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The Greatest Safeguard Against Tyranny

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One is misled not by what he does not know but by what he believes he knows.

— Jean Jacques Rousseau, On Education [1762]

The purpose of government is the protection of individual rights. Government officials are elected and appointed to ensure that the citizenry are safe from military invasion, as well as from the murderer, burglar, robber, rapist, and swindler.

To this end, armies are, when necessary, raised and maintained, police forces are employed, and courts of law operate to hear private grievances and determine guilt or innocence in matters of criminal law.

Despite the best-laid plans, however, government officials cannot be everywhere. The individual citizen may seek recourse to the law if he feels he has been wronged; but in the event of an immediate threat to his life, liberty, or property, he must take responsibility for his own well-being and call on government for assistance only after the fact.

Government exists in this manner as the best means for protecting men’s individual rights — and the triumph of the American system of government was that it was constructed to protect individual liberty as the ultimate end.

The men who built our nation understood that government was necessary to preserve the people’s freedoms. But they also knew that government agents could not be trusted to use their power justly and that government remains the single greatest threat to the rights and liberties of a free people.

America’s Founding Fathers knew that the best insurance policy for freedom was for the people always to retain the ability to take their government out of the hands of abusive officials, “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.”

This was far from just some lofty theory to the Founders. They had witnessed oppressive government firsthand and had seen this principle unfold in dramatic practice as thousands of armed citizens took up their muskets and drove the king’s soldiers — their government’s soldiers — back to Boston on April 19, 1775. They knew the vital role played by armed citizens at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. They had seen the United States born out of the fight against tyranny.

Most important, the Framers remembered this when they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a new constitution to govern the nation. The War of Independence had ended just a few years earlier, and these men had watched and participated in the fight for freedom — and they didn’t want to lose it.

So they established a republic based on the concepts of limited government, private property, and individual rights. They created a system of “checks and balances” to protect against the consolidation of power; recognized the sovereignty of the several states; made clear their desire for limited and delegated power; and carefully enumerated the authority of the central government in a written document.

To maintain direct citizen participation in the machinations of government our ancestors spread the voting franchise to the largest number of people ever before seen in the history of the world. To give citizens direct control over the execution of laws, the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right of trial by jury. Freedom of conscience; the right to assemble, petition, and freely criticize the government; safeguards for personal property; and security against unlawful and unreasonable violations of their privacy were all either explicitly or implicitly enshrined.
The right to keep and bear arms

And to make sure that government would always remain in the hands of the people, the citizen militia — the right of the people to keep and bear arms — was made sacrosanct.

The right to keep and bear arms is the least understood of all rights mentioned in the Constitution. Few politicians today have any idea of the true meaning and intent of this provision and are more likely to deride this right either as an archaic and unnecessary remnant of an embarrassing past or, at best, as merely some benign assurance that “the people” will be able to go duck hunting. Neither is true.

The right of the people to keep and bear arms is an important and integral part of what it means to be an American. In fact, it could be said to represent the most important and integral part of being an American.

When our American ancestors followed the example of half the state governments and included a “right to arms” provision in the federal Bill of Rights, they unapologetically and irrefutably established a nation of free and autonomous individuals.

By granting legal and moral recognition to the right to keep and bear arms in the federal Constitution — “the law of the land” — the Americans made concrete in practice that every single free citizen would remain the final repository of political power. Early American statesmen were following the sage advice of such men as the Scottish philosopher and militia advocate Andrew Fletcher, who argued that “arms are the only true badges of liberty,” providing “the distinction of a free man from a slave.”
The true meaning of gun ownership

Without arms, the people’s rights could too easily become prey to the whim of an ambitious executive, the edicts of a corrupt legislature, or the proclamations of false-hearted judges. Under an armed citizenry, this becomes much more difficult. Government must proceed carefully when exercising power, lest a “long Train of Abuses and Usurpations” inspire the people to again water the “tree of liberty … with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The right to be armed likewise makes every citizen part of the system of national defense.

In the words of J. Norman Heath, an authority on the history of the militia, early advocates of the militia “thought it the role of citizens to infuse human virtues into the institutions of state, and expected the reinforcement of those virtues by the institutions of state back to the people,” making membership in the militia an exercise of both the “civic right of participation [in the mechanism of government] and … jurisprudential liberty, an expression of the sovereignty of the citizens and their ‘natural’ right to possess the means of their own liberation from despotism.” In this way would there be “a healthy interchange of qualities between citizens and government.”

The right to keep and bear arms therefore represents not only the ultimate sovereignty of the individual over the state, but also his identification with his own government. It also demonstrates America’s unique departure from all of the civilizations of the past. In no other culture and under no other government has the importance of an armed citizenry been made so explicit or as carefully guaranteed as it has under the American constitutional order.

While both ancient Rome and the British Empire paid statutory lip service to the value of being armed, only in the United States was being armed recognized as an inviolable right. What started with gunfire at Lexington and Concord ended with the words of Tench Coxe, a friend of James Madison:

Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American…. [The] unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.

Madison would of course write what became the Second Amendment, with its guarantee that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

If the average citizen today wonders about his relationship to his government, the Second Amendment means that the armed citizen need not have any such concern. The armed citizen in America knows that he straddles the divide that currently exists between government officials and private citizens. The armed citizen represents the ideal of American political and social life: the individual, self-governing, self-motivated, self-respecting, dignified, free citizen — who takes these virtues so seriously that he will maintain the personal power to back them up.

The right to keep and bear arms is not the endpoint of our individual rights, but the starting point. It is truly the right that protects all the others. To be armed makes the citizen safer from potential abuses by his own government, while at the same time making him more intimately a part of his own government.

This article was originally published in the February 2005 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.