This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
The Totalitarian Temptation
Whenever disaster strikes, the first instinct among statists and totalitarians is to agitate for new laws. Even if we know the law can’t stop similar disasters from occurring, at least we feel something is being done. As I pointed out in my article ‘The Psychology of Totalitarianism’, disasters and emergencies provide fertile soil for those who feel that stronger government is the answer to every problem.
A case in point is the reaction to the recent shooting in Newtown Connecticut. Almost immediately after the Sandy Hook tragedy last December, the Obama administration went into full gear to explore ways to tighten regulations on gun owners. This has culminated in a flurry of proposed legislation which includes a ban on high-capacity magazines. Meanwhile, a bill introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein would introduce laws that would effectively prevent fathers passing their firearms on to their sons.
But why now? We already knew that guns kill people, and we already knew that innocent people sometimes suffer when evil people get hold of firearms. While the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t provide Americans with any new information, it has provided a political climate in which tighter regulations feel right to many people. It feels right because it holds out the false promise that tragedies like these can be avoided if only the right laws are implemented. If only it were that easy. Gun laws in Great Britain certainly haven’t helped Britain avoid becoming the most violent nation in all of Europe.
Protecting Innocent Life
Guns are tools by which wicked men kill innocent people. But guns also protect innocent lives. Only yesterday my family was visiting an elderly couple who are the most gentle people I know. They told us about the time when they were younger and had to begin carrying guns to protect themselves and their children against drug dealers who moved next door. The drug dealers (who thankfully no longer live there) threatened their lives and when the police refused to do anything about it, my friends had no option but to buy guns and learn how to protect themselves. Thankfully, they never had to fire their guns, but for a period of time they slept with them by their bedside just in case.
Killing is never a good thing, and this is a point I intend to underscore in a follow-up article. Yet both the Old Testament and the New Testament are full of examples of legitimate homicides. The reality is that in a fallen world it is sometimes necessary, even requisite, to kill evil-doers in order to protect innocent life.
The Second Amendment
The American founding fathers understood these important truths. They appreciated that, living in a fallen world, it is necessary to have the means to defend ourselves. They remembered the experience of the English when, under both Charles II and James II, the British government had attempted to disarm her subjects. This had led to the English Bill of Rights which, among other things, grants English subjects the right to bear arms.
Thus, Richard Lee, a signer of the Declaration and one of the men who helped frame America’s own Bill of Rights, commented that “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them.” Similarly, Zechariah Johnston, one of the men who ratified the United States Constitution, declared, “The people are not to be disarmed of their weapons. They are left in full possession of them.”
These concerns found their way into the Second Amendment of America’s Bill of Rights. If one reads commentaries and other documents and from the time, it becomes clear that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” was never intended to simply allow people to hunt. Nor was it merely a reference to the right of states to maintain formal armies for purposes of fighting the Indians or defending the country, for the common defence of the nation was already provided for in Article I, section 8 of the constitution. Rather, the Second Amendment was intended to provide individual gun ownership (and by extension, the possibility of a citizen-based militia) as a necessary hedge against (God-forbid) an oppressive federal government. Here are some reasons we know this:
- In a letter to William S. Smith in 1787 cited on page 846 of Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties, Volume 1, Thomas Jefferson asked, “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” This suggests that one of the reasons the Second Amendment was important to Jefferson is because it gave individuals the right to rise up and resist federal tyranny.
- Theodore Sedgwick who helped to frame the Second Amendment, commented that it was “a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved” or that “an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves or their brethren” as long as the people remained “a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands…” (Cited in Gun Rights Affirmed: The Emerson Case) The issue in Sedgwick’s mind was not primarily the threat of foreign invasion or trouble with the Indians, but an oppressive federal government that might seek to enslave the free people of the United States.
- Founding Father Patrick Henry urged that liberty could only be preserved by the people being able to use force. In a speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 5, 1778 , Henry commented, “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined.” (Cited in The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.) In Henry’s mind, the need to be prepared to use “downright force” was not simply a contingency against outside invasions but a prevision against any force that might threaten the public liberty, including an oppressive federal government.
- The Providence Foundation website reminds us that “In The Federalist No. 46, [James Madison] confidently contrasted the federal government of the United States to the European despotisms which he contemptuously described as ‘afraid to trust the people with arms.’ He assured his fellow citizens that they need never fear their government because of ‘the advantage of being armed.’ Many years later, Madison restated the sentiments of The Federalist No. 46 by declaring: ‘[A] government resting on a minority is an aristocracy, not a Republic, and could not be safe with a numerical and physical force against it, without a standing army, an enslaved press, and a disarmed populace.’”
These are only a few of the myriad quotations that might be adduced on this subject, and anyone wishing to explore this further should consult David Barton’s book The Second Amendment. Through the use of primary source documents, Barton shows that the founding fathers believed the right to self-preservation, and hence the subsidiary right to bear arms, was an inalienable natural right which existed prior to any legal system.
It is true that sometimes the thinking of the founding fathers on this subject was tinctured with a revolutionary mindset that could be legitimately critiqued. It is also true that the founders fathers, though predominantly Christians, may have been unduly influenced by Lockean theories of natural rights. Nevertheless, while we may not always agree with everything the founders wrote on the subject of rights, their words should be sufficient to contextualize the original intent of the Second Amendment. That intent, until comparatively recently, was universally understood as protecting the private arms of individuals.
This understanding was reflected in 1825 when the legal scholar and friend of George Washington, William Rawle, wrote a set of extensive commentaries on the constitution and declared, “No clause in the Constitution could, by any rule of construction, be conceived to give the Congress a power to disarm the people…. But if, in any blind pursuit of inordinate power, either [the State or federal government] should attempt it, this Amendment may be appealed to as a restraint on both.”
Similarly, in 1833, Joseph Story, the founder of Harvard Law School and a Supreme Court Judge appointed by Madison, wrote his own set of commentaries on the United States Constitution and declared, “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of a republic since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”
What does this mean for us today? Does this mean Christians should get fully on board with the pro-gun lobby? These are questions I hope to explore in the next few articles of this series.