In Defense of the Second Amendment
by Gary North
I want to go over in considerable detail the fundamental issues of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution: the right to keep and bear arms.
There is a great deal of emotional commitment in the United States to one of two extreme positions: (1) the right of every non-felon adult citizen of the United States to own any weapon he chooses, and (2) the right of the government of the United States to outlaw the ownership of firearms.
I am hard core. I would extend this right to convicted felons who have served their time or have made restitution to their victims. I would not let the federal government revoke this fundamental right of citizenship.
To understand the Second Amendment, we need to go back to something like the beginning.
FEUDALISM AND POLITICAL SOVEREIGNTY
In English common law in medieval times, meaning as late as the 13th century, the feudal legal system limited ownership of military weapons to members of the knightly class, and those classes over the knights. In other words, the ownership of weapons had to do with legal status.
The common man, meaning a peasant, could not be called into military service. Military service was a matter of inheritance of land and status, and this inheritance mandated military training, which created a military mindset. Thus, the weapons associated with this class, which was also a matter of social status, were not to be shared with the peasantry. This placed the peasantry at an obvious disadvantage in terms of military power. It also extended to political power. They had little political power. They were represented mainly by priests.
One of the marks of the knightly class was the right to wear armor. Armor was heavy. So, a peasant who had a simple walking staff was in a position to knock a knight off his horse. A knight in shining armor who was lying on the ground could not get up by himself. He was defenseless. So, the fact that a peasant not under a knight's authority was not allowed to carry a sword, or a bow and arrow, did not necessarily place him at a complete disadvantage, one-on-one, when dealing with a knight on horseback. It all depended on the tactics of surprise. The knight who was not expecting to be knocked off his horse might be at a disadvantage.
Peasants early on learned how to use walking sticks as weapons. Peasants could not be deprived of their walking sticks. So, they retained a degree of power which was not legally associated with their class. The movie scene of Robin Hood, an outlaw from the knightly class, battling Little John on a log over a stream was unlikely. Little John would easily have killed him. Knights were not trained in the use of staffs.
Anyone who possessed expensive weapons began with a competitive advantage in the use of power. The knightly class was careful to guard its legal rights. Magna Carta was a document created by the barons to defend their rights against the king. These rights were jealously guarded both against intrusions of power from below, as well as any intrusions from above. It was part of a hierarchical social and legal social order.
There is no question that, under most circumstances, the knightly class could deal with the peasants in the field of military battle. There were peasant rebellions from time to time. But, over the centuries, the knightly class did prevail against attempts by the peasants to overturn the legal status of the knightly class.
One of the advantages of this system was that civilians, meaning peasants and the people who lived in towns, were to be left alone by the warriors. They were not to be slaughtered in a military confrontation. Warriors were to do battle with other warriors. Warriors were not to use the specialized implements of warfare against civilians. This was a good arrangement for civilians.
Gunpowder signaled the end of feudalism. It did not cause this decline, but it accompanied it. Armies became professional. Mercenaries appeared. Legal access to weapons was no longer based on birth and legal status. With the demise of the feudal order after the 14th century, and the rise of professional armies, which were funded by taxation rather than by a grant of land by the king to specific families, access to military training became available to common men. The more that the armies depended upon conscription, or payment by the central government, the greater the demands for the right to vote by the lower classes.
This demand became open during the Puritan revolution of the 1640s in England. Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army was made up of commoners as well as members of the higher social orders. Puritans believed in the exercise of the franchise in their local congregations. English Puritans were Congregationalists. They did not believe in a hierarchy of bishops, nor did they even believe in the hierarchy of presbyteries. Presbyterianism was a Scottish concept, not an English Puritan concept. So, with the triumph of Cromwell and the New Model Army, the issue of the franchise became an important political issue. Debates were held in 1647 within the New Model Army over what constituted the right to vote. The Levelers, who were not Communists, believed that the franchise should be extended to members of the New Model Army, irrespective of their wealth. This was opposed by the upper classes, including Cromwell, but there was an open debate over the issue. Cromwell's son-in-law, Ireton, argued for wealth, meaning personally owned land or money, as the basis of the right to vote. Rainsboro, a representative of the Levelers, argued that mere residence in the land should qualify a man to vote.
