Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review and the author of “The Conservatarian Manifesto.”
When debating the wisdom of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, the media tends to start from the presumption that the question is purely scientific, and that the answers can — and should — be derived from statistical analyses and relentless experimentation. This approach is mistaken. The right of the people to keep and bear arms is not the product of the latest research fads or exquisitely tortured “data journalism,” but a natural extension of the Lockean principles on which this country was founded. It must be protected as such.
The Declaration of Independence presumes that all men enjoy certain inalienable rights, among them “life” and “liberty.” Practically speaking, at both the state level (as a bulwark against tyranny) and at the individual level (as a means by which to protect oneself), this necessitates the auxiliary right to the private ownership of “arms,” which, in the common law that preceded the Second Amendment, was understood to include personal weapons that could be wielded by an individual — such as the “musket and bayonet”; “sabre, holster pistols, and carbine”; and sundry “side arms.”
[Other perspectives: America is only pretending to regulate lethal firearms.]
At the time of the American founding, it was widely understood that there was a real danger in a government’s attempting to deprive the people of what Alexander Hamilton called their “original right of self-defense.” This is why, when it came to writing the Constitution, the anti-Federalists, who feared the government’s potential to become corrupt, refused to sign on to a more powerful national government until they had been promised certain explicit protections. Then, as now, their logic was clear: It makes no sense to allow the representatives of a free people to disarm their masters.
Reacting to this argument, we often hear advocates of gun control propose that the Founders’ observations are irrelevant because they could “not have imagined the modern world.” I agree with the latter assertion: They couldn’t have. As well-read in world history as they were, there is no way that they could have foreseen just how prescient they were in insisting on harsh limitations of government power. In their time, “tyranny” was comparatively soft — their complaints focused on under-representation and the capricious restriction of ancient rights. In the past century, by contrast, tyranny involved the systematic execution of entire groups and the enslavement of whole countries. The notion that if James Madison had foreseen the 20th century he would have concluded that the Bill of Rights was too generous is laughable.
Nor could the Founders have imagined the entrenched tyranny that would arise in their own country. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Company were hypocrites, certainly — like so many at the time they spoke of equality and liberty while indulging slavery — but the generation that met at Philadelphia did at least consider that the institution would die out peacefully. Instead, it was abolished only by bloody force, and then transmuted into something almost as abhorrent.
Conservatives who are scared of tyrants often ask, “Could it happen here?” Well, it did. Jim Crow, the KKK, lynching, legal segregation — for a period, the South was everything a free man should fear. When Ida B. Wells noted that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give,” she was confirming an age-old truth: The gun is a great equalizer, and the state a capricious beast.
Does everyone who uses a firearm to protect himself survive? Of course not. But as a free man, I do not consider my inalienable rights to be contingent upon my ability to exercise them successfully. I may debate freely, even if I am destined to lose the argument. I may enjoy a jury trial even if I am guilty. And I may defend my life and my liberty even if I eventually succumb.
It is from this understanding that all conversations must proceed. The Second Amendment is not “old”; it is timeless. It is not “unclear”; it is obvious. It is not “embarrassing”; it is fundamental. And, as much as anything else, it is a vital indicator of the correct relationship between the citizen and the state and a reminder of the unbreakable sovereignty of the individual. Unless those calling for greater restrictions learn to acknowledge this at the outset of any public discussion, they will continue to get nowhere in their deliberations.
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