The Obsolescence Of The 2nd Amendment

August 10, 2019 Category: American Culture

[Author’s Note: I added a postscript in November of 2019, and another postscript in November of 2020.  They are located after the Footnotes.]

Before embarking on this (admittedly contentious) critical analysis, some preliminary comments are in order.  This is not an anti-gun diatribe.  Rather, it is an observation of certain historical exigencies, followed by speculation about the social psychology that undergirds misconceptions of those exigencies.  Much of the misconception stems from conceiving the purported “right” for civilians to bear arms as a precondition for civil liberties and a secure / safe citizenry; thereby seeing such a right as a proxy for freedom-in-general.  Such thinking, I contend, is misguided.  Worse than misguided, it has fueled a peculiar social pathology, born of neuroses, that amounts to a fetishization of guns.

The implication of the conclusion reached here is that if a person wants to own / use firearms in the U.S., there would need to be recourse to something other than the U.S. Constitution’s 4th-cum-2nd Amendment to do so–notably: gun licenses (e.g. for hunting).  This means that bearing arms would be treated as a special privilege, not as a categorical right.  What is indicted here, then, is a misreading of history, and thus a misreading of a single statement in a vaunted historical document.

How is it that such a misreading occurs?  There is an eisegetical trick employed–whereby a clause extracted from a complete statement is taken out of context (both intertextually and historically). {1}  Ideologues smitten with a particular document are apt to extract a favored parcel of text from its native exposition…and then quote it as if it existed in isolation.

Ideologues seeking to leverage the prestige assigned to the designated text are often tempted to engage in such exegetical shenanigans. They will do so in order to get the passage-in-question to SEEM TO say what they very much wish it said. By appealing to (what is purported to be) an unimpeachable source, they can lend their claims a veneer of legitimacy.  A familiar case-study of such legerdemain is American gun-fetishists’ treatment of the 4th–later rendered the 2nd–Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. {2}  Here, we will look at what the statement really means; and then explore what gun-fetishists pretend it means.

The gist of the statement–a single sentence–could not possibly be more plain. It regards the need for civic service in a government-regulated civilian militia for the purpose of protecting the State from domestic insurrection and/or foreign incursion. As we’ll see, this need arose under the assumption that no standing army (that is: no professional military) existed–or even SHOULD exist–to perform this vital task. According to the explicit terms of the Amendment (viz. its conditional clause), the existence of a standing army obviates the need for a civilian militia.

Certain questions arise at the start. How can we know what was meant by “militia” in this context? Here, intertextuality comes to the rescue. To see that “militia” pertained to service to the State in a military capacity, we need only refer to where else the term is used in the Bill Of Rights. Sure enough, in the 5th Amendment, it is listed along with land and naval forces as a State resource to be constituted in time of war. (Such resources are mentioned when specifying the exception to the requirement of being indicted by a Grand Jury when answering to capital crimes.)

And so it went: At the time that the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment was composed, the ability for civilians to be called to service in order to ensure the security of the nation-State was deemed necessary in lieu of a standing army. Alas. Today, right-wing ideologues in the U.S. treat this provisional measure as an inviolable license to amass a personal armory for one’s own purposes, at one’s own discretion. They take this position even as the need for a civilian militia has been rendered obsolete by the establishment of the U.S. Armed Forces (i.e. a standing army). In this view, the license to “bear arms” is eternal–and thus forever irrevocable. Such an interpretation makes sense only if we were to assume that the prerogative for any given person to have lethal weapons–of his own accord–is an integral part of the maintenance of any civil society.

But is this a prudent assumption? In posing this question, we are invited to step through the looking glass and imagine ourselves in some sort of alternate reality in which everyone is safer insofar as they have MORE access to lethal weapons. Proponents of this view see the public square as a Wild West. In this intoxicating reverie, each gun-toting patriot fancies himself a valiant mercenary, tasked with vanquishing the villains of the world with the quick draw of his Colt…presumably before riding off into the sunset. {3}  In this fever-dream, patriotism is marked by those ready to met out vigilante justice with a deadly weapon.

Within the Twilight Zone of gun-fetishism, this delusive worldview seems to make sense–and so the “Wild West” mentality is seen as warranted. But the hyper-romanticized imagery of the cowboy (ready for a shoot-out at a moment’s notice) is misleading. For, in the REAL “Wild West”, most municipalities had stringent gun-laws–significantly restricting an individual’s prerogative to “bear arms”. In many towns, guns were forbidden; and for good reason.

And so it went–not in the fabled “Wild West”, but in ACTUAL HISTORY–that towns routinely enacted gun bans in the name of public safety. At the time, everyone recognized that strict municipal ordinances were a matter of common sense–whether it was on the streets of Manhattan or in the saloon of a frontier settlement.

Never mind all that. Heedless of history, the 21st-century super-patriot ardently clings to his firearm: a prosthetic for the machismo he so earnestly covets. {5} His hankering for the right to “carry” is an attempt to see himself as a swaggering vigilante…as if the Constitutional Amendment had been included as a contingency for undertaking guerrilla warfare against the very State the document was composed to protect.

The gun-fetishist fashions himself a responsible citizen simply for having armed himself with a weapon he will almost certainly never actually need; thereby further endangering all bystanders.  So what of making society safer?  As it turns out, the entire planet is a glaring counter-factual to the daft bromide: “The more guns in circulation, the safer everyone is.” {4}  In reality, accessibility to lethal firearms is inversely proportional to public safety.

I will argue here that honoring the “2nd Amendment” means recognizing its obsolescence. This does not mean that there are not alternate arguments for civilians to own guns (under certain circumstances). Like the right to drive a car, such a right would be provisional, not inalienable. Consequently, it would need to be justified without recourse to the obsolete emendation to the U.S. Constitution so long ago. {31}

Before effecting reform, it is necessary to dispel myths that continue to proliferate.  Let’s begin, then, with a review of the actual history of this celebrated Amendment.

The salient exigencies are relatively straight-forward. At the time of its composition (1789), in the absence of a standing army (which, as we’ll see, the Founders were adamant about NOT having), there was an obvious need to specify the means by which the new (Federalized) State would be able to ensure its own security.  The Amendment, then, pertained to a right that was contingent on people serving as members in a militia: a public body which was to be thoroughly-regulated by the State, and which was constituted to serve the new Republic.

