by Rod D. Martin
November 7, 2015
Today I received a comment concerning the utility of the Second Amendment: not just whether the people ought to be able to overthrow their government, but whether today they actually could (a lot having changed in two centuries). My (very liberal) correspondent spilled a lot of ink decrying the fact that Americans own so many guns, and cited the usual leftist studies (such as those from the “nonpartisan” Annenberg Foundation, which funds Bill Ayers, ACORN and Factcheck.org). But he also went further to suggest that any deterrent effect gun ownership might have against tyranny seems minimal:
Compared to other Western countries the US seems to have a problem with government tyranny. Cops can shoot innocent people without getting jailed, police can take people’s money, cars, houses and yes, even those guns without trial! See Civil forfeiture in the United States.
That’s unheard of in almost all Western countries. Why is this government overreach common in the country that has an amendment to prevent government tyranny?
The following is my response:
Could the American people overthrow their government? Of course they could. The Filipino people overthrew theirs in 1986 without a shot fired, so the answer is always yes.
Could the American government crush a revolt? Again, obviously yes: most uprisings in history have been defeated. That was never at issue.
The Founders wrote the Second Amendment shortly after having fought a Revolution against the most powerful empire on Earth. You dismiss this, but you are mistaken to do so, not least because (no one seems to remember this) there were only 3 million people in the colonies, from Georgia all the way to Maine. Britain held half of Africa, all of India, and much of the rest of the world for decades and even centuries: you really think it wasn’t a massive upset that Washington managed to win? (Hint: no military historian agrees with you.)
Since the colonists did not think of themselves as engaging in a “colonial uprising” (as Marxists like to pretend) but rather as asserting their rights as Englishmen, on soil they had never thought of as being anything but English and as an integral part of England, the Second Amendment was very logical to them, and would have been just as much so had they been in Yorkshire or Dublin or the Highlands. The issue was not the frontier, or hunting, or skeet shooting: the issue was tyranny. This is why you have all those quotes from the Founders (a few of which I noted in my original answer) about Americans being unique in all the world in that all other nations deprived their citizens of the right to be armed. The Founders saw this as the ultimate distinction between freedom and not-freedom.
That said, the frontier wasn’t the issue, but it was an issue. Americans faced real threats — wild animals, Indian attacks, foreign encroachments — daily. They didn’t have CNN or iPhones: there was no warning when danger came, so they always had to be prepared for it.
As it happens, that’s no less true today: if someone tries to rape one of my daughters, more likely than not, when seconds count, the police will be mere minutes away.
The Founders’ philosophy on all this was clear, and I marvel that liberals want to gloss that. The problems you cite in America today argue for exactly their position. Government is encroaching on us more and more, and while I think the #BlackLivesMatter movement cherry picks its facts, that doesn’t make them entirely wrong. I’ve been poor, driving a crappy old car in bad neighborhoods every day, and seen the police harassment that frequently comes with that. I’m not suggesting that the answer is to pull a gun on your local County Mountie. I’m just saying that you’d think these activists would understand that if you disarm the populace, the only people who will still have guns are criminals and the government.
So let me leave you with this (I think) very important thought. You cite some issues in modern America, and we could debate the magnitude of those, and there would be good points on several sides. But you also say that such things are “almost unheard of in Western countries.” And I do marvel at that. Germany is a Western country: just a few years ago it was a totalitarian state murdering every Jew it could find. Italy is a Western country, one that was actually fascist far longer than Germany. Portugal and Spain were fascist dictatorships well into the 1970s. All of the countries of Central Europe were Communist dictatorships until 1991. And that’s assuming only Europe counts as Western: what about Mexico? Guatemala? Colombia? Cuba?
In every one of those countries, then and now, the people were disarmed. I’m in Central America a good bit. The northern tier has strict gun control, 1/10 the U.S. gun ownership rate, and 10 times the U.S. murder rate. “Oh, they don’t count,” you might say, and unlike a liberal I won’t even call you a racist for that. But why don’t they count? 1/10 of all Hondurans live in the United States, as is the case for many of their neighboring countries: the cross-pollination is extreme. They are Westerners, descended from people in what was then the most powerful Western country. They are educated, they are relatively well off by global standards, and they share most of the general beliefs and attitudes of people in France or Virginia or Denmark.
Why don’t we count them? Because they’re not convenient. They don’t fit the Annenberg Foundation’s narrative.
Guns empower the individual and groups of individuals against criminals and against the state. Whether they deter egregious government action is debatable, but I’d rather take my chances the one way than the other. And aside from the many benefits of citizen gun owners being able to take responsibility for their own lives against criminals, the entire 20th Century was a lesson in how easy criminality can come to far too many previously decent states.
So I’m sticking with George Washington and James Madison on this one. They understood it all along.