“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This amendment to the Constitution is the basis of great public debate. Amid rising gun violence and school shootings, many have argued for more restrictions on this right–some have argued for its abolition. These cries intensify as we enter an already violent and deadly summer. In contrast, others have become even more defensive of their rights, feeling as though the violence proliferating news cycles and public thought may serve as an impetus for the confiscation of a liberty they hold near. The right to bear arms is a fundamental right included in the Constitution to keep the government from oppressing the people. Not all people have been able to enjoy this liberty throughout our history, and they have been oppressed because of it. For those people, the Second Amendment must be protected.
Origins of the 2nd Amendment
The founders of the United States were committed to the people’s right to bear arms. The Federalists, who were in favor of a strong federal government, and the anti-federalists, who were not, both saw the right to bear arms as fundamental to the preservation of liberty. This was seen as a two-pronged protection: a public protection from government abuse and a private protection of self defense from other individuals who pose an immediate threat to one’s safety. The root of this doctrine can be traced back to English political theorists like William Blackstone and Thomas Hobbes who viewed the right as inherent to humanity–one meant to be protected, but not conferred by the government.
The political parties of post-revolution America disagreed on how to protect the right to bear arms in the Constitution. The anti-federalists felt an explicit clause in the Constitution was necessary to protect the integral right. The Federalists believed this was unnecessary, because the power of the federal government was already restricted to that provided for in the Constitution. During the ratification process, a compromise was reached in state conventions to ratify the Constitution as written assuming it would be amended to specifically protect individual rights and liberties, including the right to bear arms.
At this time in history, militias were an important political consideration. These troops, composed of self-armed everyday citizens, were seen to be the people’s greatest check on the power of a standing army. The anti-federalists, who were primarily from the South, also believed militias were the best way to quell potential slave rebellions. The fear of slave revolts sprung from the Haitian Revolution: the first time formerly enslaved people in the New World fought for and won their independence. Anti-federalists wanted militias to be under state control to ensure they would be responsive to this threat. Unfortunately, this consideration is responsible for the 2nd Amendment’s odd phrasing, specifically the first two clauses, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,”
Phrasing the amendment like this has led to challenges that it is outdated, as militias are no longer relevant in American society. It has also cultivated arguments that the right to bear arms is not an individual right. But those who wrote the amendment did not see it this way. The militia was open to all white males of age, which fit their definition of universal. George Mason, one author of the Second Amendment, said during debate over the amendment, “I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” Mason was a slave owner, so he would know.
Guns, Gun Control, and the Fight for Freedom
Gun control laws are nothing new. Throughout American history, they have been used to keep Black people disarmed. Before Emancipation, slaves were not allowed to possess firearms. Even free Black men, who were not considered citizens under U.S. law, were not allowed to own guns. Florida went as far as deputizing groups of white men to search the homes of slaves and free men to seize weapons–those Black men found with guns were “summarily punished” without the privilege of a trial. After most slaves were freed and nominally granted the rights of citizenship, states passed “Black Codes” explicity banning Black people from owning guns.
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1870 that banned explicit legal discrimination, states passed taxes on gun transactions that had the same effect on gun ownership as poll taxes had on voting rates. These laws didn’t mention race, but Southern policymakers knew Black people were poor, so charging them to enjoy their rights effectively eliminated them. Poor white people were protected via “Grandfather clauses.” These clauses made exceptions to taxes and other requirements of eligibility if a person’s grandfather had possessed the right: obviously no slaves or free Black men, who would have been grandfathers to those new citizens, possessed those rights.
It is no coincidence that Black people have simultaneously been oppressed and gunless. Removing arms from a people removes their means to alter or abolish a government that oppresses them. Beginning during the Civil Rights Movement, Black people began to realize the importance of their Second Amendment rights. Groups like the Black Panthers organized themselves with firearms so they could “police the police”, who were abusing citizens in Black communities. Malcolm X and his collaborators were consistently armed. They saw guns as crucial for community self-defense from abuse and preparation for potential revolution. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. owned an arsenal of weapons at one point.
The Black Panthers explained their support of the right to bear arms in their Ten Point Program, the group’s founding document, like this, “The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense,” adding, “We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military by whatever means necessary.” When lawmakers in California heard of the militia in 1968, they moved quickly to introduce a gun control bill to disarm the Panthers. The group traveled, armed, to the state capitol to protest the bill. Then-governor Ronald Reagan happened to be present for the protest. After seeing those organized and armed Black men, the legislature passed the bill on a bipartisan basis. Reagan signed the bill into law with the ironic support of the NRA.
The Black Panthers protest the Mulford Act before its passage at the California Statehouse in Sacramento in 1968.
These freedom fighters all understood, and experienced firsthand, that no government could be trusted to protect their people. This has not changed. Governments are the same now they were then. In fact, they have only grown in their power and effectiveness. Guns, like the government, are a necessary evil to keep the state in its place and defend against violence. The fact that weapons have advanced so quickly is even more a reason to protect gun rights. The more advanced the military’s weapons are, the more advanced the people’s weapons must be. Many say it would be impossible for lowly citizens to defeat the full might of America, but America lost in Korea, Vietnam, and was chased out of Afghanistan. All the weapons in the world could not exterminate those guerilla fighters armed with heart and guns.
Guns in America are here to stay, and that’s a good thing. The people possess a powerful check on an overbearing, oppressive government. As Malcolm X said, “The Constitution of the United States of America clearly affirms the right of every American citizen to bear arms. And as Americans, we will not give up a single right guaranteed under the Constitution.”