With the coming of the rifle in the 18th century, it became possible for independent farmers -- "peasants" -- to purchase the implements of war. These could be used for hunting. Civilians were still not part of the warrior class, but as the price of weaponry fell, beginning in the early 18th century, a shift of political power also began to take place.
In the second half of the 18th century, the common citizen in the British colonies of North America possessed a rifle. In most cases he was a man of the countryside. He had the ability to use it. For the first time, weapons that were available to common people had equal firepower to weapons available to the central government.
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
So, the central government faced a crisis. The colonists in North America were in a position to resist the King's will. After 1763, resistance against the King's representatives increased, and the ability of the King to impose his will on these upstarts became more a matter of finances than technology.
The American Revolution was a revolution of common people who were armed with weapons. The long rifle, fired from a distance, was a formidable weapon. A man who could shoot straight at a distance of several hundred yards could kill an officer on horseback. Officers wore special uniforms. This enabled their troops to identify who was in charge. They rode on horseback, above the troops. There was a universal agreement among the warriors of Western Europe that they would not target the officers. This, of course, was an agreement among officers.
The Americans honored no such agreement. Americans would target the officers from hundreds of yards away. The chain of command of British troops was disrupted by the American rifle. This was considered unsportsmanlike. But the Americans did not honor the same rules and sportsmanship.
This is why the militias were the formidable opponents of the British Army. George Washington only had two major victories, Trenton in 1776 (won by surprise) and Yorktown in 1781 (won by the French Navy). His army was usually unable to make direct confrontations in the field with the British Army. In contrast, militia units, firing from a distance against massed armies, and then running into the woods, could not be dealt with by British Army tacticians. The British armies were always tied to the cities. They could not venture far into the countryside to get food, because too many of them would be gunned down by militia members. They were dependent upon the British Navy to deliver supplies to them.
It was therefore impossible for the British to win that war. For as long as the Americans would stay in decentralized units, firing from a distance into the organized troops of the British, the British could not extend military control, and therefore political control, over the Americans. The Americans kept fighting until British taxpayers grew weary of funding the war, and until the French, during one 30-day period, provided the naval support to block the British Navy from resupplying Cornwallis's Army. George Washington got the credit, as did the centralized army under his command, but it was the militia that had kept the British at bay for the previous five years.
Americans fully understood this when the leaders wrote the Bill of Rights in 1790. This is why the Second Amendment was inserted into the Constitution. The voters understood that it was their ability to fight any organized army, through the organization of the militia, which was basic to their concept of citizenship. It was the citizen warrior, armed with a rifle that was every bit as good as that possessed by members of the Army, who was perceived as possessing final political sovereignty. The whole concept of "we the people," which introduced the Constitution, rested on the well-known ability of the American citizen warrior to grab his rifle and fight.
DEMOCRACY AND WEAPONS
Professor Carroll Quigley of Georgetown University was an expert in the history of armaments in Western Europe. He is famous among conservatives for about 20 pages late in his book, Tragedy and Hope, in which he discussed the influence of the Morgan banking interests. Very few conservatives have ever read all of this book.
In chapter 2, "Western Civilization to 1914," on page 34, Quigley wrote a very important assessment of the relationship between weaponry and political power.
In a period of specialist weapons the minority who have such weapons can usually force the majority who lack them to obey; thus a period of specialist weapons tends to give rise to a period of minority rule and authoritarian government. But a period of amateur weapons is a period in which all men are roughly equal in military power, the majority can compel a minority to yield, and majority rule or even democratic government tends to rise. . . . But after 1800, guns became cheaper to obtain and easier to use. By 1840, a revolver sold for $27 and a Springfield musket for not much more, and these were about as good weapons as anyone could get at that time. Thus, mass armies of citizens, equipped with these cheap and easily used weapons, began to replace armies of professional soldiers, beginning about 1800 in Europe and even earlier in America. At the same time, democratic government began to replace authoritarian governments (but chiefly in those areas where the cheap new weapons were available and local standards of living were high enough to allow people to obtain).
