On the Original Purpose of the Second Amendment

Let’s say that a future government has decided to incarcerate wrong thinking people into “reeducation camps,” to try to get people thinking right, and to quietly “take care” of all those who can’t be rehabilitated.  Free speech is suppressed, the media made an arm of the state, and the government refuses to stand for free and fair elections.  In that situation, most people would recognize the government has forfeited any claim to legitimacy.  We fought a World War, and a risky, expensive, and protracted cold war against such governments.  Most people, I would wager, would agree such a government ought to be resisted, and violently if necessary.  But I have to question how some view the form that would take on.

Do folks really believe that if the proverbial shit were to hit the fan, that the people will prevail by the people bringing out their privately owned tanks, RPGs, anti-tank missiles, artillery, mortars, F-16s, helicopter gunships, surface-to-air missiles, to fight and defeat a modern army, or even part of one, on its own terms in conventional military operations?  I would posit that warfare has changed a great deal since 1776, and even if the courts agreed the Second Amendment protected all of these things, it would be entirely symbolic and meaningless.  Very few people could afford them, or even if they could afford them, they wouldn’t own such things in large enough numbers to make any real difference.

This is not to say that I think the Second Amendment’s purpose of enabling people to resist a criminal government is completely obsolete, just that it’s not going to happen the same way it did in 1776, only with modern weapons.  Any resistance to a criminal government in the modern age will take conventional small arms, explosives, information, intelligence, and will.  Small arms we have to ensure are protected under the Second Amendment.  Explosives are impossible to control in such a situation, and will be available no matter what laws regulate them under a legitimate government.  Intelligence and will are organizational qualities that are unrelated to arms.  Hell, I would argue that the ability to tinker with model airplanes is more important to the modern concept of “militia” than knowing the principles of artillery, and knowing RF communication principles far more important than knowing logistics.

In the history of 20th century warfare, this has played out more than a few times.  The Vietcong engaged in an extensive and largely successful guerrilla campaign, with only what their fighters could carry on their backs.  In fact, the fatal mistake of the Vietcong was to come out of the jungle, and fight an offensive against the U.S. military on conventional terms.  Militarily, Tet was a defeat for the VC, and it destroyed them as a fighting force.  But Tet broke the American will, and in that sense was not a failure.  It is, however, a harsh lesson what happens when a guerrilla force tries to fight a conventional army on its own terms.

What I advocate here is not an extinction of the original purpose of the Second Amendment, but to emphasise that the priority has to be on protecting conventional small arms.  I don’t think whether destructive devices are protected or not really makes all that much difference in the overall scheme of things.  The nature of modern warfare has not made the Second Amendment’s “defense against tyrannical government” obsolete, but it has changed the equation enough that appeals to how things were in 1776 aren’t much use in figuring out how it would be applied in a modern context.

30 thoughts on “On the Original Purpose of the Second Amendment”

  1. You’re forgetting that a lot of the people talking about owning RPGs, tanks, field pieces, etc have a knowledge of the battlefield that extends as far what they see from movies and TV.

  2. Any future anti-government fight would most likely take the form of an asymmetric insurgency. America would look like Iraq does now. There will never be conventional army on army battles.

    Individualize citizens will always be outgunned by the government. Even if we had automatic weapons or RPGs, they’d still have numbers, more technology, organization etc.

    The point is that arms allow us to resist any hypothetical authoritarian government! With weapons, smarts and willpower, the people have a chance. Without weapons, we don’t.

  3. I’m commenting as an abstract intellectual exercise, of course, but here we go:

    The United States has an all-volunteer force whose members would reject military action against large civilian populations, of the type we’ve seen in Chechnya. Should those orders come, I imagine AWOLs would cripple the military’s ability to fight on multiple fronts.

    On a practical front, our all-volunteer force and relatively short enlistment periods mean the U.S. has a huge cadre of people who *do* have training in all elements of combat arms (mortars, grenades, improvised explosives, artillery, etc), as well as countermeasures to defeat them. These people are loyal to the Constitution, not to the “military” as a political force, as seen in Russia and Iran. Finally, access to small arms gives one access to anything. I’ll leave it to others to decide how that might play out.

