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Real Independence Day: The Meaning of the Second Amendment

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There is no national holiday on April 19 (or April 18), though the Boston Marathon is run around this time. When I was in college in the East, this meant not only mid-spring but mid-term, and when exams were finished, the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride seemed a perfect excuse for a party. Though I’ve celebrated this date habitually over the years, the party spirit has faded a bit with age, and I’ve begun to reflect a little more on those events and people of 1775. What went on in the minds of these small-town farmers that made them stand up and challenge the army of “their” government — coincidentally, the most powerful one on earth at that time? Were they pushed to it accidentally, or had they already drawn the line beyond which they would stand and fight?

It’s a question that may relate to today more than we realize. Our government is, at least for now, undoubtedly the most powerful in the world. It holds power that those Massachusetts farmers couldn’t have imagined. It intrudes in our lives to a degree that would have astonished and appalled them. Are we drawing a mental line of how far we’ll let it go? Are we waiting until somebody unintentionally pushes us too far? Are we past standing up for our rights all together? It’s hard to tell.

There are several movements, both within and without the government, aimed at disarming the American population. The argument seems to be that we are so civilized that we have no good use for such things as firearms. In 1775, the goal of the British troops marching on Concord was similar — to disarm the colonists. They weren’t after individual personal weapons; they were after cannons and large stores of gunpowder rumored to be at Concord. (With the limited technology of the day, cannons were the largest technological advantage the British had over the colonists.)

The government today has numerous large technological advantages over the civilian population. There remain a substantial number of heavily regulated, registered weapons in private hands, but the closest thing to technological parity is the common semiautomatic weapon available to the general public. It is this class, mislabeled “assault weapons,” that currently comes under the most vigorous attack from gun-control advocates both inside and outside government. The usual attack centers around the “fact” that they have “no sporting uses.”

Ignoring the inaccuracy of this “fact,” the truth is that the Second Amendment makes no reference to “sporting uses.” In fact, it seems most unlikely that “sporting uses” were a consideration for those who framed the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, even the National Rifle Association skirts timidly around the real issue, as if it were too much for Americans to deal with. The point of the Second Amendment is to give American citizens the capability to assemble rapidly as an armed militia for their own collective defense. This has generally been thought of as defense against an invading foreign enemy, but recent events in Los Angeles and Waco clearly point out that other situations might also create such a need. To the Framers of the Bill of Rights, the most recent “foreign enemy” was the perceived tyranny of their own government — in England, but, nonetheless, at that time (1775), their own. A great concern of the writers of the Bill of Rights was that the own government they were then forming might eventually become tyrannical, and that the citizens needed protection from that possibility — hence the entire Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment.

There are past examples of armed citizen resistance to the perceived tyranny of the U.S. government: the Whiskey Rebellion, Shays’ Rebellion, and most notably the War Between the States. The fact that none of these was successful does nothing to alter the principle of armed resistance as a last resort. The fact that a large number of citizens exercise their Second Amendment rights unquestionably admits the possibility of future armed resistance and can properly be a sobering thought for those in government. The amount of support for gun control within the government (those sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment) perhaps indicates that this is indeed the case. As the existence of our nuclear missiles served as a brake to Soviet ambitions for 45 years, so a well-armed populace must serve as a brake on those in government who might abuse their authority.

The removal of firearms from civilian hands removes this restraint from government. However small the actual possibility of revolt, whatever the theories that we are “too civilized” to need or want firearms, the fact remains that the ultimate guarantor of political power, here as anywhere else in the world, is the possession of (and willingness and ability to use if necessary) firearms. Without that, not only is resistance to unjust laws or abuse of power impossible, but enforcement of just laws is impossible.

Does this mean that we need to plan for armed resistance? Hardly. The odds are far less, even than in 1860. Only massive public support for resistance would give it a chance of success, and such support could well prevent the need for resistance through political means. Only a blatant usurpation of power in excess of authority might try to override such resistance, and the coup attempt in Russia illustrates that massive resistance can succeed even with little or no violence.

Maybe we do need to give more thought to where we draw the line. How much power do we really grant to the federal government? If the power is accumulated gradually enough, it may not be blatant enough to inspire massive resistance. In that case, a smaller group might be suddenly and accidentally pushed beyond its limit and provide the tragedy of a Lexington — like spark, with violent, armed resistance the final result. In either case, without the Second Amendment, we lose much of our option to resist. Even the most massive nonviolent resistance becomes fatally or near-fatally weak without the threat of armed resistance to back it. Two old quotes come to mind: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” and “Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It’s time we paid a little more attention to where we stand before it’s too late.

Here on the Eastern Shore, guns are a way of life. People like to hunt, people like to shoot, and people like to collect guns out of historical or aesthetic interest. Most small towns could easily arm an infantry company out of private collections, and small cities could probably arm a regiment — possibly including automatic or other heavy weapons. There are no militia groups, but organization could occur around fire companies, fraternal organizations, gun clubs, and even veterans’ organizations if the provocation were severe enough.

I doubt I will ever have to stand and literally fight for my rights. I hope I don’t. If it’s going to happen, I hope it happens after my lifetime, after my children’s lifetimes, and, if and when they arrive, after my grandchildren’s lifetimes. I suspect that’s about as many generations ahead as we’re capable of worrying about.

At the same time, I wonder if that isn’t what those Massachusetts farmers felt in 1775. No doubt, resistance to the British Army looked as hopeless to them as resistance to the federal government does to me. But if it does come to lining up on the village green, I hope I’ll have the courage to stand with my neighbors — and they the courage to stand with me — to make sure America stays a free country of free people.

We celebrate that freedom on the Fourth of July, but those words of July Fourth were created by the actions of those men in April 1775. In my mind, that’s the real holiday, in the original sense of the word.

This essay originally appeared in the January 1994 issue of Chronicles (Volume 18, No. 1), published by The Rockford Institute, 934 N. Main St., Rockford, IL 61103. Reprinted by permission.

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    Richard J. Davis, a Freedom Daily subscriber, is a dentist in Hurlock, Maryland.