The purpose of the Second Amendment

January 18, 2013 

On April 19, 1775, British regulars marched on Lexington and Concord to seize the guns American colonists had stockpiled in case of revolution.

It may be an abstract concept for us. It may be distant. But when the 1st Congress of the United States met in 1789, the memory of 1775 was fresh. More so, what they saw as an abridgment of their freedoms in 1775, our Founders viewed as an abridgment of their freedoms going back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England.

Many historians have come to view the American Revolution as a conservative revolution. The colonists believed themselves full English citizens and heirs of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, entitled to the rights granted thereunder. They fought a revolution not to establish a new order, but to re-establish what they viewed as their natural order.

One of the rights that came out of the Bill of Rights of 1689 in England following the Glorious Revolution was a right to bear arms for defense against the state. The English Bill of Rights accused King James II of disarming Protestants in England. That Bill of Rights included the language “That the subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.”

The Americans, however, saw the British government, via Parliament, begin curtailing the rights of the citizenry in the American colonies. When they formed the federal government with ratification of the Constitution, the Americans were deeply skeptical of a concentrated federal power, let alone standing armies to exercise power on behalf of a government.

Prior to the Civil War, the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government and that first Congress dropped references to “as allowed by Law” that had been in the English Bill of Rights. The Founders intended that Congress was to make no law curtailing the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms. States could, but the federal government could not.

The Second Amendment has as much to do with the people protecting themselves from tyranny as it does burglars. That is why there is so little common ground on the issue. If the Second Amendment is to protect the citizenry from even their own government, then the citizenry should be able to be armed.

There are plenty of arguments and bodies to suggest that we might, as a nation, need to rethink this. The Founders gave us that option. We can amend the Constitution.

In doing so, we should keep in mind that in the past 100 years Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, China and other governments have turned on their people at various times and, in doing so, restricted freedoms starting often with gun ownership.

You may think a 30-round magazine is too big. Under the real purpose of the Second Amendment, a 30-round magazine might be too small.

Regardless, as the president announced how he will curtail the freedoms of the Second Amendment, we should remember Justice Robert Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

Erick Erickson is a CNN contributor and radio talk show host in Atlanta.

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