An Obsolete Right?

A well thought out and written article on the Second Amendment, but it comes to a common and what I think is wrong conclusion:

This may have been fine when the Amendment was first conceived, but considering the changing context of culture and its artifacts, might it be time to amend it? When it was adopted in 1751, the defensive-power afforded to the citizenry by owning guns was roughly on par with the defensive-power available to government. In 1751 the most popular weapon was the musket, which was limited to 4 shots per minute, and had to be re-loaded manually. The state-of-the-art for “arms” in 1791 was roughly equal for both citizenry and military. This was before automatic weapons – never mind tanks, GPS, unmanned drones, and the like. In 1791, the only thing that distinguished the defensive or offensive capability of military from citizenry was quantity. Now it’s quality.

This is a pretty common argument. I’ll grant him, for the sake of argument, that the Second Amendment is primary founded on resistance to tyranny, even though our Courts seem to be more focused on the self-defense aspects of the right.

The chief mistake people make in this line of thought is to assume war is killing. That is not really the case. War is the use of force in an attempt to impose your political will onto others. Killing is just a means to accomplish that. If it were just about killing, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been settled in about thirty seconds, but they weren’t. Our goals in both cases was to impose a less outwardly militant democratic system of government on a population that had no tradition of it. When it comes to defeating an opposing army, all the things that make governments so remarkably powerful matter quite a lot. When it comes time to actually impose your political will, those things matter a lot less. A man in a tank can’t impose his will on me, he can only kill me. To impose his will he has to get out of the tank, plane, or ship, and essentially go from being a soldier to being a policeman, and at that point, we become a lot more equal. If our government ever wants to kill us, lots of us, we’re screwed. We have a much better chance resisting the imposition of someone else’s political will. It can be argued that firearms aren’t as important in that equation as other things, and I might agree with that, but such resistance is not beyond the reach of motivated individuals. The philosophies and attitudes that the right to keep and bear arms engenders in a population is likely just as important, if not more important, as the instruments of exercising that right.

46 thoughts on “An Obsolete Right?”

  1. This argument is flawed, in that the people who write it assume that the only weapons that were owned by military and citizens were muskets. The truth is far different.

    Private citizens owned warships, complete with cannons. See the books: “George Washington’s Secret Navy” “Blue Water Patriots” and “Patriot Pirates.” Each of these books details how the colonists owned private warships, to which the Continental Congress granted letters of marque authorizing them to prey upon British shipping.

    There were also many citizens who owned field pieces and mortars.

    The argument that rifles are not effective against modern armor and aircraft is false, but does make a more effective case for allowing private armor and machine guns than it does for disarmament.

    1. I wonder, if one was wealthy enough, could a US citizen actually own a “warship” and operate it in international waters? To be clear, by warship I mean something with big guns, missiles, etc. Not just a yacht with some .50s mounted around it.

  2. Also, many citizens were better armed than their military counterparts. A contributor the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans was that the Tennessee volunteers and militia had rifled bore firearms, whereas the British and American regulars had smoothbore muskets. The rifled firearms had triple the range of the muskets, leading to the Americans being able to have devastating firepower advantages.

  3. Or, couldn’t we conclude (using the same argument) that the citizenry should have the right to own defensive weaponry on par with the government?

    1. Even if there were zero restrictions on all manner of arms, who could afford much more beyond small arms? I don’t tend to think it would make much of a difference, from a practical point of view. Even at late as the late 19th century, it was possible for a few wealthy Americans to bail the government and banks out of financial crisis, as happened many times. That’s impossible today. The difference today between the kind of arms the government has versus the people probably has more to do with the monetary resources of government versus the people as anything.

      1. Mines, claymores, hand grenades, satchel charges — relatively cheap and simple and when cleverly applied, quite useful against modern armor.

        1. This. A tank is only useful so long as it is functional and mobile. The second part is extremely easy to disrupt by disabling one or both tracks.

      2. I don’t necessarily disagree. On could make the argument the bothe conclusions are ridiculous or invalid. My position is that using the author’s points, either (diametrically opposed) conclusion could be justified.