And so it went that the right to “bear arms” was accorded to white men insofar as said militia was required to effect the security of the State. As long as there was no professional military of which the State could avail itself, there would continue to be such a necessity.

More to the point, the maintenance of a non-professional (civilian-based) militia “necessary for the security of a free State” required the assurance of a collective right, which had nothing to do with the rights of any given INDIVIDUAL.

Here, “The People” is collective–just as it is in the opening of the Declaration of Independence; as well as in the 1st Amendment’s reference to an assemblage of aggrieved citizens (each of whom reserves the right to petition the government). When George Mason adopted this phrasing, it is important to note that he capitalized “People”, indicating a POLIS: the citizenry taken as a whole.

This point is crucial. The ability to assemble was a means of facilitating the commonweal, not an invitation to pursue individual ends. In the 1st Amendment, “the People” was used solely in the clause pertaining to the (collective) right to petition the government for redress of grievances–that is: things done on behalf of the polity.  Thus “The People” was used ONLY AFTER the enumeration of individual freedoms: those of speech and the press. (Recognizing the lexical demarcation of such clauses requires one to know the difference between a comma and a semi-colon.)  To reiterate: Freedom of speech and of the press are a matter of individual rights, not collective rights; hence the key locution “The People” is NOT used in that clause.  It appears only in the NEXT clause. 

This is in keeping with the wording that is used for individual rights in subsequent amendments: “any person” as opposed to “The People”.  The 5th Amendment specifies: “nor shall ANY PERSON” be deprived of life, liberty, or property.  Indeed, it would not have made any sense to begin that amendment with “The People shall not be…”  Likewise, the 14th Amendment pertains not to “The People”, but to “all persons”; and warns against denying “ANY PERSON” equal protection.  In other words, it pertains to (individual) “citizens” rather than to the (collective) “People”.  The wording of the 15th amendment is also consistent with this hermeneutic; as it refers to “citizens” when conferring the right to vote on each and every individual qua individual.  Again, it would not have made sense to refer to “The People” in this context.

Thus an enumerated right pertaining to “The People” was seen as a function of civic-minded-ness (“We’re all in this together”) rather than of self-interest (“It’s primarily about what I want for myself”).  For the first draft of the 3rd-cum-1st Amendment, Madison used this locution when he wrote: “The People shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good.”  In other words, the right of assembly had to do with the public interest; so was about ensuring the “general welfare” (as articulated in the Constitution’s Preamble).  Such a right was not solely concerned with the domain of the individual; it pertained to what economists would later dub “public goods” (e.g. public education, public health, public safety, and–yes–the security of a free State).

And so it went with the use of the locution, “The People” in the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment. In its capacity as a facilitator of security, the polis QUA COLLECTIVE was designated a resource of the State. {6} This had nothing to do with personal interests. {7}  It was the right of “The People” (as a polity) to bear arms that was at issue.

The locution, “The People” was synonymous with the demos.  This meaning is in keeping with its use in the 9th and 10th Amendments.  Most tellingly of all, when “the People” is used in (what finally came to be) the 4th Amendment, the point at which “security” is intended to refer to individuals, the term “persons” is used instead.

We might note that even the phrase “the People” is problematic; as, at the time, it pertained exclusively to able-bodied, white, land-holding men. Not to non-whites. Not to women. Not to anybody who did not own land.  It is no coincidence that these were also the qualifications for the right to vote.  Hence the (proposed) demographic composition of the militias (that is: up until the Civil War).

Note that men who were non-white and/or did not own land, YET who were deemed fit to serve in the militia, were provided firearms (muskets) explicitly in their capacity as members of the militia. Thus they were accorded said right insofar as they were serving the State. Tellingly, the federal government REVOKED the right of a civilian to bear arms in the event that, when reporting for muster, he was seen as incapable of maintaining the weapon (i.e. its upkeep); or otherwise deemed unfit to “bear arms” and fulfill his charge. {8} Unaccountable vagabonds tended not to be afforded the prerogative to keep arms for themselves, at their own pleasure.

In sum: A (white) man was permitted to bear the arms solely in his designated role as a militiaman–that is: insofar as he was equipped to serve the State.

It’s worth reiterating the point: In the event that a man was deemed incapable of serving in his appointed capacity (to wit: in a well-regulated militia), he forfeited his provisional license to bear arms.  It is clear that the right was seen as provisional, and was subordinated to the fitness to carry out the civic duty specified.  Testament to this fact is that, over the course of the ensuing century, various “imprudent usage” laws were enacted.  Such measures accorded local governments the prerogative to revoke insolent civilians’ privilege to keep / bear firearms.

And so it went in April of 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord. The anti-British side was constituted of local militias–who fashioned themselves as “American Patriots”. There was no standing army; there was only a mechanism for mobilizing civilians to the revolutionary cause. These militias sometimes even included an espionage department (established to route those who sought to betray the Republic).  Notably, the New York militia instituted the “Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies” as a way of identifying those with dubious allegiances (read: anyone conspiring to revolt). {7} This attests to to the fact that the appointed capacity was about serving the State.

It is worth looking to the years PRIOR to the composition of the Constitution.  After the Revolutionary War, the mechanism for mobilizing soldiers was written into the Articles of the Confederation: “[Each] State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.” This statement (Article VI) was the precursor to the Amendment-in-question. Clearly, it had nothing whatsoever to do with individual rights. The equipage, from muskets to tents, was inextricably linked to service in a militia…which is to say: in the service of the State.  Those accoutrements included boots, canteens, muskets, bayonets, and gun-powder sacks.

The raison d’etre of the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment was illustrated by events that prompted a further realization that such an Amendment was needed at the time (that is: the time leading up to the drafting of the Constitution). A propitious event was the uprising AGAINST the militia by Daniel Shays at Springfield in the first couple months of 1787.