  4. I have no doubt many have the skills, but the equipment just isn’t going to be available even under a completely unrestricted regime. Not many people are going to pay the bucks to have that kind of sophisticated equipment.

    There is the possibility of part of the military refusing to obey orders, or for state National Guard units to refuse call up to federal duty, and remain under the authority of the state Governor. But in that scenario, the Second Amendment doesn’t come into play.

  5. Iraq and Afghanistan have been such a breeze since we invaded, right?

    The US military will always win in open combat. Those of us with an organic chemistry book sitting on the shelf would make putting down a insurgency/guerrilla (sp?) war difficult.

  6. In Honduras it was the Congress and The Court-ordered Military who preserved their democracy. The president there, by his constitutionally illegal actions, was deemed no longer the head of the armed forces. When he tried to fire the Chief who had refused to obey an illegal order and distribute illegal ballots – their Congress reinstated him (the head of the armed forces).
    I only wish we had a congress that believed in our constitution so much. Instead we have one totally for sale and where a $3.5Billion bribe-for-votes can be called a “sweetener,” to vote on a bill nobody read.

  7. Armies wear uniforms and are easily indentifiable from a distance.

    Insurgents don’t wear uniforms and are not easily identifiable at any distance.

  8. I’ve heard the argument that gun owners couldn’t compete against modern armies many times. I don’t believe that there would be head-to-head stand up battles. As other commenters mentioned, asymmetrical warfare would become the norm.

    What’s left out is every tyrant strives for the appearance of legitimacy. They send out goons to arrest people who disagree with them. The goons will not be bombing your house from a fighter plane. Instead, they’ll be entering it at 4:00 a.m. preceded by a flash-bang, followed by shooting your dog.

    They do enough of these raids and soon armed people will respond with guns. The goons want to go home to their little goon children. You kill enough of a tyrant’s goons, soon they will kill the tyrant. There’s an Alexander Solzhenitsyn quote to that effect somewhere, but I don’t have time to find it.

  9. Guerrilla tactics were employed against the British in the American Revolution. Other than who is wearing the crown, has that much really changed?

  10. The government wouldn’t stand a chance against the people even if we are armed only with bolt action rifles. The more they crack down the more people will join the insurgency.

    All those nukes, bombers, and fighter jets will be useless. You gonna bomb Morton Grove? How long will Americans put up with the collateral damage of such tactics?

  11. As a retired soldier I think it would be nearly impossible for the US military to control the American populace as it has done in Iraq or Afghanistan. They would be grossly outnumbered, their families live in civilian communities and the vast majority of military personnel share conservative values.

    Bill in Texas

  12. For Denise — was this the one you had in mind?

    “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? . . .”

  13. People are sheep. Just about every Sheephearder knows that without his dogs to help him heard the sheep life as a Sheephearder would be next to imposable.

    So what is a Sheephearder to when the sheep get tried of poor pasture and the constant nipping of the dogs? Well the Hearder gets more dogs to manage the flock.

    Now the Sheephearder has every thing under control. Dogs are happy, sheep are in a tight controlled group and the Master of the sheep is enjoying life. Meanwhile sheep are dieing of Starvation.

    But what the heck, people are sheep.

    Sooner or later the sheep figure out that the hearder and the dogs are part of the flock. So what the flock do they know now that they are people? They remember that although bleating is good, the right to bleat is is protected by the Bill of Bleating Rights. Soon all of the other bleating rights are remembered, and they also remember that an nipper sheep once reminded his nipper dogs that behind every blade of grass in the pasture of america was a gun.

    Think this SHEEP will put some more water on the pasture before the sun goes down and let the Bull do what he does best.

    But that Bull Story would be spelled “BS.”

    So in closing, remember to be a sheep and enjoy that blade of grass before the SUN goes down because the Sheep Hearder and the dogs can’t look behind every blade of grass due the the sheep standing behind it.

  14. Once you know how you are contradicting yourself in this argument, you will understand why there can be no other conclusion. You say that this hypothetical war would be fought differently, that the second amendment needn’t protect private ownership of larger scale weapons because they would be prohibitively expensive. You say that legal ownership of ordinance is unnecessary because one tank or one bomb won’t make a difference because the war would have to be fought primarily with small arms and intelligence.