        If my position is true, then we should always default to protecting or expanding individual rights ether than attempting to remove them. Not that you can remove an inalienable right simply by amending the constitution.

        1. Typed on an iPhone, as evidenced by the spelling and nonsensical errors in te above reply….

      3. Indeed, the main obstacle between a citizen militia and a government army is a financial one. In fact, it IS legal to own tanks and other such technical and armored vehicles, however I am not sure what the laws would be governing the weapons they are equipped with. Modern warfare is no longer fought with such weaponry anyway, at least against stateless enemies. In a situation where battle lines are not fixed, a small guerilla force can prevail over a much more powerful and advanced military.

  4. Let’s not forget Stalin’s maxim that “quantity has a quality all it’s own”. We should also not forget that if it came to taking back our government we would not be constrained by conventional strategy and tactics. Ten or 15 million citizens fighting with small arms and using whatever tactics work can apply enormous pressure even against an modern army.

    Last, but not least, the tyranny we might be required to fight against need not necessarily include military forces. It might include militarized police but that is a very different conflict.

    1. “Last, but not least, the tyranny we might be required to fight against need not necessarily include military forces. It might include militarized police but that is a very different conflict.”

      Also, don’t discount the value of non-military targets. The media and the education system are collectively far more responsible for the current state of our country than the police or military.

  5. This old tired argument flawed in many ways and makes far too many assumptions that aren’t true or aren’t likely to occur. Like divemedic said, it incorrectly assumes that citizens AND the government only had access to muskets when the 2nd Amendment was written.

    It also assumes that modern governments in first world countries will use their weapons of mass destruction against their own people – killing of large majorities of their population. (And before I get a ton of scathing replies, yes I am aware that there have been numerous examples in “recent” history where governments, and specific leaders, have killed their citizens in large quantities. It just isn’t LIKELY to happen in the US).

    It also assumes that the citizens, with their puny pistols and rifles, are helpless in the face of the mighty government’s armies. Even though average citizens don’t have access to ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and large quantities of tanks, planes, or other , doesn’t mean we don’t have other methods of fighting back against the government. There are large numbers of very savvy “hackers” out there that can cause major distress to the government and its ability to coordinate attacks against its own people. Additionally, it assumes that there wouldn’t be large numbers of defections within the government and military itself in the face of such attacks.

    1. You grossly underestimate the tactical abilities of the common citizens. First example, the “puny pistols and rifles” you refer to aren’t so puny. We commonly hunt with medium to large bore rifles. That little 5.56 that our boys carry is a freaking varmint round. The 7.62 carried by our foes is closer to what we have, but it’s still a joke compared to a good “deer rifle”. My puny pistol doesn’t matter, because I prefer not to be in pistol range, but a .40 makes a big hole when exiting.

      Another critical mistake is that we are too ignorant to improvise. Look at the cave dwellers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Viet Nam, Korea, etc. They are less educated, and have fewer resources, yet they were all serious threats.

      Now, to touch on the assumption that we “are helpless in the face of the mighty government’s armies”. We won’t be fighting the US armed forces. They are not going to raise arms at US Citizens. If ever we are forced to defend our Country, it will be from UN soldiers. That little treaty that Obama want’s to sign, the small arms treaty, is a foundation for a UN military action against Americans.


      1. “We won’t be fighting the US armed forces. They are not going to raise arms at US Citizens.”

        While there have been some more recent signs that point to this being largely correct, there are several historical examples where this was not the case.

    2. “It also assumes that modern governments in first world countries will use their weapons of mass destruction against their own people – killing of large majorities of their population.”

      Starvation is a weapon of mass destruction which was used by Stalin against the Ukrainians: The so-called “hunger extermination.”

      I wouldn’t put it past our government to interrupt utilities (power, water, fuel, etc.) and/or food, in order to quash a rebellion.

  6. For at least 20 years I have been amazed that no one in our camp has ever looked at the 1967 – 1998 “Troubles” in Northern Ireland for a model of armed conflict in a First World culture, with citizens arrayed against the mega-force military of a superpower. Without engaging in history or analysis thereof, it took more than thirty years, but a bargaining table solution was forced by armed citizens. (Whether you liked their politics or not.)

