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Governments will do what they can get away with, including torture and assassination, in secret. The only check on this evil is the people’s vigilance.

Governments will do what they can get away with, including torture and assassination, in public. The only check on this power is the people’s resistance.

Governments will do what they can get away with, including warfare, which is both a public and a secret activity. Notably, we have seen governments use their war power against their own people. The only check on government’s use of force is counterforce from the people.

All of these propositions are problematic, however, because government is supposed to have a monopoly on the use of force. How do people fulfill their necessary function as a check on government power if they do not have access to means of force?

That brings us to the foundation of the Second Amendment.

My father used to lay out the case for gun control fairly often. He was an attorney and felt comfortable with legal precedents that modify and circumscribe the plainly stated right to bear arms in the Second Amendment. Plus he said that since we don’t maintain militias any more, the right doesn’t apply now. I heard him out, and generally didn’t offer a response unless he pressed for one.

Minuteman statue in Lexington, Massachusetts

At last I gave the one counter-argument that must begin and end discussions about the Second Amendment. We have a right of revolution in our republic. If our government becomes tyrannical, we have a right to replace it. What good is that right if the law disarms the entire populace? Note that a law to remove Second Amendment rights proceeds directly from tyrannical power, not from the people. No simple statute voted by any body can remove a right protected in the Constitution. No simple statute can remove means of resistance from the people’s hands. To have a right of revolution, people must also have means to exercise it.

Can people exercise their right of revolution without bearing arms? Certainly our key theorist of revolution, Thomas Jefferson, did not think so. Our second revolutionary, Abraham Lincoln, was a conservative man who removed the slave power from our union. Both sides in the conflict that occurred during his presidency would have said that armed force is necessary to protect rights – including the right to remove existing power, however one might define it.

My dad did not come back at me to point out all the articles I’ve written about non-violent resistance to government tyranny. I hadn’t written them yet. Nevertheless he could have asked if I thought civil war could ever be a good thing, or even a necessary evil. I would not have a succinct answer to a question like that. No, I don’t think the people should mount an armed revolt, unless government begins to slaughter its people wholesale. The civil war in Syria illustrates this case.

The main reason people need to maintain their right to bear arms is not so they can use them to resist government’s use of force whenever they become unhappy, or whenever government engages in too much mischief. The significance of this right is the impact it has on the thinking and behavior of people in government who might contemplate use of force against the people. When thoughts like that come into their minds, we want people like that to take an armed citizenry into account. A disarmed citizenry gives proto-tyrants much greater latitude as they plan measures of control and coercion. They will always say their measures are necessary to protect the public.

Ronald Reagan tells a story from the time he lived in Des Moines, Iowa. It was late at night, and he was by himself in his apartment. He heard something outside on the street. He opened the window and took a closer look. In the dark he could make out a man who had accosted a woman on the sidewalk. He had heard her distress. Reagan called out the window, “Hey mister, I have a rifle in my hands, pointed straight at your head. Leave her alone, or I’ll pull the trigger.”

The would be criminal could not tell who called to him, and naturally could not see whether or not the threatener actually held a gun. Whatever he wanted from the woman was not worth getting shot, so he made off. The grateful woman made her fast departure, too. Reagan closed the window, happy for success, for he certainly didn’t own a gun.

We want government officials to feel the same uncertainty unto fear. They have proven themselves thieves and worse, but like members of any criminal organization, they have to weigh benefits against risk when they undertake any illegal operation. A disarmed citizenry removes a lot of uncertainty for them. They have a good deal less to fear, when they can wield all means of coercion at their disposal, and the objects of their force have no means to resist. Disarmed, a dispirited and weak citizenry can only submit. Disarmed, one can hardly call them citizens.

The last argument to remove Second Amendment rights is that explicit checks on power in our Constitution replace the crude threat of armed violence to limit what our government can do. The major purpose of the Constitution and the laws is to remove violence from processes of political change. Introduce even the threat of violence from an armed citizenry, and you violate the spirit of the laws. You even threaten the survival of our peaceful, democratic republic.

This argument would weigh heavily if our government had not already taken a decisive turn toward tyranny. Observe carefully our government’s behavior since 9/11, or even further back, since 1960. Assess whether our constitutional checks work any longer. Ask whether people in government use their authority on your behalf, or on their own behalf. Think about these questions. Then ask whether a crude, even barbaric right, protected in the Second Amendment, is not the only defense of liberty we have left. Perhaps we have not reached that pass yet, but we are headed that way.