Note that the 4th Division of the Massachusetts militia had commissioned officers (Benjamin Lincoln as XO; William Shepard as CO). Such official appoints demonstrated that the militia was–indeed–a body serving the State.  What happened AFTER the attempted insurrection was also telling.  The governor of Massachusetts offered a pardon to those who’d participated in the rebellion; but only on the condition that they swore an oath of allegiance, and surrendered their arms to the state.

Even the irascible rebel icon, Samuel Adams reiterated the importance of the State being able to mobilize a militia. The timing of Shays’ Rebellion was serendipitous; as the rebellion culminated just as the Constitutional Convention was about to convene (that summer).

The lesson of that uprising taught lawmakers an important lesson: the Articles of the Confederation were far too weak to abide a new Republic (an observation made most adamantly by none other than John Jay). Due to this incident, it was recognized that civilian militias–in the service of a stronger FEDERAL government–were, indeed, necessary for the subsistence and security of a free State. {9}

The concern about such rebellions served as a catalyst for the introduction of the Amendment; and so attests to the raison d’etre of the Amendment. Moreover, the potential for uprisings reiterated the fact that the Articles of the Confederation had relegated too much governing power to the local level. That is: Such authority was too dispersed for viable a REPUBLIC, wherein such things needed to be centrally orchestrated. It became plain to see that more governing prerogative needed to be arrogated to the Federal level.

Hence the provision in the U.S. Constitution that Congress reserved the right to call up an army / navy AS NEEDED, thereby supplementing civilian militias–which, at the time, were (correctly) deemed to be inadequate for major military confrontations. {10}

Alas, gun-fetishists today pretend that the Amendment was drafted so as to FURTHER ENABLE the very thing militias were instituted to pre-empt. It’s as though the “right to bear arms” were an effort to ensure more Shays’ Rebellions were possible. In effect, the PRIVATE “militia” groups of today, which deign to pose as a countermeasure to the power of the Federal government (with the tacit threat of “rising up”) are proposing a reprise of Shays’ Rebellion: the very thing the Amendment-in-question was made to DETER. {11}

Progressives recognize that dissent is the highest form of patriotism.  (Any idiot can wave a flag.)  The 1st Amendment is very clear that any dissent must be “peaceable”.  It does NOT say: “But if you REALLY want to protest, forget the ‘peaceable’ part.”  Nor does it stipulate: “However, in the event that any faction deems it warranted, license is granted for armed insurrection.”

Making this treacherous leap (supposing that the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment was written as a provisional abrogation of the 1st Amendment) is not merely far-fetched; it is mendacious.  It is harebrained to construe an Amendment about mobilizing a well-regulated militia (enjoined to be sufficiently equipped for its charge) as an invitation to stage a coup.

Pursuant to the Amendment in question: White male citizens–and ONLY white male citizens–retained their own arms at the pleasure of the State; and so THEY were the ones mobilized for the task.  It is worth reiterating that the government sometimes REVOKED the license to keep / bear a firearm in the event that–upon reporting for muster–a man was deemed unfit to properly maintain the weapon.  Such revocations were a reminder that the right existed at the pleasure of the State. {8}

When it came to keeping / bearing arms, gun registration was de jure.  Many states required that a man register his musket with the local militia.  Some states even passed laws requiring that men take loyalty oaths (or risk confiscation of their weapons).  Why?  One’s keeping / bearing arms was contingent on one’s willingness to carry out one’s charge: to ensure the security of the Republic.  This right, like one’s commission, was provisional (as attested by the qualifier, “well-regulated” in the Amendment).

It is no surprise, then, that  gun regulations were put in place for several reasons—including concerns of public safety.  In keeping with this, several of the early states stipulated how gunpowder was to be stored and transported; and how much each citizen could own.  Notably, Boston prohibited keeping loaded guns in one’s home.  (One’s firearms had to be stored unloaded.)  A few states even passed laws about where a person could fire a gun.

This all made perfect sense once the keeping / bearing of arms was contextualized: requisite equipage vis a vis one’s (qualified) capacity as a militiaman.

In sum: Any participation in a State-regulated militia is for the express purpose of ensuring the security of the State.  It is a collective right; and–more to the point–a CONTINGENCY-based right. Suffice to say: Unless you are a member of a well-regulated militia charged with effecting the security of the State, the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution has nothing to do with you.

Put another way: Unless you are bearing arms to serve the federal government, in order to make the case that you have a right to bear arms (for some other purpose), you cannot appeal to the 2nd Amendment; you need to put forth an argument that prevails on its own terms (the prerogative to hunt with certain kinds of lethal firearms, for example).

So what now?  The Amendment’s condition was rendered null and void the moment the federal government instituted a professional military; therefore the predicate no longer attains. With the development of the War Department (re-named the “Department of Defense” pursuant to the second World War), this Amendment became categorically obsolete; thereby nullifying the need for the citizenry to remain “armed” (at least, with respect to the reason given in the Amendment).

Tellingly, one of the first APPLICATIONS of the Amendment-in-question was in 1794, when George Washington led a federalized force of militiamen against the a revolt in western Pennsylvania–an incident commonly known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”. Tellingly, the President invoked the Amendment in keeping with its legislative counterpart, the “Militia Act” passed two years earlier.  He invoked the Amendment so as to require able-bodied men to report for duty; and to do so with THEIR muskets. This was a clear demonstration that the provision was added to the Constitution to put down insurrections, not to facilitate them.  And so it went that an actual situation demonstrated the statement’s intended application.

Thus history furnishes us with a clear account of the meaning behind the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment. 

The Civil War, eight decades after the Amendment was written, offers another instructive case. Civilians (within the Union) were called to take up arms at the behest of–and thus in service to–the State (qua Federal government). Sure enough, when the civilian soldiers were called to muster, in the event that their muskets were found not to be adequately maintained, the muskets were confiscated by the army. In other words, the men bore arms AT THE PLEASURE OF–and FOR THE BENEFIT OF–the State. History, then, gave yet another illustration that the “right” to bear arms was not categorical, it was conditional. That right–still necessary at the time–was a license sanctioned by the State in the same way that civilians now have a right to, say, drive a car, operate heavy machinery, serve alcohol, sell real-estate…or even go fishing.