    Yet nothing you say refutes the fact that any legislation prohibiting ownership of ordinance or heavy weaponry will do absolutely nothing to effectively protect anyone. You have not given any reason why the “absence” of perceived need for these devices in civilian hands should be seen as permission to allow our rights to own these things to be taken from us.

    Even if the hypothetical war came, and even if it was fought with guerrilla tactics and small arms, why wouldn’t it be useful for some civilians to own heavy ordinance? And what if the threat weren’t our own government, but an invading force from, say, Russia, China or South America? Wouldn’t it be useful for civilians to have heavy equipment of their own with which to supplement the military? The battle of the Alamo wasn’t fought by career soldiers, it was fought by armed civilians. What if their cannon had worked? What if they had mortars? Wouldn’t it have helped them hold out a bit longer?

    At any rate, I must reiterate: The debate here must not be viewed in terms of “How much regulation is too much?”, it must be viewed as “Is regulation better than freedom?”. Allowing any regulation simply sanctions the idea that civilian weapon ownership of any type is unnecessary, and individual rights are subordinate to the whims of the state.

  15. I was implying this:

    A combat-experienced mortarman leaves the military, and your scenario comes to pass. He and a few friends with legal AR15s or AKs overtake a military mortar emplacement, and — voila! — they now have a mortar. In war, people are killed. Invariably, some who would die are holding some fairly sophisticated weaponry.

  16. History fail! They did have working canon at the Alamo, sparky. Also, many of the Texian soldiers were career or professional fighters of a certain stripe.

    Of course you also probably think that the American Revolution was won by some farmers with rifles and not by the regular army with the support of the French.

  17. Caleb, I’m going to go against my better judgment and not place emphasis on the fact that you aren’t really refuting my point, but are rather merely twisting my example in an attempt to make it seem like any factual error discredits the idea the example exemplifies.
    That said, I will defend my examples.

    Now, perhaps my Alamo history IS a bit rough, and I was well aware that the Texican fighters at the Alamo were in fact military, but I forgot that the Mexicans had left some cannons behind that the Texicans used. I had believed that the only cannon they had was the disputed one, which had been spiked and rendered useless. Even if this assessment was in error, the point remains valid in that any supplemental privately owned arms could have aided in defending the Alamo. After all, more firepower available is always an asset.

    As for your comment regarding your perception that I must not have a working knowledge about the American Revolution, I don’t know whether to scoff in amusement or contempt. Of course the fighting was done by the regular army with the help of the French. Every schoolchild knows that much, but deceptively hidden within this truism is a fact that you appear to have glossed over; the “regular army” of the thirteen colonies was comprised of either militia men, (militia of course meaning fit men over the age of 18, who had trained for the common defense) or defectors of the British army. Also often glossed over is the fact that the King’s army was basically made up of American colonists until later parts of the war. Even if you decide to attack the factual accuracy of this statement, you cannot deny that civilians participated in the war, and that the fact that the civilians had the same equipment as the King’s army. You also cannot deny that the success of the revolution was aided by colonists armed with weapons greater than rifles and muzzle-loading pistols.

    The crux of the argument that you have avoided discussing is that, for the purpose of defending individual liberties from forces within and outside of our borders, it is crucial that the government recognize the right of its citizens to keep and bear arms. This reason, for its incredible importance and scale, is the reason the second amendment exists. It is not an assurance that we will be able to hunt or defend ourselves from one attacker, it is the assurance that we have the right to protect our selves from tyrranical government. It is the assurance that we have the right to protect our property, our individualism, and our freedom. To that end, the second amendment is intended as a message to the government that the individual (or any group of individuals) retains the right to possess any weapon they feel necessary to have, regardless of whether or not they actually need it. Any law to prohibit an individual from owning any weapon, especially when that law is not applied to the minions of the government, is a breach of individual rights. The act of prohibiting any weapon for individual ownership is an act of malice. Allowing the government to restrict your right to own a weapon is sanctioning the belief that it is the government’s place to decide whether or not you may protect yourself. As another commenter said, this is giving the hen-house keys to the fox.

  18. To simplify MDerosier’s point, the Gonzales flag does not have a Glock on it. That’s not a symbolic cannon. That’s the cannon.

