant to fight in long, drawn-out wars far from home. They lack professional training and experience in combat. The rates of desertion for militias are always very high.
Many liberals today maintain that private citizens do not need to own guns. They say that we have the police and the military to protect us. However, they forget that the Second Amendment was written because the founders viewed a professional military as a threat to freedom and democracy, and when the first police forces were founded in places like Boston and New York in the early nineteenth century, many citizens loudly objected on the grounds that they were nothing more than standing armies.
With the rise of police brutality, government surveillance, invasions of privacy, endless military expeditions in overseas countries, and war crimes, we now need to reclaim the original meaning of the Second Amendment more than ever. American police and military forces have indeed proven to be the very real threat to freedom and democracy that the founders imagined, not because of the men and women who bravely serve for the right reasons, but because of the people who wield power over them and use them as pawns in their own selfish games.
The American people should loudly demand an end to the scourge of constant war, as well as the standing armies and navies that plague our shores, rob our cradles, and pilfer our pocketbooks. We should return to the militia system, and call on every able-bodied person to serve in a well-regulated militia under the authority of the state in order to protect our communities from the threat of terrorism and foreign invasion. The militias should receive extensive training in emergency response procedures, safety protocols, nonviolent conflict resolution techniques, and weapons safety and accountability.
The state should exercise authority over private gun sales. The Tenth Amendment states that whatever powers are not delegated to Congress are reserved by the states or by the people respectively. The Constitution does not give anyone a right to profit from the manufacture, sale, and distribution of firearms, or freely trade in firearms. The state is within its authority to regulate gun sales and ownership within its borders, and the federal government is within its authority to regulate any sales or distribution of guns between states. It would not be unconstitutional for any state to take public ownership of the gun industry, and distribute guns exclusively to its own militia.
The “people” is a collective term. The Second Amendment was meant to safeguard the “people’s” right to keep and bear arms and to maintain well-regulated militias. It was not meant to confer on every single individual an inviolable right to buy guns. Otherwise, it would be unconstitutional to deprive anyone, even felons, the mentally ill, or those with a history of domestic violence, of the the right to buy guns.
Contrary to popular opinion, a person does not lose his or her rights when s/he commits a crime. Prisoners still hold constitutional rights. Hence prisoners have fought and won cases based on important guarantees in the Bill of Rights, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to habeas corpus, the right to bail, the right to freedom from cruel or unusual punishment, etc. The reason why felons are not allowed to own guns is not because they have lost their rights as citizens, but because the state has the authority to regulate guns, and the state deems it a risk to public safety to allow felons to own guns.
It would not be unwarranted for the state to place restrictions on gun sales for people who are under investigation or suspected of a crime, even if that person has not yet been convicted of a felony in a court of law. While we might suggest that restrictions should not be placed on anybody without a court order based on probable cause, it is not beyond the scope of the state’s constitutional authority to make legislation requiring vendors to refrain from selling arms to persons under investigation for potential links to terrorist organizations and activities, until such time as the state deems that person not to be a threat to public safety. Such legislation could include a requirement for the state to act quickly, in a specific period of time, and present evidence to a judge to show that a specific person is likely to commit a crime, and persons placed on a list of “no-gun-sales” should have opportunities for periodic reviews and hearings to contest the state’s evidence.
Many Americans raise the specter of tyranny, and assert that the Second Amendment was written so that gun owners could restrain the abuse of power by government officials and protect their rights. However, no insurrection against the federal government has ever been successful, regardless of the good intentions or heroism of its leaders. The founders were the first to repress insurrections, reasoning that no revolt against the American government could be justified, since citizens have the opportunity to seek a redress of grievances through peaceful, democratic means. In today’s world, it is unlikely that any band of reformers, however numerous or well-armed, could successfully challenge the federal government in a contest of arms. This argument should be put to rest. It is nothing more than a well-meaning fantasy, which could prove to be very dangerous to public safety.
It is imperative for the American people to reclaim their freedom and democracy, but this should be done through the exercise of democratic power, especially in constitutional conventions, nonviolent social revolution, and mass movements. The people have a lot of power to bring about change, with a sufficient degree of motivation, organization, and determination, but in the United States a civil war would most likely result in bloodshed, chaos, and repression. Paramilitary organizations seeking to overthrow the government will most likely endanger the lives and property of others, without achieving any lasting or meaningful change.