Lest we forget, the capacity to bear arms (as a means to ensure a sufficiently-equipped civilian militia) is stipulated in the main body of the U.S. Constitution.  It is there that we find what the Founders had in mind when they referred to a “militia”; and what that militia was for.  Article I, section 8 endows Congress with the power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia…in the service of the United States.”  There was no charter for a professional / standing army.

Section 15 of Article I then states that the Congress shall have the Power “to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”

Clearly, the reason that the “keep and bear arms” language was employed was to enable the federal government to have a ready supply of already-armed citizens available to quash an insurrection and/or stave off invasion, not to arm citizens so that they could stage a coup.  (Ramping up production and distribution of muskets to prep for such a mobilization would have been far too slow if prompt response was needed.)

What, then, did “well-regulated” mean?  The answer is given in the very next section.  Section 16 stated that the Congress shall have the Power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

This is precisely what Congress had in mind when it passed the “Militia Act” in 1792, which declared that “every free able-bodied white male citizen” over the age of eighteen was to be enrolled in the militia…TO SERVE THE STATE. In that capacity, the legislation stated, each man would be under the authority of the “Captain or Commanding Officer of the company” appointed to the place that he resides.

That the Amendment applied exclusively to white men was reaffirmed in the Dred Scott decision of 1857; and again in the U.S. v. Cruikshank decision of 1875.  Such exigencies provide a clear historical context for the Amendment-in-question.

Alas.  America’s gun-fetishists NOW invoke this simple statement for completely unrelated purposes. They are forced to pretend that the Amendment propounds an inalienable right of each and every individual (qua individual) to stockpile armaments…irrespective of aforesaid membership in a well-regulated militia; AND irrespective of the existence of the necessity for said militia (which no longer attains). Even more preposterous, the imagined inviolability of the right is posited so that individuals may “bear arms” for the purpose of RISING UP AGAINST the State (which would, in effect, amount to waging war against the Armed Forces of the United States of America). {12}

This is one of the most extreme cases imaginable of taking a clause (the predicate) out of context (that is: divorced entirely from the conditional clause). It is not a coincidence that whenever we hear the 2nd Amendment cited by American gun-fetishists today, only the predicate is quoted (with the condition omitted). {13}

It comes as little surprise, then, that over the course of the past two generations, this simple statement has been turned into a marketing tool for the gun / ammunition manufacturing–and retail–industry (which is concerned with maximizing sales).  Today, the Amendment–now obsolete–is nothing but a cover for corporate greed masquerading as a measure to protect a civil right. It also serves as pretext for the on-going obsession with guns…which, of course, fuels the demand for the product. Once we consider this, it is quite plain that the vaunted NRA has nothing to do with protecting “rights”. It is a business lobby–analogous to, say, the Corrections Corporation of America vis a vis the prison-industrial complex (whereby incarceration-mania translates to a bonanza for private financial interests). {14}

So what of “SELF-defense”?  Another oft-touted rationalization for this illusory entitlement is that the Amendment was added to ensure people could protect THEMSELVES. The idea here is that personal firearms are a vital means of facilitating the security of homesteads and physical bodies. {15} Consequently, gun-fetishists pretend the statement reads “necessary to each person’s security in his own home / person” instead of “necessary to the security of a free State”.  Presumably, the rest of us are expected not to see what is written before our very eyes; and to then pretend that others’ hallucinations have been written on the page–in black and white–for all to see. {16}

This hoodwink proceeds from what might be described as eisegesis-on-steroids. In fact, it is best to simply call it what it is: lying. Pretending a contingency should be treated as an inviolability defies basic reading comprehension. That so many people countenance such exegetical shenanigans is not so baffling once we understand the motives involved. Yet that so many others oblige their delusion is, indeed, rather astonishing.

The irony of this interpretational boondoggle (that bearing arms is a necessary measure for personal security) is that it depends on sustaining a chronic INSECURITY. {5} The untenable proposition is: More guns means a safer public square. This, of course, makes no sense. {4}

To review: The 4th-cum-2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly pertains to a CONDITIONAL provision for the citizenry to serve the State in a certain capacity; yet it is often passed off as a providing an INALIENABLE right for each person to serve himself. With some interpretational acrobatics, a tacit logistical measure (to ensure the security of the State) is magically transmuted into a civil right (protection of individuals).

For the gun-fetishist, tacit provision is taken to confer an IMMUTABLE warrant for any given person to “defend” himself with lethal force (and/or rise up against the federal government) of his own accord. Never mind that the statement concerns the need for the polis to play a certain role (and thus to be equipped with necessary munitions so as to fulfill that role) GIVEN CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES.

The exigencies prompting the need for the Amendment were commonly understood at the time of its composition: The lack of a standing army. But let’s inquire further: WHY no standing army?  It is worth investigating why a civilian militia was preferred in lieu of a professional military force of the sort that is now subsumed by today’s “Pentagon”.

Many of the statesmen who commented on the matter at the time of the Constitution’s drafting saw a standing army as antithetical to the maintenance of a free polity. Indeed, at the time, the institution of a professional military apparatus, as part of the executive branch, was seen as paving the way for government tyranny, as all firepower would be, as it were, in-house. The drafters believed, not without good reason, that insofar as there was NOT a civilian militia (as a contingency), such an dire eventuality was immanent. {32}

Consequently, there needed to be a sufficiently-equipped civilian militia in order to preclude the perceived dangers of a standing army, which was a hallmark of tyranny.  (Only tyrants, it was believed, had professional soldiers.)  John Adams thought this. {34} Theodore Sedgwick thought this. George Mason thought this. James Monroe thought this. And, most importantly, James Madison thought this.  This explains why Madison’s suggested wording for the Amendment was: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country.”

The idea was that, should a demagogue ever arise, he might hijack the machinery of the State, thereby making use of its monopoly on armaments. In other words: If the State had a standing army (as it does now), said demagogue could readily mobilize the military to effect his own agenda, with nothing to stop him. {36} Therefore, the thinking went, it was prudent to disperse military power amongst the citizenry. This was not so that insurgent elements could more readily “rise up” AGAINST the State; it was so that, in the event that such a demagogue tried to seize power, militiamen would be “called to duty” in order to PROTECT the State (from said demagogue’s tyrannical designs). {37}  A standing army, it was believed, would jeopardize the Republic; so a civilian militia was needed INSTEAD.