  19. We are blessed that our military are not from dirt poor families and that they are not in the military simply because their only alternative is a life of misery and poverty. Our military have thriving families and friends back home to whom they remain loyal and they are not going to start killing their own people on the illegal orders of some authoritarian dictator they despise.

    A more likely scenario for the U.S. is what took place in Honduras. The Supreme Court comes to its senses when the justices realize that they are at personal risk themselves if this country succumbs to tyranny, and with federal court imprimatur our military escorts the would-be dictator into the hands of federal marshals who deliver him to a safe lockup to await prosecution.

    The second amendment remains important because no one would want the entire country to turn into Waco. Even though all of the Waco bunch ended up dead, so did a few federal agents. They took notice of that, I promise. Most of them don’t want to die for some dictator. They have families and they want to go home after their shift. If a Waco style mentality by government goons swept the country, so would a Waco style resistance, and it would be bloody beyond belief.

    Without the second amendment I believe the whole scenario, from the very beginning would be different, and much worse for ordinary citizens. The second amendment is not about overthrowing any government. It is about the ability to resist tyranny. Those are different things.

    Remember that Admiral Yamamoto said he would never invade the U.S. because there would be a gun behind every blade of grass. Compared to bolt-action rifles Admiral Yamamoto had very sophisticated weaponry at his disposal.

    Remember also that 15 Jews in Warsaw with no training or experience and with about a dozen broken down old guns held off the Wehrmacht for two weeks. If there had been widespread gun ownership and training opportunities in Germany anywise comparable to the U.S. today the holocaust would not have occurred. It would not have been attempted. Imagine if every train to Auswichtz had to first win a gun battle to get the train loaded and then had to fight multiple attackers along the route, not to mention the IED’s along the tracks. That, instead of the hoards of Jews peaceably boarding trains to their death, would have been a sight to see.

  20. [Quote]I have no doubt many have the skills, but the equipment just isn’t going to be available even under a completely unrestricted regime.[/Quote]

    This is not well reasoned. Much of the necessary hardware is readily available in National Guard armories scattered in cities across each state. First stop is the local armory. That gets you individual and crew served weapons– and a limited supply of ammunition for both. Next stop is the state munitions storage facility. That gets you the ammunition for the crew served weapons. These facilities are too numerous to defend adequately, with the possible exception of the munitions facility. Additionally, in most cases the guards are members of the local community, and can arguably be expected to be sympathetic to your aims and grievances.

    Just an intellectual excersise, you understand…

  21. JR:

    I meant in the civilian stock. That’s going to be available whether or not the Second Amendment protects the right of civilians to own such a thing.

  22. Actually I have the conservative individualistic opinion that people should be able to own whatever they want. The ability of a device to be used for destructive purposes is irrelevent.

    It is the person’s intent that matters. If they intend to do harn they will, if not they won’t.

    I will not prohibit anything because it may be used for ill purposes. I will let the law punish after the ill purpose rather than try to prevent a crime before it happens. IE: Minority report.

    As to the utility argument. All arms have utilty . The small gun is used to get bigger guns. Exposive devices are used stop or delay movements and transport of troops. Also exposives are great distractions.

    The utlity arguement is better used to argue that military and exposives would have better use in case of major disaster where communities are left to their own devices and have to protect from neighboring towns lilr in the TV shoe Jericho. The enemy is not the US Army but rather the mob or neighboring town trying to take from you by force of arms.

    I think it is a mistake to think that we do not need explosives becuase our current society is so civilized. Civilization can change with a hurriicane and a major upheaval such as nuclear war or a super volcano.

    Locals may need explosives to clear roads or to mine and clear land for farming. all peaceful purposes.

    So the utility may change based on the situation and no one can predict the future.

    Free people should be trusted with the most destructive devices. Plus we can always take them from an armory or military depots if we really decide to fight.

    Yes it is possible that a rare person will misuse a destructive device like people misuse guns to committ crimes. But that is not a reason to prevent the majority who will not misuse the devices.

    So if kids want to practice setting explosives and pipebombs in harmless ways, the worst will happen is they will hurt themselves or their families by blowing up their home or themselves.