The American Civil War transformed military tactics. The rise of the railroads and telegraphy made possible the coordination of the movement of mass armies. The only way that the American South could have won that war, other than simply by outlasting the Northerners on the battlefield, thereby weakening the will to continue the war among Northern voters, was to resort to guerrilla warfare. But the generals were mostly the products of West Point, or were promoted on the battlefield by graduates of West Point, and their concept was the same as George Washington's, namely, that centralized armies financed by the national government were the basis of military success. They were not in favor of guerrilla warfare. (This was not true of Nathan Bedford Forest, a businessman turned self-funded cavalry officer. He was a guerrilla, and he was highly effective.)
From the end of the Civil War until today, nations have been committed to what is sometimes called second-generation warfare. These are armies, navies, and air forces that can assemble massed firepower, using highly precise and very expensive weapons. These military units no longer can consistently defeat guerrilla movements on the ground. Fourth-generation warfare, meaning guerrilla warfare, is now reestablishing the sovereignty of the common man. Vietnam is the obvious case, but Afghanistan certainly qualifies. In the case of Afghanistan, the common man has always had the advantage. Nobody has been able to conquer Afghanistan for more than a few years. This goes back to Alexander the Great. The topography of the nation, and the commitment of its men to fight to the bitter end, meaning the bitter end of the invaders, has been such that these people have not been defeated.
The one Western European nation that fully understands this is Switzerland. Every Swiss male up the age of 60 is expected to serve in the military. Every Swiss male who serves in the military is expected to master the use of the rifle. It is a matter of honor to be a good rifleman in Switzerland. Bankers in their 50s compete against clerks in their 20s as marksmen. This has been true for five centuries. This is a nation of citizen warriors. It is a nation with a very weak central government, the weakest in the modern industrial world. The presidency is a symbolic office, and it is held on a rotation basis, with only one year as its term. Yet the nation's army can be mobilized in a matter of days. Switzerland has the longest history of political freedom of any continental European nation.
It is true that the Swiss surrender their ammo back to the local armory at the end of each summer's training. It is also true that the political tradition of democracy is so deeply ingrained that it would be impossible for any Swiss government to refuse to return those weapons the following summer. The Swiss are not a disarmed population. They simply let the government store the ammo during the year. The attitude is not that the government lets the citizens have access to weapons. The attitude is that the citizens allow the government to store the ammo. The mentality is completely different from the gun control advocates in the United States.
In every nation except Switzerland, gun control advocates want to centralize the ownership of any weapon that could be used systematically against agents of the government. This is not a random outlook. All the arguments about reduced crime are refuted by the statistics of increased crime whenever the government confiscates the guns of the population. Guns are as easily available to the criminal class as illegal drugs are available to the citizens and all other residents.
Gun control advocates insist that the centralization of gun ownership into the hands of the monopolistic government is a moral obligation. Why is it a moral obligation? It is a moral obligation because these people really do believe that the central government possesses legitimate original political sovereignty, an exclusive sovereignty, over the weapons that could be used against the central government.
It is one of those peculiarities that conservatives who say they believe in the right of gun ownership, and who sometimes even say that this is a means of defense against tyranny, are also in favor of invading foreign nations, when those foreign nations have adopted the concept of universal gun ownership that is comparable to the philosophy of American conservatism. The well-armed "little people" in Middle Eastern countries are able to defeat American invading troops, just as others like them did in Vietnam, precisely because the decentralization that is made possible by a diffusion of gun ownership and explosives is effective in combating the expansion of centralized political and military control. In other words, American troops cannot defeat these tiny countries, precisely because of widespread ownership of effective weapons that can be used against the occupying troops.
MILITIAS: REAL AND PHONY
I want to make it clear that I do not believe that it is possible, under anything like present conditions, for Americans to take up arms against the central government. In a period of financial crisis, in which the central government can no longer deliver the goods economically, and which therefore begins to lose its power to control local communities, there may be confrontations between armed camps. The obvious armed camps that I am thinking of are the gangs. The gangs are well armed, and in comparison with most small-town police departments, far better armed than the law enforcement agencies. The police know this. The gangs are ruthless, and they have something like a military chain of command. In a time of national economic breakdown, there will be some communities in which the gangs possess primary authority. This is true today in much of Latin America.