At the time, this was an understandable fear. It was the potential perils endemic to a federalized military that served as the primary justification for the maintenance of civilian militias (that is: the only viable alternative for ensuring the security of a free State).

In Federalist Paper no. 46, James Madison made it clear that THIS was, indeed, the primary concern when it came to a professional military (read: a permanent War Department). He was unequivocal in voicing his concerns about the dangers associated with an aggregation of firepower at the federal level. Indeed, his words show explicitly that, at the time, a professional military was EQUATED WITH tyranny.  So he wrote: “An armed citizenry is an essential check against the tyranny of standing armies.”

The sentiments regarding dangers of a professional military were made clear by Thomas Jefferson’s quip that private banks were “[even] more dangerous than standing armies.”  He thus feared a plutocracy even more than a military junta.

A professional military is an invitation to tyranny: This was a valid concern of a bygone era; which is why the only other option was a civilian militia.  But the assumption that a civilian militia is a necessary bulwark against tyranny no longer attains. Indeed, nobody today is concerned that the existence of the Department of Defense PER SE is a threat to a free State. One cannot still fall back on Madison’s justification for an armed citizenry (predicated, as it was, on the assumption that a standing army is tantamount to tyranny-in-the-making) and at the same time concede that the existence of the Pentagon (which is a standing army) is consummate with a free Republic; as the latter entirely contravenes the rationalization for the former.

Bottom line: Military power is no longer distributed amongst civilians in order to ensure the security of a free State; as the Republic now DOES see fit to maintain a professional military as part of the Executive Branch–nay, the MOST WELL-FUNDED part of the Executive Branch. For over a century now, this federal apparatus has been deemed UN-threatening to democracy…not only in the United States, but in ALL democracies of the modern world. To now invoke this antiquated Constitutional provision to adduce a universal entitlement to keep firearms (for one’s own purposes) is nothing short of preposterous.

The logistics follow.  To wit: Arming “THE PEOPLE” was a prerequisite of maintaining said militia–the sine qua non of which was ensuring the security of the nation-State.

It’s worth recapitulating: Not only was the militia a necessary security measure (given that, at the time, a standing army was out of the question); the militia was necessary in order to FORESTALL ANY NEED for a standing army, the very existence of which would–it was supposed–imperil democracy. {10}

This point can’t be emphasized enough.  An adamant repudiation of there being a standing army prompted the need for a civilian militia, which required civilians be adequately equipped to fulfill that role.  (For further evidence that measures needed to be taken AT THAT TIME in lieu of a standing army, see footnote 35.)

This affordance would eventually been obviated by the establishment of the War-cum-Defense Department. To pretend the Amendment-in-question is still relevant, that pivotal development must be ignored.

For gun-fetishists, the contingency on which the provision was explicitly based is elided; and the predicate is clandestinely rendered a timeless mandate (for a completely unrelated purpose).  The result is simply: “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

From protecting the State to protecting one’s own domicile / person (using whatever munitions one sees fit), national defense is replaced with self-defense. Even more bewildering, the public interest is replaced with self-interest; and the security of the State is replaced with the ability to shoot people one finds threatening. {17}

With a wink and a nod, delimited civilian service (with muskets) is magically transmogrified into unmitigated personal prerogative (with modern fire-arms). Without even the bat of an eyelash, a provisional right can thus be sold as an immutable entitlement.

But what of dissent?  As mentioned earlier, the Bill Of Rights does, indeed, afford the citizenry license to “peaceably assemble”.  It is, after all, the First Amendment.  Assembly amounts to gathering and engaging in non-violent protest.  To what end?  Well, to petition the State for redress of grievances.  That is, after all, what Martin Luther King Jr. did (to express disapproval for the Vietnam war, to advocate for organized labor, and to promote civil rights for African Americans).

Here’s the thing: Such an action–a CIVIC action–has nothing whatsoever to do with bearing arms.  The irony is that IF the authors had intended protestation to include arming oneself for violent insurrection, they would have SAID SO.  More to the point, they would have stipulated such a provision IN THE FIRST AMENDMENT–that is: when they were addressing the right to engage in protest.

In that case, however, “peaceably” would not have been used to qualify “assemble”; and instead the authors would have been clear about the prerogative to take up arms against the State (in the event that some portion of the citizenry deemed it to have become tyrannical).  Of course, that is NOT what was meant by “peaceably assemble”–a phrase that simply referred to organizing in the public square and making an open show of dissent.

Had the matter of “arms” been seen as having any connection to protestation, it would have surely been broached in the very next Amendment; but it wasn’t.  Bearing arms was broached three Amendments later.

The Amendment-in-question was originally the FOURTH Amendment, positioned just before the Amendment addressing the quartering of soldiers.  The Amendment that was ORIGINALLY listed second pertained to Congress giving itself raises–a matter that was eventually addressed in the 27th Amendment.  Clearly, these issues (dissent and bearing arms) were seen as entirely separate matters.

So what of the inviolability of an individual, and his right to keep property of his own accord?  Well, THAT was addressed in the 6th-cum-4th Amendment.

Meanwhile, the 4th-cum-2nd and 5th-cum-3rd Amendments pertained to WAR POWERS.  This was made clear in the first draft of the document, wherein the Amendment-in-question (initially listed at the FIFTH Amendment) specified that the “well-regulated militia” would be comprised of “the body of the people”; and that THAT BODY was to be afforded arms…AS A BODY.  Why?  Because such a body was “the best [means of] security for a free State.” 

The original draft then added that this right (i.e. the right of said body, qua militia) to bear of arms was a matter of “render[ing] military service.”  It makes sense, then, that the following article addressed the quartering of soldiers.

All of this is corroborated by George Mason’s proposal for a Bill Of Rights, composed in September of 1787, in which he stated that “a well-regulated militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free State.”  Why?  “Standing Armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit.”

And what did “well-regulated” entail?  Mason explained in the very next line: “In all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to–and governed by–the Civil Power.”  (!)