    So no I do not agree the modern interpreation is small arms only for self defense. All arms for all purposes such as insurrection or defense. That is why it is a general right to keep and bear arms.

  23. What if the device is a germ that could wipe out 90% of humanity and lay civilian to waste? Would you argue that the authorities have to let those, let’s say, doomsday cult people be because they have a constitutional right to possess such a device.

  24. What if the device were the free press, or the Internet, or broadcast channels, or film distribution, or private telephone lines? Can’t imagine what enticed you onto this very slippery slope.

    I’m not giving up my armored truck, and I know scores of tank owners who’ll back me up on this. Does the fact that government will shut down gas stations at the first sign of trouble (the Wal-Mart ammo counter shows that they won’t really have to) prove that our motorized armor will be useless in insurrection? Oh, I think not.

  25. Is anyone looking to ban tanks or armored trucks? I mean, cars aren’t protected by the Second Amendment either. Just because something is unprotected doesn’t mean it’s in danger of being banned. Without the ordnance, a tank or armored vehicle is just a vehicle.

    But how many people have such things, or will have such things, to make any difference fighting conventional war tactics. Is your tank or armored vehicle capable of going up against an M1?

  26. Actually a germ or bacteria that can wipe out 90% is scare tactics. I have germs in my body and others actually have home labs and private commercial labs that have deadly bacteria. Can it wipe out 90 %? I doubt it.

    Those that experiment with biologicals have always had the capacity to do harm; yet they have not. The only close parallel is the anthrax scare and that was from a federal lab in Ft Dietrich is a weaponized form.

    So do I approve of prior restraint, which is essentially what you are advocating because it could cause harm? No, I believe in freedom and will accept the risk inherent in people having freedom.

  27. OK, so I’ll bring it more into the realm of realism. If a doomsday cult gets a hold of some smallpox, which a large majority of the world no longer has any immunity to, and has about a 30% kill rate. You can expect, if they can manage to get the disease to go pandemic, which is a distinct probability, it will kill upwards of, say 100 million people worldwide, with maybe 20 million or so of them being in the United States.

    What you’re saying is that the authorities would have no power at all to stop them until they released it, because they have a Second Amendment right to possess such a thing.

    I generally prefer to default to freedom too, but I think this would be taking it to ridiculous lengths.

  28. About the small pox and a a group that wants to spread it, Biologicals are not defined as arms even though they can be destructive. Neither is chemical agents that are destructive. The only thing couild be is the chemical agents used in exposives. After all black powder is a class 1 explosive.

    No The 2a does not cover bacteria, mold, chemicals or all destructive devices. I just say that yes, you have to wait for the crime to occur before arresting. Just having the elements does not constitue intent. However current law about conspiracy does cover these type of situation though I find that easy to distort to be illegitimate.

    I disagree with prior restraint upon the assumption that a person having the elements intends to do criminal harm. Criminal law also does not approve of prior restraint and the presumption of guilt.

    As to a small pox scare, Humans lived with small pox for thousands of years and that disease failed to kill us off. The reason that some small pox is kept is to create the vaccine . Small pox victims can be isolated and reduce the chance of spreading.

    My father had polio and he survived and he got small pox vaccines and the polio vacccine came when I was young enough that I got it. It is still given since polio is not eradicated. I also had the small pox vaccine when I was young so I lived when it was still around and it was not a big concern unless there was an outbreak.

    Disease can be contained. Probably the biggest fear is a flu like 1919 that killed the healthy and is spread through the air.

    I will accept the risk to maintain the freedom that free people do indeed can have acces to dangerous chemicals and bacteria. After all the private companys keep the dangerous biologicals for research and they are not the government. There is always a risk of containment being breached or or samples stolen like the anthrax happened. That was deadly but quickly contained.

    The basic principle is the same . Just because you carry a gun does not mean that you will use it for criminal purposes. That same presumption of innocence has to be allowed for all.

    I do expect as open carry spreads that criminals will pick it up and that they will have to be given the presumtion of innocence to prevent the rest of us being presumed criminals for carrying a gun.

    I have useful items that are flammable . Thinner, paints black powder, smokeless powder,. PVC piping and other stuff that can be combined to cause deadly stuff. I don’t because I have no desire to kill myself doing that or others.

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