The Second Amendment

protesters with guns and confederate flags
Protestors with guns and confederate flags. (Photo from

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.

As a result of the sideshow over the Confederate flag that has replaced any substantive debate about racism and gun violence in the US (something had to, right?) I ended up having a bit of an argument with a pro-gun commenter on an Economist article suggesting that it may not [just] be guns that are the problem in the US.

This isn’t a particularly novel argument. People generally assume Bowling for Columbine is a standard left-wing anti-gun polemic, but at the end Michael Moore — a card-carrying member of the NRA — ends up discussing Canada, which is nearly as well-armed as the US and yet has a far lower homicide rate, and concludes that there’s something paranoid at the heart of American culture that may be the real problem. Well, this blog post isn’t about the flaws in American culture — it’s about the right to bear arms.

Anyhow, my anonymous adversary argued that the point of the second amendment is that it has kept the US safe from the kind of ethnic cleansing and other large scale atrocities that afflicted Europe and Asia during the 20th century. In other words, for the enormous benefit of not having large scale ethnic cleansing occasionally we pay the price of having a high murder and suicide rate. “A well regulated militia” is meant to be understood as “The regulation of the militia by civilians”.

OK, I get it. My adversary is right. The NRA is right. The right-wing militias are right. The purpose of the second amendment is to allow us to regulate the militia — i.e. to overthrow the government so as to maintain our “free state”. Their interpretation is correct.

My adversary is wrong, I think, on his history.

The US has had plenty of opportunities for unjust government or corporate actions to be prevented by the armed populace — consider Douglas Macarthur’s use of cavalry and tanks against the Bonus Marchers — unemployed veterans no less! Or the Battle of Blair Mountain (John Sayles’s movie Matewan depicts the prelude to it). Oh yeah, and slavery. Where is there an example of real government excess being prevented by the right to bear arms? There are plenty of examples of government excess being resisted by the right to bear arms, the largest and most depressing examples being the resistance of some American Indians to the government, others (such as Ruby Ridge and Waco) simply being unsuccessful.

Perhaps the best example in favor of this argument — i.e. the one case where people bearing arms were able to inflict a defeat on the over-reaching Federal government — is Little Big Horn (and that victory was Pyrrhic).

And if you believe that the Confederacy was right, then that’s the largest example of the populace (including a large proportion of the military) being unable to prevent government overreach, no?

On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi defeated a superpower without using weapons. And when the injustices that were not prevented by the right to bear arms were mitigated (Congress paid the Bonus Army, Roosevelt allowed the miners to unionize), it wasn’t the right to bear arms that made it happen.

It seems quite clear that given the intent of the amendment, we should have the right to nuclear submarines, tanks, nerve gas, atomic warheads, and so forth. After all, how can we credibly regulate the militia with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns? The disparity in power between the government’s forces — military and paramilitary — and ordinary citizens has never been greater and shows no sign of narrowing. Even when the gap was considerably smaller, the second amendment proved of little use in preventing horrible injustices (or defending slavery). The only real conclusion is that we need to abolish the second amendment — it fails to provide the promised benefits; it costs us too much and gives us nothing.