To suppose, then, that this had anything to do with individual prerogative to engage in SELF-defense (and do so with lethal force, at his own discretion), let alone with affording people the prerogative to RISE UP AGAINST said “Civil Power”, is nothing short of preposterous.

That somebody today would keep an AR-15 under his bed so that he is able to use lethal force against a burglar is patently absurd.  To suppose that such an outlandish measure would be justified by a statement pertaining to a “well-regulated militia” is BEYOND absurd.  “I need to be able to kill intruders in my own kitchen” has nothing to do with military service…and certainly has no bearing whatsoever on the “safe defense of a free State.”

As it turns out, there are antecedent sources on which Madison based his wording of the Amendment-in-question.  First, we might refer to Article 6, Paragraph 4 of the Articles of Confederation:

“…every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.”

To elucidate the spirit behind the provision-in-question, we find that the preceding draft of the Amendment is very telling. It read as follows: “The right of The People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well-regulated militia being the best [means of] security of a free country.” {18}

Here, the absence of a standing army was presumed.  The key difference, of course, is that the condition on which the predicate was stipulated was initially placed AFTER rather than BEFORE that predicate. In other words, there was a deliberate choice to move the conditional clause to the front, thereby BEGINNING the statement with the militia stipulation (thus indicating its preeminence).  One might say that the predicate existed ONLY BECAUSE OF the condition specified.

This was done–in large part–in response to the demands (voiced most vociferously by the state’s largest slave-holder, Patrick Henry) that protections for slave patrols be made more explicit. Subsequently, during the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, James Madison re-worded the Amendment-in-question accordingly.  The result is the phrasing of the Amendment with which we are now familiar, which STARTS with the conditional clause (giving it rhetorical primacy). {9}

It is implicit in the condition: “In the event that–at some point in the future–there IS a standing army (of which the State can avail itself), the necessity for a civilian militia for the security of a free State will be null and void.”

That’s how things stood in 1788.  Hence militiamen being at the ready (sufficiently equipped) to be called to service by the State.  But how was this vision to be realized?  On January 9 of that year, Alexander Hamilton had addressed this matter in Federalist Paper No. 29 (“Concerning The Militia”).  He wrote that this “can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the National authority… 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.”

Clearly, Hamilton was arguing that state militias would serve in the place of a standing army.  His point here was simple.  In order to be effective, state militias would need to all have uniform (that is: Federalized) rules of organization and discipline; and be well-regulated under standards enacted by the federal government.  Hence he used the wording: “If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country…”  Sound familiar?  It should.  This was clearly the same idea expressed in the conditional clause of the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment.  (Simply replace “the most natural defense of” with “necessary to the security of”.)

Today, this acutely straight-forward provision is twisted and contorted by gun-fetishists to mean that stock-piling fire-arms at one’s own discretion is an inalienable right for each and every individual qua individual. This outlandish reading is rationalized by any given citizen’s imagined need to (A) protect his domicile or himself and (B) be able to rise up AGAINST the State should he see fit. Such an interpretation is analogous to reading a recipe for chocolate cake and using it as an instruction manual for assembling a bulldozer.

It’s not that people are blind; it’s that some people see only what they want to see. It doesn’t matter what the text actually says; they will go to their deathbeds insisting that it says whatever it is that they desperately wish it said. The problem with eisegesis is that it allows people to launder odious ideologies via the seemingly benign enterprise of just heeding whatever the anointed source says.  Such hermeneutic chicanery depends more on perceptions than on realities. When the source is deemed sacrosanct, virtually any conduct can be given a veneer of legitimacy by simply invoking it.  For American gun-fetishists, the “Second Amendment” is not so much a citation as it is an incantation.

So the only connection is, well, GUNS.  This non sequitur is made possible because a key feature of the well-regulated, civilian militia referenced in the Amendment is that it would be well-armed.  As we’ve seen, the provisional right was accorded to “the People” so that those serving in the capacity of militiamen could be well-armed. The point was to equip those called to duty, in a body that–in lieu of a standing army–was necessary to the security of the State.

Affording civilians who were to serve in that militia (white men) the license to keep those arms at the ready, then, was merely a MEANS TO that end. After all, in order to be effective, those men needed to be adequately equipped.  So guns couldn’t help but be involved.

It takes a prodigious amount of semantic acrobatics to take this as an assertion that a free State cannot abide BUT FOR all civilians having guns at their disposal (that is: to use however they see fit).  Honoring a civic duty is not about self-interest; it is about heeding a calling (that is: service to the Republic).

Only basic reading comprehension is required to see that the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment pertains to the federal government’s need–in the absence of a standing military–to maintain a civilian militia for its own security. Naturally, this required those civilians to be armed with muskets in order to fulfill their charge.  To construe this as having anything to do with hunting or securing one’s own house is daffy. To construe this as carte blanche to stage a coop is downright absurd.

What of the HISTORICAL basis for the particular wording? To the authors, the phraseology of the Amendment-in-question would have been quite familiar. Overall, the Bill of Rights was drawn from four pre-existing state constitutions (bills of rights), which had themselves been adopted in 1776-77 and in 1780. The provision that was to eventually become the “Second Amendment” was–naturally–derived from the MILITIA clauses of those four state Constitutions.

The phrase, “the right of the People to keep and bear arms” (i.e. the subject-phrase in the predicate) was based on already-established militia clauses–most notably: George Mason’s phrasing in the Virginia Constitution. {19} Thus, the Amendment was added to the new FEDERAL Constitution for the express purpose of addressing the need for the (federal) State to have a means of defending itself (from enemies both domestic and foreign). {20}

The historical context (and the concomitant genealogy of the phrasing) was demonstrated in the debates at the time. Nobody mentioned “self-defense” or anything resembling an inviolable individual right; as the matter at hand was had nothing to do with securing rights for the individual (qua individual).  In fact, the right to “bear arms” as an individual right had been explicitly VOTED DOWN during the process–thereby emphasizing the fact that the clause had nothing to do with inalienable rights. Personal prerogative regarding firearms was entirely beside the point.

Going Forward:

So what are we to make of all this NOW?  The question arises: To what degree shall a civilian be allowed to keep / bear weapons the very availability of which endangers his fellow civilians? One might also wonder how patriotic it is to insist that each civilian be equipped to overthrow the very State the document they invoke was drafted to “ordain and establish”.

