Time Dependency of the 2nd Amendment?

For the last month, our national dialogue has been dominated by emotionally charged discussions on firearms. As with any tragedy, we should ask why – and while our problem solving process is overflowing with emotion, it often comes up severely short on sound logic. With this post, I intend to take a rational look at the merits of popular arguments concerning the relevancy of the 2nd Amendment in modern America.

Questions on what type of firearm or magazine one needs for hunting seems to be coming up consistently in our debates…why? For those who have forgotten fundamental American history: the founding fathers’ creation and justification of the 2nd Amendment had absolutely NOTHING to do with hunting. Thomas Jefferson was very clear about this when he said “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government”, and “when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

So let us drop this “hunting” straw man and move the conversation to its next logical step – is the 2nd Amendment outdated? In order for something to be “outdated”, its supporting logic must be inherently dependent on something which changes with time. So what is the 2nd Amendment truly based upon? The founding fathers would argue it is simply a last resort safeguard against the worst aspects of human nature as they manifest themselves in government. This leads us to the question of whether human nature has changed over the past 230 years. A simple question to ask ourselves then might be do tyrants exist in today’s world? Clearly, the answer is yes, but some would argue that they can only exist in a society with restricted access to information. Is this true? Can a free press alone stop tyranny?

A look at Syria over the last year should answer these questions for those who are genuinely seeking the answers. According to gunpolicy.org, the rate of civilian firearm ownership in Syria is 3.9 firearms per 100 people, while the U.S. is over 88 per 100 people. Syria does have substantial internet access, but just recently they experienced a widespread blackout that happened to occur in the middle of ongoing attempts by Assad to forcefully suppress revolutionaries. Syrian government officials of course claim this blackout was due to “technical issues”, while many international organizations beg to differ and have concluded the Syrian government is attempting to shield the truth of what has happened in their country (where numerous well-documented massacres have occurred at the hands of the government). While Syria shows us that a tyrannical government clearly prefers a disconnected populace, it also shows that a free press alone is not enough to stop a tyrant from ruthlessly suppressing political opposition. Is it merely an “outlier” data point that the Syrian people suffer under Assad even with access to free press, or does it have something to do with the average Syrian civilian’s alarmingly small chance of being able to defend themselves? History’s most brutal lessons on tyranny contain a striking commonality. You guessed it: Hitler, Mao, Stalin and their like have always preferred a disarmed or at least poorly armed people.

What we find is that the founding fathers were simply defining a basic inequality of power with the 2nd Amendment. Their brilliant inequality does not concern itself with the weapons of the time, rather it fundamentally empowers the people to overthrow their government in the event that it stops respecting their absolute rights. This empowerment of the citizen over their government is not only time-independent; it serves as THE liberty which protects all other liberties. In the words of Alexander Hamilton: “if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.” Furthermore, the proposition that our founding fathers were not acknowledging future technology falls terribly short when we realize that our founding fathers were careful to protect the property rights of the inventor.

So is American government an exception to history? Philosophically speaking, would it be wise to move past the point of no return (a defenseless people) in order to find out? If we happened to be wrong about our government’s exception from history, would we be willing to take responsibility when unspeakable horrors (like those at Auschwitz) occur, which dwarf the Sandy Hook body count by orders of magnitude? Is this a risk we can afford to take?

Judge Alex Kozinski has some very insightful thoughts on that subject: “The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed – where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.”

Assuming we are willing to acknowledge history (even if it flies in the face of an optimistic view of modern government), the entire argument simply boils down to this question: in the event of a tyrannical power grab by our government, would we prefer to defend our loved ones with a varmint rifle, or a fully automatic assault rifle? Before we answer that question, we must put ourselves in the shoes of a present day Syrian, WWII Jewish German, or Soviet Russia citizen. How would they respond to that question if they could do it all again?

In conclusion, while I am a proponent of rational and constructive debate, we must never forget that the constitution assigns our right to bear arms as an absolute right, and thus no government official ever has the authority to encroach upon this right (regardless of what a law might say). Such attempts, regardless of the virtues of their intent, will never stand so long as we the people understand the authority we’re given with our absolute rights. In reality, this entire argument is just a courtesy to those who disagree – it really doesn’t matter what our policy makers on capital hill decide, we will bear arms as our founding fathers instructed:

“The beauty of the second amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” -Thomas Jefferson