The best form of defense under such conditions would be for the local sheriff to deputize adult males and females who have proficiency in the use of weapons, and who are armed. This is the concept of the local posse. It is not an independent militia, because there is no such thing as an independent militia. In the early 20th century, under the direction of the New York lawyer Elihu Root, who is sometimes called the first chairman of the American Establishment, the federal government nationalized state militias. That was part of the Progressive movement's attempt to centralize political power in Washington. It was very effective. So, today, the militias are armed agencies of the federal government, even though they are technically under the command of governors. In any case, they are not local.
The citizens of the United States are so far removed from the citizens of the American colonies in 1776 that it would be inconceivable to organize a military resistance to the central government. I do not suggest that this be done. I do suggest that there is a relationship between the ownership of firearms and the assertion of political sovereignty. I do insist that the right to keep and bear arms is a symbolic affirmation of the ultimate political sovereignty of individual citizens over the central government. This was understood in 1790, and it should be understood today. I do not think it is.
I think the advocates of gun control understand very little about this symbolic relationship. They are usually advocates of the right to vote. They officially come down on the side of citizens' rights. But they do not understand the symbolic nature of the right to keep and bear arms as an affirmation of the authority of the citizen, armed with a gun and armed with the right to vote, to veto the decisions of political rulers through politics.
The defenders of Second Amendment liberties understand far better than the gun control movement that there is a connection between the right to keep and bear arms and the fundamental assertion of political sovereignty by the citizenry. They understand that the federal government's violation of Second Amendment liberties is part of a comprehensive program to centralize political power and to overcome the ability of citizens to use the ballot box to resist the extension of this centralized political power.
I do not think that many advocates of the Second Amendment believe that there is going to be a time when American citizens get their guns, leave their homes, and somehow adopt urban guerrilla warfare tactics. But they do understand that the gangs may do this. They do not believe the local authorities will always be in a position to defend them against criminal violence. They understand that the decentralization of weapons ownership is basic to the preservation of peace in society, because guerrilla groups, which the gangs are, are mobile, well-armed, well-organized, and ruthless.
I am arguing that the citizen who owns defensive weapons, and was trained in their use, constitutes the great barrier against centralized power from above and decentralized criminal violence from below. It is the man in the middle, the armed voter, who is the backbone of Western liberty.
Whenever a political movement seeks to disarm the citizen, it is necessarily simultaneously seeking to expand the power of the federal government, and also the power of armed criminals, including gangs. By disarming citizens, the state asserts an ultimate sovereignty over them, and yet it is incapable of carrying out this assertion of sovereignty in local affairs.
The central government can do almost nothing about the gangs. It can do very little against criminal behavior. The decline in crime that we have seen over the last 30 years has been mainly a social phenomenon. The biggest single factor is that men tend to commit fewer crimes as they get older. Also, married men commit fewer crimes and acts of violence. The high point of crime in the West was around 1980. This was also the low point of age. After 1980, the average age of residents of the West began to increase. Crime rates dropped. This was not because the federal government became more adept at fighting crime.
Members of fringe groups call themselves patriots, and sometimes call themselves members of a militia. They adopt a kind of suicidal romanticism regarding their ability to resist the armed forces of the United States. These weekend warriors may go out and stumble around in the woods, armed with semiautomatic rifles, pretending that they would be able to stay in the field for six or seven years, on their own authority, with their own productivity, supported by rural people who see them as liberators. That might have worked in Southern states in 1863, but it does not work today. There are too few people in the rural areas to support roving bands of militia members. These militias would become the equivalent of gangs in short order. Fortunately, they are too incompetent to achieve the status of gangs.
For most gun owners, the ownership of firearms is more symbolic than practical. Most people do not spend a week or two in the summer practicing their skills at shooting. This is what all males in Switzerland do every year. The Swiss are serious about their ability to defend their country against invasion. Americans believe that the government, meaning the federal government, is supposed to do this.
