With the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting in February and the Santa Fe High shooting in May, there has been a renewed call from both the media and gun control activists to enact gun control. While some call for simple reforms like background checks or red flag laws, others have been more radical and called for the complete ban of all semi-automatic weapons. This has evoked a strong response from those opposed to gun control such as groups like the NRA and the Republican Party.
While at the surface this may seem to be a debate over how to stop mass shootings, the true issue that lies at the heart of it is the meaning of the Second Amendment of the American Constitution. From the left wing, the general point of view is that the Amendment is meant to either protect the ability to hunt or for state and local governments to maintain peace keeping forces like the National Guard and local police forces. From the right wing, the Second Amendment is almost universally seen as saving the individual right to self protection whether that be from a criminal or a tyrannical government. To discover the answer to this crucial question, it is important to not only know the philosophical origins of the right to bear arms, but also what the Founding Fathers intended with the Second Amendment.
Before we dive into this however, it is important to have a basic background in the history of English culture. When William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, the laws varied from region to region. In order to help unify the laws of England, he restructured the legal system. William did this by ordering judges to publish their rulings nationally and then he ensured those rulings would become law. These laws/rulings were then used as precedent for future cases which helped to further develop national laws. Thus the Common Law of England was born.
While introducing ideas from his native French culture, Williams allowed the English to keep the majority of their cultural customs and practices as a means of preventing societal unrest. This is important because unlike the rest of Europe which was mostly accepting of absolute monarchy, the people of England cherished individual liberty as it was strongly ingrained in their culture. As a result, the royal courts were influenced by these norms and over time, such personal liberties were codified into Common Law and collectively became known as the Rights of Englishmen.
While these rights were generally respected by the crown, at times the royalty wasn’t always so honoring of them. When this occurred it lead to several defining civil wars in English history. The first of these wars was the Magna Carta conflict in 1215 between the nobility and King John. This conflict arose when King John levied taxes against the nobility in order to fight war in France without their consent and then later trampled upon the judicial rights of due process and the right to trial by jury in order to suppress those who opposed his actions.
When the nobles waged war and eventually defeated King John, they forced him to sign the Magna Carta. This not only further cemented the rights John had violated into English law, it also established the idea of the rule of law in which all people -- even the king himself -- had to honor both the individual and judicial rights.
Even with this new principle established, it still did not prevent kings from violating the Rights of Englishmen. The next major conflict was the English Civil War which started in 1642 and ended in 1651. This war involved Charles I repeatedly attempting to usurp power from Parliament by ignoring their legislation. Things ultimately reached a breaking point when Charles attempted to dissolve Parliament without their consent and attempted to arrest five members who were highly critical of him.
The result was the division of England between those loyal to Parliament and those loyal to King. After a long and violent civil war, the forces of Parliament won and abolished the Monarchy. While the crown was eventually restored eight years later with the enthronement of Charles II, the Civil War marked the beginning of the end of the supremacy of the king and the rise of the legislative supremacy of Parliament.
The final death knell came in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution. King James II was dethroned in favor of his daughter Mary and her husband Prince William of the Netherlands. This occurred after James II silenced judges and clergy who disagreed with his views on Catholicism and on his power in relation to acts of Parliament. When William and Mary took the throne, they signed the English Bill of Rights which affirmed two critical things. It first affirmed all the established Rights of Englishmen, which would later all be found in the American version of the Bill of Rights. The other thing it established was the principle that government is derived from the consent of the governed. The Rights of Englishmen prohibited the crown from levying taxes, passing legislation, or raising an army in a time of peace without the consent of Parliament.
The centuries of conflict between the people and the crown ingrained a view within the English people that their history was defined by the struggle to defend their rights. This viewpoint was so ingrained in the people that when the colonists in America began the War of Independence, they saw it as a continuation of the struggle of their ancestors to protect their rights from violations committed by the crown.
Now that we have an understanding of the Rights of Englishmen and the blood shed to protect them, we can now begin to understand the philosophy behind the right to bear arms. The philosophy behind it is best explained by 18th Century English legal scholar William Blackstone in his renowned Commentaries on The Laws of England. In discussing rights, Blackstone argues that there are three absolute rights that form the basis for all other rights: personal security, personal liberty, and private property. He then argues that such rights are in vain without constitutional power to protect them. Thus, he argues, five auxiliary rights arise that protect the three main rights.
The first two auxiliary rights are the powers granted to parliament and the limitations on the power of the king, respectively. The third one is the right to redress of grievances and the fourth one is the right to petition the government. The fifth auxiliary right is the right of the individual to bear arms. In discussing it, Blackstone writes,
“The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute . . . and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
In essence, Blackstone argues that the purpose of the right to own a gun is to protect not only the lives of citizens, but also the citizens' rights from any threat when normal means granted by law are not sufficient. Furthermore, in the larger context of the passage, it is clear that by threats Blackstone includes cases in which the government is violating their liberties.
With the American Founders' English inheritance combined with their knowledge of English law and history, it is more evident what they intended by the Second Amendment. The Founders desired the Second Amendment to mean the individual right to bear arms for self defense including defense from tyrannical government.
There is still one dangling thread, however, as the Second Amendment also includes the phrase “A well regulated militia.” Many gun control activist center their arguments around this phrase. But what did the Founders mean by this? In Federalist 28 and Federalist 29, Alexander Hamilton puts forth a few arguments as to what the militia is and its importance. He argues in Federalist 28 that, “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government..” In Federalist 29, he argues that a standing army is the biggest threat to civil liberty is a standing army because their loyalty might not be to their people, but rather civil authority.
Hamilton therefore says that a well regulated militia is the best defense for civil liberty. In discussing what this militia is, he makes the point that not only is coming up with military exercises but also training all capable people are both impossible to do because of the size of the country. So instead, he believes that work must be done to ensure the people are sufficiently armed and read should the federal government need to mobilize them to fight a foreign threat. In these two essays, the main point is that the militia refers not some government sponsored peacekeeping or law enforcement group, but rather the common man. Not only did Hamilton expect people to have the right to self defense from a tyrannical government, he also expected the people to organize themselves into a fighting force against it.
To conclude, the right to bear arms originated with the English culture’s valuation of personal liberty and the centuries of civil war the Englishmen undertook to defend their rights. Furthermore, this all led to the British seeing the right as a means of defending themselves from tyranny and led to a mindset of vigilance that the colonists would later take with them and embrace during the American Revolution. Finally, the word militia to the Founders meant all physically able gun owners and not simply just local militias or peacekeeping forces. Overall, the claim that the Second Amendment means nothing less than the full protection of the individual right to bear arms is philosophically and historically bankrupt.