Of comfort no man speak;
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;
…let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings
– William Shakespeare, Richard II

The last line in this speech from Richard II might just as well be updated to read:

    …let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of children.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution can only be properly understood within the context of its time. From 1791, here is that brief sentence which has caused inestimable sorrow to be written “on the bosom of the earth” for far too long:

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.

Least you buy the National Riffle Association’s “guns don’t kill people…” argument, consider this. On the very same day as the Newtown shootings, the following occured in China’s Henan province:

 …Min Yongjun burst into a classroom and hacked away at 23 children, severing ears and fingers. But in Newtown, Connecticut, the little ones suffered even worse. After a ten-minute rampage 20 of them were dead, as were six teachers and the killer himself. The American was armed with a semi-automatic rifle with an extended magazine and two semi-automatic handguns. Every country has its madmen, but Min was armed only with a knife, so none of his victims died. – The Economist, Newtown’s Horror, December 22, 2012.

Another argument put forth by the National Rifle Association is that if you outlaw guns, only criminals will have guns. But criminals, after all, have lots of things they are not supposed to have. By this logic, whatever a criminal possesses, so may you. Is this not how a child thinks when it sees a toy in the hands of another?

The NRA’s thinking comes right out of Thomas Paine’s Thoughts On Defensive War (1775):

The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not others dare not lay them aside. And while a single nation refuses to lay them down, it is proper that all should keep them up. Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak will become a prey to the strong. The history of every age and nation establishes these truths, and facts need but little arguments when they prove themselves.

But “horrid mischief” results from the unrestrained proliferation of weapons which often fall into the wrong hands. And the “balance of power” argument falls apart in the context of an arms race when weapons become increasingly destructive – think of the Cold War phrase “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Shakespeare had a phrase for that as well “… that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.” – King Lear.

So what are we to make of the Second Amendment? The Library of Congress notes that:

Amending the federal Constitution to include a bill of rights was the essential political compromise in the creation of the United States government. Even though Federalists believed that individual rights were fully protected by state and common law, they knew that Anti-Federalists would never embrace the new Constitution until amendments protecting specific rights were adopted.

In his The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Jack Rakove explains:

The [second] amendment originated in Anti-Federalist concerns that Congress might misuse its power of “organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia” to neglect it entirely. The militia might be disarmed, George Mason warned the Virginia ratification convention, not by federal confiscation of private firearms, but simply by Congress’s failure to keep militiamen adequately equipped…That neglect, in turn, would make it easier for the “standing army” Congress would control to trample the reserved rights of citizens and states.

This view can be seen in Anti-Federalist No. 25, which observed that:

The liberties of a people are in danger from a large standing army, not only because the rulers may employ them for the purposes of supporting themselves in any usurpations of power, which they may see proper to exercise; but there is great hazard, that an army will subvert the forms of the government, under whose authority, they are raised, and establish one [rule], according to the pleasure of their leader.

But the fear of standing armies was also echoed in Federalist No. 29, where Alexander Hamilton commented:

If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security. If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions.

Note that the Federalist position emphasized the regulated aspect of the militia. As a transitive verb, regulate means to “control with reference to some standard or purpose” (Oxford English Dictionary) – as in regulation. This important word found its way into the Second Amendment as a qualifier seen in the phrase “a well-regulated militia.” Thus, gun control is constitutional and to argue the point otherwise is to advocate an unconstitutional position.

The distinction between a “militia” and a “standing army” is also critical. A “standing” or “professional” army is what most nations have today – such as the United States Armed Forces, consisting of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. This is precisely what the Founding Fathers feared. To counter the threat that a “standing army” would be used by a government to oppress its people, the right to bear arms was considered necessary so that the people could form “militias” to counter this threat. I’ll leave you to figure out whether such a “militia” would pose more than a moderate nuisance to a modern army. Although come to think of it, the militias in Iraq and Afghanistan have had some success in fighting the United States and the Soviet Union.

If you honestly believe that you need guns to protect yourself from the government, which strikes me as slightly treasonous, then you really must have a surface to air missile. Because if the government decides to come after you, they will send in the drones in first. Good luck to you in that case.

The historical context of the militia is further examined in Alan Ryan’s recent book On Politics:

The “well-regulated militia” spoken of in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was a Roman militia; the modern army of professional soldiers recruited from the poorest members of society was what the Romans wished to escape…Soldiers provided their own armor and weapons and, in appropriate cases, horses. They were supposed to be self-sufficient, and although they received pay, their subsistence was deducted from it. Rome resembled Greek states in which the upper classes formed the hoplite, heavy-armed infantry…

The French Revolution…invented the modern conception of the nation under arms…Whereas the rebellious Americans thought in terms of raising local militias, the French revolutionaries inherited the monarchy’s standing army and made it the cutting edge of revolutionary change throughout mainland Europe.

The independent freeholder, keeping and bearing his own arms and ready to serve in a militia, was a modernized and Anglicized version of the ideal citizen of Sparta and republican Rome…Once it was clear that an effective army could be had by other means without succumbing to the ambitions of mercenary leaders, the obsession with the armed freeholder became part of the politics of nostalgia, visible in Rousseau’s Discourse on Political Economy, and audible in American politics ever since Jefferson. The modern British or U.S. Army is not a “well-regulated militia…”

The Second Amendment is an anachronism. It belongs to a different time, and as originally intended is no longer relevant in the 21st century. It was written when a gun was a rifled musket, and both militia men and government troops were armed with the same weapons. The match was relatively even. Now, governments have fighter jets, nuclear submarines and weapons, cruise missiles, drones and satellites. The match can never again be close to even, and the law must change to reflect the fact that the Second Amendment’s “well regulated militia”  is no longer an effective deterrent to a modern “standing army.” Even Thomas Paine felt that “…every generation has an indefeasible natural right to decide for itself what form of government to live under…” (Alan Ryan, On Politics).

It continues to be a great tragedy that the lack of any form of gun control “…is justified by the age-old (ie, barbarous) eighteenth-century right granted to every American to bear arms with which to defend himself against Red Indians and King George..” (The Economist, American president Ronald Reagan is shot, April 4, 1981).

Although in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that The Economist is an English publication…and they still seem a little touchy about our treatment of poor King George.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

-John McCrae, 1915

second amendment image 1