When the federal government proves incapable of doing this, especially along the southern border of the United States, some conservatives seek to empower state governments to do it. The federal government resists this, because the federal government recognizes that this is an assertion of state's rights and state sovereignty. The federal government is happy to let immigrants flow into the United States across our southern border, because there is really not much that the government can do about it, other than to authorize state governments to do something about it, or county governments to do something about it, and the federal government is not about to do that.
I am arguing, therefore, that for most gun owners, most of the time, the ownership of firearms is more symbolic than practical. This is also true of gun control advocates. I do not think most gun control advocates believe that there is a vast right-wing conspiracy that is chomping at the bit to take up arms, get organized, leave their middle-class lifestyle behind, and overturn the United States government. If any gun control advocate believes this, he has approximately the same connection with reality as the weekend militia member does, stomping around in the countryside with his buddies.
Symbols are important. A citizen who has the right to keep and bear arms, even though he is not planning to join the state militia, which is in fact an arm of the federal government, understands that he possesses a degree of sovereignty that is not possessed by citizens in nations that prohibit widespread firearm ownership. He understands that he is in a unique situation. He still has the fundamental marks of political sovereignty, namely, firearms. His firearms testify to the fact that the central government does not yet feel sufficiently confident to confiscate his firearms in the name of the central government's exclusive monopoly of violence. His firearms testify to the fact that he is still a citizen, and that he still possesses rights that politicians and bureaucrats cannot legally overturn.
The reason why gun control advocates want this right overturned is because they are in favor of centralized political control. They believe that their class, namely, the intellectual class, is in control of the agencies of civil government. For the most part, this assumption is correct. They assume that their class, and only their class, has the wisdom to allocate weapons. They believe that their class alone possesses the right to determine which citizen has access to weapons, under which circumstances, and for how long.
In effect, the gun-control advocate is rather like a medieval knight in the 15th century. He resents the fact that weapons are becoming cheaper, and that the common man who joins the Army becomes a threat to his social class, and therefore to his social standing. He resents the fact that his weapons no longer give him a monopoly of violence. Weapons have come onto the market, and these weapons can be used effectively by commoners who do not spend decades of training in their use.
The citizen soldiers of the late 18th century faced the problem of the local militias. Professional soldiers found themselves facing common men who could assemble together in the fields, shoot their officers at a distance, shoot the scouts who went out into the field to find them, and then disappear into the woods. Tactics changed, and then strategies changed.
I believe we are coming close to the end of the nation-state as we have known it for the past 500 years. I believe that the military historian, Martin van Creveld, is correct. The central governments are running out of solvency, and their ability to provide protection against crime and also provide retirement benefits for the mass of humanity, is in decline.
Over the next half-century, and perhaps even less, politicians are going to realize that they can no longer protect citizens against armed criminals locally, and they cannot afford to support their aging populations. At that point, there will be a transfer of legitimacy back in the direction of local civil government. Local civil governments will rest heavily upon armed citizens who are in a position to be deputized.
So, I expect a greater decentralization. This decentralization will take place most rapidly in societies where citizens have never surrendered their right to keep and bear arms. This is why I think the United States is the most likely nation to be the working model for this process of decentralization. Americans are more heavily armed than any other people in the democratic world. They may not be as heavily armed as rural residents of Afghanistan, but they are surely better armed than any other Western nation except Switzerland.
I doubt that my view of the Second Amendment is widely shared in those circles that are committed to the defense of the Second Amendment. My defense of the second amendment is based on a particular concept of political sovereignty. I believe that individual citizens are sovereign, not because of a grant of authority by the state, but because of a grant of authority by God. The state therefore does not have the right to confiscate the firearms of the people, precisely because the state did not make the original grant of sovereignty to the people.
Firearms are marks of political sovereignty. They should be defended on this basis, not on the basis of some hypothetical revolution, which is not going to take place. I am saying that such a revolution is not necessary, precisely because the people do possess the right to keep and bear arms. They need not take up arms against the government, precisely because they already possess the arms.