    1. And this was done by a relatively small number of combatants — at most, a few thousand at any given time, and often far less. (Admittedly, they were prepared to engage in barbarous tactics, but revolutionaries often do.)

      1. “… prepared to engage in barbarous tactics…” ‘Scuse me? Did engage in barbarous tactics. Oh, plenty of barbarism to go around, centuries of it, both sides — but there was only the one side with car bombs blowing up uninvolved civilians, hundreds of miles from the conflict. Much to learn, little to admire.

        1. “Did engage in barbarous tactics…”

          The interesting thing about “barbarous tactics” is there is always a legitimate (but perhaps practically irrelevant?) question of “who was the first barbarians?”

          The latter-day “Troubles” began with simple violent suppression of peaceful civil rights marchers who thought they could emulate the tactics of the recently successful civil rights marchers in the United States, but learned that when it’s the national government turning the dogs and armed thugs loose on demonstrators, peaceful tactics don’t work so well. The first armed violence was when six old men using six antiquated guns (Webleys and Enfields as I recall) defended their neighborhoods from mobs who were burning their houses, while police and fire crews stood by and permitted the arson to go on. There as in Alabama, people seeking civil rights were uppity troublemakers who didn’t know their place.

          Without beating the subject to death, things escalated over several years until the initiation of “internment,” when people guilty of the wrong sympathies, and not necessarily any actual crimes, were rounded up in the early morning hours in August 1971 and sent to internment camps. (Please note that is a scenario long feared here as something Clinton or Obama was preparing to do; there in the UK it was actually done.) People responded appropriately, and the situation spiraled out of control.

          Please note that what we were allowed to “know” here came straight off British news services. Also, ponder why, when the analogies to situations so feared by “paranoids” here were so close in nature as to be considered exact, our “right wing” was uniformly steered away from studying the situation, if only for the on-the-ground tactics. Those of us who weren’t steered learned a lot that Americans weren’t supposed to.

          1. Purposeful targeting of otherwise uninvolved civilians is always wrong, no matter who does it. –Sure, it happens in open war, it happens in revolutions and revolts. It’s widely addressed as a technique in asymmetrical conflict. It still ain’t right and whining about who was worst first can never make it right.

            People always want a moral compass until it’s their ox gets gored, then all of a sudden it’s more like a moral suggestion.

            1. If you would like to stop our use of, e.g., drones, because civilians get killed in what are supposed to be targeted military operations, I will join you in that. But at the moment I’m thinking of the quote, (approximately) that “terrorism is the war of the weak and desperate; war is the terrorism of the powerful.”

              It always is pointless to debate the actual history of situations, because for the most part the powerful get to write it, and in most cases wrote it while it was happening. You can talk to people who were there, or you can read what was documented.

            2. “Purposeful targeting of otherwise uninvolved civilians is always wrong, no matter who does it.”

              Define: uninvolved.

              There are only to get someone to do what you want: Reason and force.

              Ultimately, what stopped an early political solution to the troubles was the British populace at large, and their elected representatives by extension. When reason failed the Irish, they were effectively forced to resort to using force.

              Regardless of the means used, the Irish *always* needed to gain the support of the British populace; the only choice they had was whether to use reason or force. Assuming that the timeline cited by Andy is correct, then that decision was forced upon them.

              When it comes to the United States, were anything of the sort to happen here, I would certainly consider leftist political action groups, as well as much of the mainstream media, to be similarly acceptable targets. By extension, those who elect them would also make that list.

  7. For me the Iraq experience says it all. The US army conquered the army of Iraq in days, but could never conquer the people. The deadly resistance raged on, and the Iraqi “insurgents” fought a war of attrition pushing us to leave — much like succeeded in Vietnam a couple generations earlier (another time the powerful US army lost to a guerilla force with mostly small arms).

    But what saved us was the sunni awakening. Where average fathers and their families took out their private weapons and took back their own neighborhoods, one small area at a time, effectively shutting down the “insurgents” and giving them nowhere to run. Without this the Army surge would have just been more soldiers to die until finally we gave up and walked away.