Common sense stipulates that there would be no provision to ensure that civilians–of their own accord–can forcefully overthrow the State included in a document written to enumerate the measures to be taken to ensure THE SECURITY OF that State. {8}

So if not SELF-defense, then what? To recapitulate: The SOLE aim of the Amendment-in-question was to address the only means available at the time by which the State my defend itself (when a standing army was not available), and effect security: a civilian militia. {6} The “right” posited in this Amendment was expressly tied to public service.

Times have changed.  We should bear in mind that the provision for civilians to “keep and bear arms” was written at a time when:

ONE: Plantation owners were chronically wary of slave revolts. Putting down such revolts was the exclusive province of white, male landholders (i.e. those who were afforded suffrage under the Constitution a the time). {9}

TWO: Frontiersmen were regularly contending with aggressive push-back by defiant Native Americans against their claims of Manifest Destiny (read: violent westward hegemony); and there was no recourse to a professional military to ensure that such perils could be dealt with.

THREE: In the absence of a standing army, the State would need to count on a capacity to commandeer civilians ON-DEMAND in order to put down insurrections (that is: to SUPPRESS, not to enable, uprisings against the State). A key point of reference was George Washington’s handling of Shays’ Rebellion, which prompted the need for the Amendment when the Bill of Rights was drafted just two years later.

Note that there were not even (official) police for many municipalities; leaving law-enforcement (that is: the implementation of provincial justice) to locals (a sheriff and his deputies–often appointed ad hoc from amongst favored citizens).  Local law enforcement was–as a matter of course–constituted by a “good ol’ boys club” of white men.

Moreover, absent such a vital a public service (a local police force), the onus of protecting one’s own property was on the property-holder. This was especially so for plantation-holders; as suppressing unruly slaves was entirely in their own hands. Consequently they needed firearms. It makes perfect sense that the State commissioned property-holding white men to be part of a State-regulated militia (to ensure security was maintained).

In her book, “The Second: Race And Guns In A Fatally Unequal America”, Carol Anderson noted that the amendment was intended–in large part–to keep African Americans “powerless and vulnerable.”  (This echoed a point made by the scholar, Carl Bogus in 1998.)  At the time, many lawmakers in the South supported the amendment primarily because they were concerned with slave uprisings.  It comes as no surprise, then, that in 1788 (during a debate over ratification of the amendment-in-question), Patrick Henry declared: “If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, [the states] ought to have power to call forth the efforts of the militia, when necessary.”  (Even after the Civil War, many Southern states banned black citizens from owning weapons.)

Of course, for most of the Founders, a well-regulated militia was about more than dealing with unruly black people.  But for Southern plantation owners, keeping state militias armed was a matter of protecting slave-holders’ interests.  Testament to this was the Second Militia Act of 1792—one of the first laws passed by Congress.  It actually REQUIRED white men of a certain age to serve in the militia, and to furnish their own muskets.

Even then, the Federal government reserved the right to call up state militias as it saw fit–as attested by the First Militia Act of 1792.

Needless to say, 1, 2, and 3 are now obsolete. In other words: ALL THREE of these pressing concerns that spurred the inclusion of the amendment-in-question no longer apply.  Slavery is no more.  The violent hegemony against Native Americans is no more.  And now government-run police departments exist in every municipality.

While finding the need to address the above three issues in 1789, it is apparent that the authors of the Amendment were cognizant of the problems that might arise if civilians’ (in their capacity as militiamen) were not throughly regulated. Hence, the Framers were careful to include the qualification “WELL-REGULATED”. That is to say: At the time, statesmen were well aware that nascent militiamen who were NOT well-regulated would be prone to using their armaments for their own purposes. It would not have surprised the drafters in the least to find that some might exploit the provision to pursue their own ends (that is: ends which were not necessarily consummate with the public interest). Therefore it made sense that said militia should be thoroughly regulated by the State. It was, after all, designated to SERVE the State. (After all, the Amendment was crafted by FEDERALISTS.)

As discussed, the commission of white men as (nascent) militiamen was predicated on the assumption that there would be no standing army to serve this vital purpose. {38}  This assumption no longer attains; which is simply to say that the condition on which the provision was predicated is null and void.

But no matter. American gun-fetishists now routinely peddle a distorted construal of the provision to suit their own interests. The most unscrupulous revisionists treat the Amendment as if it stipulated that stockpiling one’s own personal cache of lethal firearms was an inalienable right. And so we now must contend with a rancorous delusion…in which gun-fetishists bask with unyielding obduracy.

As we’ve seen, the zaniest version of such Revisionism is that the Amendment was composed so that civilians were sufficiently equipped to RISE UP AGAINST the State at their own discretion.  It’s worth exploring what, exactly, this vision entails.

Such insurgents imagine storming the capitol and/or White House in a blaze of star-spangled glory. Such a putsch would occur, the thinking goes, in the event that a segment of the populace became sufficiently displeased with the federal government that they deemed it necessary overthrow it.  This outlandish hypothetical (staging a coup) is absurd for two reasons–one practical, one constitutional:

FIRST: The notion that a band of belligerent dissidents–who have stockpiled a small armory of weapons, and cobbled together a cadre of like-minded folk–could take on the gargantuan military power of the Pentagon (and overthrow the federal government) beggars the imagination. {12}

SECOND: The Constitution itself defines such an act as treason. {7}

Civilian militias were commissioned to PREVENT rebellions, not to enable them. The idea was NOT to afford this or that cadre of citizens the capacity to rebel against the State whenever they saw fit.

This point is lost on today’s gun-fetishists. Buoyed by their faux bravura, the more petulant amongst them peddle a cockamamie vision of shedding blood in the name of “liberty”. It is a vision of gun-toting super-patriots keeping the federal government in check. How? Well, by holding a potential putsch over the heads of government officials.