When the founders suggested that the state militias could be used to restrain tyranny, it was because the people, organized and wielding power through their states, could place a check on the growth of the federal government. The federal government, lacking a standing army or navy, and relying solely on state militias for protection, would not be able to enforce any decree which failed to gain popular support and approval through a process of constitutional ratification. The president could not make himself king, because he would have no troops to enforce his will. He would only be able to increase the powers of his office if the people supported him. It was not because bands of private citizens, lacking any democratic accountability or legitimacy, could outgun federal agents in a deadly shoot-out.
The trouble with the United States today is that the nation has become deeply polarized. There are well-meaning citizens on both the left and the right who care passionately about the future of the country, yet find it impossible to compromise and work with each other in order to make any headway. They have bought into rigid ideological narratives which tell them that they are children of light, and that they are engaged in a cosmic struggle against the powers of darkness. Any compromise would be a concession to evil. We have lost any sense of unity or purpose. Loud and vocal minorities claim to speak for the people, and political factions have degenerated into dangerous cults which threaten the future of the republic.
Partisans on both the left and right subscribe to a similar narrative: The people have a shared mind, and we all agree with each other about what is right. The enemy has seized power. Dark and powerful elites control the machinery of government, and we the people have to take our country back, by force of arms if necessary. Anyone who disagrees with the consensus is not merely an enemy of the state, but an enemy of the people. Since right-wing partisans and left-wing partisans alike view each other as powerful elites who must be resisted at all costs, the narrative is a recipe for civil war, in which well-meaning and well-armed citizens battle each other in the streets, under the illusion that they are both trying to take the country back and give power back to the people.
The first step in healing the nation and bringing an end to the strife would be to recognize that we don’t all agree with each other, and that people who disagree with us are not a hated enemy, but our friends and family, our co-workers, and our neighbors. It would be useful for citizens to drop ideological labels, which merely confuse and divide people, and focus instead on creating workable solutions to the problems that we face, without worrying about “-isms” and “-ologies.” Nobody can speak for the “people” as a whole. Everyone person must speak for himself or herself in the public assembly, and share his or her needs and concerns with the community as a living, breathing human being, not a cold and lifeless ideology.
People always have a right to defend themselves, and well-regulated militias that are democratic in nature and accountable to the community can play a useful role. There have been various times in history when African Americans and Native Americans have successfully used guns to protect their homes and families from terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan. It would not be wise to deprive all Americans of guns, since that would leave us vulnerable to the attacks of terrorist organizations who are crafty enough to evade the attention of the FBI and have no respect for our laws or regulations. The LGBTQ+ community should give serious thought to armed self-defense in the wake of the Orlando shooting, and not merely rely on the police and authorities. The federal government has often been complicit in the oppression of LGBTQ+ people, and did not discover sexual or gender diversity until it suddenly became useful in a geopolitical strategy to pinkwash US imperialism and demonize other countries.
However, we should bear in mind that the Second Amendment was written principally to protect the right of the people to form well-regulated militias under the authority of the states. Wherever the state is broken, we the people need first to take back the state, and exercise authority through the state over the rules and discipline of the militia, rather than engage in revolutionary posturing about storming the capitol with guns in order to take back our rights. We the people can simultaneously maintain the right to keep and bear arms, and take action to prevent terrorists and other outlaws from acquiring deadly weapons, all within the original meaning of the Second Amendment.
In conclusion, the Second Amendment does not give everyone a right to buy guns. It gives the states the right to maintain well-regulated militias. A well-regulated militia should include the mass of responsible citizens, who can be trusted with firearms, but it can and should exclude anyone who for one reason or another may be considered a threat to public safety. The state has a right to exercise authority over gun ownership, and should exercise that authority wisely, based on the needs and desires of the people.
It is not sufficient to rely on the police or the military for protection, but well-regulated militias are not paramilitary organizations, and do not seek to overthrow the government through armed struggle. Well-regulated militias are democratic in nature, subject to the authority of the states, and accountable to the community. The people should exercise democratic power through the states, and there are a variety of ways to take back power which do not involve killing people who disagree with us. The dream of armed insurrection appeals to radicals on both sides of the aisle, but it is unlikely to succeed in the real world, and will only result in tragedy.
Liberals are not correct to say that the people should not maintain a right to own firearms or participate in militias, but conservatives are not correct to say that every individual has a right to buy any weapons that he or she pleases without restraint, and that any and all gun laws amount to tyranny. We need to put aside partisan quarrelling and revolutionary posturing so that we can work together in order to find solutions to the problems that we face. The rise in terrorism and other forms of violence requires a serious solution based on analysis, not facile talking points or partisan rhetoric.