    There are 300 million people in the US. If I had to bet on the victor of a war of occupation of 1 million or so of the best soldiers in the world against a country as big as the US with 300 million armed citizens … even excluding the children … I’ll take the 300:1 odds any day.

    1. To return to your Iraq analogy for a moment: You are assuming all of the 300 million would be on the same side.

      I won’t venture a scenario, but I’m just sayin’.

      1. I’d say that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 million on each “side” really gives enough of a damn to do anything.

        Still, the key difference is *why* each side wants to reassert control over the government: They want to do so in order to expand the intrusiveness of government, and we want power so that we can force the government to leave everyone the hell alone. It also helps that we have the majority of the guns and military expertise.

    2. To be clear: We won a military victory in Vietnam, and then the leftists in congress refused to honor their treaty agreements to the South Vietnamese.

  8. If our government ever wants to kill us, lots of us, we’re screwed.

    …If they wanted to kill lots of citizens indiscriminately. If they wanted to selectively kill insurgents while sparing everyone else, that’s a whole different ball game.

    1. You might be surprised at who was an insurgent. Lots of folks in Vietnam were.

  9. Also if the whole “we only intended guns when the framers were around” holds water… how come percussion cap guns weren’t banned?

    What about revolvers? Or the first contained cartridge guns?

    These are all development that drastically increased the reliability, speed, and power of firearms. Many of which came within living memory of ratification of the bill of rights.

  10. My favorite one sentence summary of that is “you can’t collect taxes with drones and nuclear bombs”.
    The example of Iraq is a fantastic reminder that for all our modern technology, the only way to secure a country is to put a lot of boots on the ground.

  11. The idea that most of the active services (with the skills that matter) would go along is not supportable; but setting aside that, the combat experienced soldiers and Marines leaving the services and being drawn down these past years and currently are unlikely to be willing to roll over and form the Bonus Army 2.0.

    Even (foolishly) disregarding the older Vets, we are transitioning to a peacetime military and the bulk of the experience (and treachery) coupled with remaining youth and skill will soon be in the IRR and remain there for the forseeable future.

    1. Actually, if the government keeps screwing with Veterans’ benefits in order to make political statements, I wouldn’t be surprised to see groups of veterans publicly demonstrate over medical/educational benefits.

  12. Your commentary on killing versus imposition of will is one of the quickest soliloquies on the topic I have seen in a while. Smart and easy to understand. Will be pointing it out to others.

    The various war colleges have talked the issue for many years, and largely agree with your synopsis. So using that as background, you can understand the significant intellectual effort they have expended, starting a generation ago, in ‘finding the 1%’ – those who float to the top as leaders in any longer-lasting insurgency. Rumsfeld’s transmogrification of the services may have brought some flops, but the birth of technology to discover, track and interdict those leaders was one that never quite got noticed.

    The unfortunate truth is that a future tyranny is already “armed” with far more dangerous technology than any individual arm could fight. We have crossed a technological threshold whereby the government can not only discover those who lead opposition to tyranny, but they can do so without the typical intelligence techniques. Think about the difference between “find” and “discover” and you should get chilled.

    “Discovery” is new. Social Network Analysis – combined with similar forms of analysis on other data – has proven quite capable of ferreting out real insurgents in ways that James Bond never could. The technology is even at the point where it can reliably predict the likelihood of insurgency within a group to within a few percentage points. Soon it will become even more capable.

    The tyranny won’t need enough firepower to overcome the arms of the people. They will only need to selectively target those few who rise to the top. And if we’re talking about tyrannies, then we might as well acknowledge that they will probably target those who have not even risen yet, but are likely to do so. Why wait?

    The “Nuclear Munition” of the 21st Century has been developed and deployed, and here we are still worried about our silly little guns.

    1. The best way to combat that is to avoid communicating in ways that can be intercepted.

      You can’t track a person via their cell phone if they aren’t carrying one. You can’t build up an automated list of social network contacts and analyze them if the people you are trying to find avoid using social networks.

      It took the entire resources of the United States, and her allies, 10 years to find Osama bin Laden. Why? Because he avoided using electronic communications.

      That nuclear weapon has a very, very major blind spot, that just can’t be filled in.

    2. Hypothetically speaking, of course…
      While several others have mentioned the large number of Veterans of the current conflicts representing a credible deterrent to tyranny thanks to their tactical skills, I think it’s also important to point out that there are more than a few of us that understand how the various network analysis tools work and what it takes to invoke GIGO in those systems.

  13. Part of the old equation for waging a successful war was having enough of both bullets and beans to sustain your endeavors. There have been some very insightful good points made above and some thoughts that are new to me about how a possible conflict might play out. I personally and strongly believe that the only successful way to prevail in this current battle over protecting our right is through the ballot box.

    If we are ever reduced to any kind of armed conflict then both sides have lost and the end result will surely be a terrible mess. Having said that I also recognize that a mutually insured destruction will be the only thing that will keep the powers that be somewhat honest and if and when that tipping point occurs that individual rights have been lost then we are all in trouble.

    We have becomes such a coddled, comfortable, fat and lazy country that depends upon electronic transfer of unseen dollars to purchase our goods and food from mega-stores that I have no idea how many days or hours it would be before we have hoards of people going nuts if their flow of energy and stuff is interrupted. What if they could not recharge their electronics and were cut off from their 24 hour entertainment and what passes for information and news.

    I have recently moved from Dallas to a small town outside of San Antonio and I suppose that people in fly-over country might be a little more adaptable but we as a nation have built a wonderful, comfortable large bubble of prosperity that it is in everyone’s interest to keep that bubble from bursting.

    So in order to avoid unseen consequences my suggestions is working hard to elect folks that make more sense and respect individual human rights and pray that we never have any type of civil war or armed conflict. To my knowledge when people do resort to war the conflict is never over as soon as expected and the results are often a disaster for both sides. Europe lost a whole generation or two of leaders in WWI that was supposed to last a couple of months and we were lucky enough to win WWII at great cost.

    The war in this country in the 1860’s that was supposed to last a couple of months took a heavy toll that has left echoes that are still felt today so one lesson of history is to be careful when making predictions about the outcome of armed conflict.

    Once more I learned some new stuff today from some of the comments above.

  14. You don’t have to be able to *WIN*, you just have to make it so expensive that they won’t try in the first place, or, failing that, expensive enough that they eventually give up.

  15. I think his argument is 100% logical and correct. For evidence I refer you to our resounding victory over the NVA and Viet Cong in…

    Oh. Nevermind.

  16. The author also forgets that before 1934, “every civilian” could just go buy a machine-gun or an artillery piece.

    Definitely the former, as far as I know the latter was Federally unregulated before the National Firearms Act.

  17. Considering the comments above about technology, I want to throw in thoughts provided to me by cousins who participated in the collapse of the Soviet Union: Both of them were in huge crowds of dissidents in a public square of their capitol city on two nights consecutive nights when they mostly faced-down Soviet troops (and they were Soviets, remember.) One was their on the night 14 people were killed. The other was there the night they pressed bare hands against Soviet tanks and forced them to stop. Both have expressed the opinion that what saved them was the presence of TV cameras; as they put it, the Soviet troops did not want their moms to see them killing civilians, on TV. (Now consider that the hand-presser had known the horrors of the Stalin era, and had ridden with his parents in a cattle car to Siberia as a child; so was no pollyanna with regard to Soviet troops. They had been Soviet troops!)

    I saw the bullet pocks in the buildings, myself, but high above the heads of the crowd. The thought that the world was watching must have been powerful.

  18. There’s one thing that really bugs me about this argument: it’s the attitude of “fighting government tyranny is such a hopeless cause that we might as well just give up our arms right now.”

    Perhaps Wintson Churchill refuted this attitude best: “Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win
    without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure
    and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to
    fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance for
    survival. There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is
    no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as

    This also doesn’t take into account that, if it *were* such a hopeless cause, then it doesn’t matter one way or the other whether or not civilians can own guns…or, for that matter, that he’s assuming that government will always be there, and never collapse (because if the government collapses, then the people will need arms to keep the peace).

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