Never mind that the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment was no more written with a putsch in mind than it was written to afford each man a lethal means of protecting himself from the occasional interloper. (It’s almost as if the conditional clause read: “In case a coup is warranted, use your gun as you see fit.”) {23}

Eisegesis is what enables such a harebrained interpretation of even the simplest statement.  American gun-fetishists import the desired innuendo into a text so as to get it to mean whatever they WISH it meant. This is an old maneuver; as such exegetical shenanigans enable ideologues to pretend a statement means something it CLEARLY does not mean–be it a political document or religious scripture.

The notion of arming oneself to defend ONESELF has no connection to the antiquated idiom of “taking up arms” in the spirit of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”. We are all familiar with this idiom–pivotal as it was during the bygone age of democratic revolutions in the developed world. And so the American gun-fetishists TODAY imagine “taking up arms” against a despotic regime as if they were going to storm the Bastille in 18th-century Paris. This (now anachronistic) idiom made perfect sense in the world before the Second World War–when citizenries had to rise up against tyrannical governments. Yet in the developed world of the post-War Era, it is utterly fatuous.

In spite of the fact that such a hostile campaign is outmoded, an insurrectionist pathos pervades the American hinterlands. Hence the comically delusive thinking that exists in the slew of new-fangled “militias”–members of which fashion themselves as intrepid defenders of “freedom”. Laying siege to the king’s castle–with muskets facing muskets–was one thing; civilians armed with Rugers and Remingtons undertaking a military offensive against the combined military might of the U.S. Armed Forces is nothing short of insane. The Pentagon is not the Bastille.

More to the point: The Bill of Rights was not intended to be an invitation to try to overthrow the U.S. government whenever the (perceived) occasion arose. No matter. Those groping for a prosthesis for masculinity are apt to seize onto this intoxicating illusion.  But WHY?

Wielding a gun serves as a quick fix.  The gesture enables the gun-fetishist to go from country bumpkin to swaggering buccaneer. This burnished self-mage is hard to resist for those dealing with gnawing insecurities.  No longer a bumbling lout, the gun-fetishist is magically transformed into a stentorian guardian of “liberty”, bravely upholding the “American way” with his personal appurtenance of firepower. {3} So long as armament serves as a prosthesis for masculinity, gun-fetishism will persist. {22}

Insecurity is only part of the explanation. For those who feel they will be able to rise up against the full might of the U.S. military (whenever they decide that the U.S. government has become overly “tyrannical”, according to their own definition of the term) are delusional. They envision themselves within a post-apocalyptic video game in which they’ve been cast as the fearless hero who takes down a cabal of despotic rulers in a hail of bullets. Never mind the superiority of the Department of Defense over any conceivable private militia. This fantasy subsists in the minds of men groping in desperation for a way to feel like a bad-ass.  Packing heat serves as a surrogate for valor, buoying a hyper-romanticized self-image as some sort of super-patriot.

Gun-fetishists remain un-thwarted by reality. In their own minds, the overthrow of the U.S. government is always one uprising away. Of course, that eventuality never comes to pass. This poses no problem for the private militia-man’s fever-dream. (12}

In the meantime, the wayward gun-fetishist can revel in the fact that he is equipped to use lethal force against anyone who makes incursions onto his property–as if a king protecting his castle. The knowledge that one can KILL an intruder, it seems, undergirds such a man’s sense of manhood. {22}

And so we see an example of people deliberately mis-interpreting a clear statement; thereby creating a problem (logomachy) where none need exist. The “catch” with such misreadings is that it affords an opportunity to hijack a debate. The idea is to divert the discussion away from the crux of the matter; thereby enjoining people to quibble over things that are entirely beside the point. (False dichotomies sabotage the public discourse in large part by simply being a distraction.)  The question is thus framed as: Are you FOR or AGAINST the Second Amendment?

As a consequence of all this, we are left with “repeal or not to repeal” as the bone of contention in Constitutional law. This is a false choice. For we don’t need to RESCIND the Amendment, we only need to READ it. Its obsolescence was already built in. {24}  To truly honor the Second Amendment is to recognize that it no longer applies.

The fact that this hoodwink can be so easily executed with such a simple statement illustrates how easy and effective such hoodwinks can be. Indeed, this exegetical stunt can be pulled off even when it comes to eminently straight-forward text.

American gun-fetishism is illustrative of the larger point about duplicitous “interpretation” schemes vis a vis sacred documents.  For if such hermeneutic chicanery is possible for tens of millions of otherwise sane people, then it is no great feat to take a verse from scripture that, say, gives license to roast mutton at dawn…and treat it as, say, a license to crucify annoying neighbors at dusk. Or maybe to burn unruly in-laws at the stake at high noon. Pick your poison. When it’s an exegetical free-for-all, anything can be taken to be a metaphor for, well, anything. It’s customized interpretation on-demand.

This becomes especially dire when bad interpretations can cause extensive harm. In a world where every Tom, Dick, and Harry can carry an AR-15 (at his own discretion) under the auspices of maintaining a well-regulated militia (for State security), almost ANYTHING is possible. The game is quite simple: Pretend a sentence says one thing when it clearly says another. Just a dab of eisegesis, and PRESTO! A statement can be made to mean whatever one wishes. No “abracadabra” required.

The gun-fetishist’s daffy characterization of the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment is illustrative of a larger phenomenon. Such flagrant distortion of the plain meaning of text is typical of ideologues of all stripes–as with American corporatists’ torturous construal of the FIRST Amendment (whereby the right to freedom of speech is applied to CORPORATIONS so as to legitimize the use of financial power to hijack the political process).  Thus financial power is seen as a form of speech; and corporations are treated as people. {26}

Only by willful blindness can such a simple statement be read to say what it obviously does not say.  But such is the nature of ideological obstinacy.

This brings us back to the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The degree of delusion surrounding this particular statement is bewildering to anyone with even rudimentary reading comprehension skills. The obduracy with which some people uphold an OBVIOUSLY ERRONEOUS interpretation of this statement is breathtaking to behold. (It is no wonder that True Believers so easily misinterpret text when religion is involved.) The irony is hard not to notice: Ideologues end up making a mockery of the very document they deign to exalt.

In closing, let’s review some of the key points that are often elided:

When George Washington mobilized a civilian militia to put down Shay’s Rebellion in the months leading up to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, he was not concerned with men being able to stave off robbers with their muskets; he was concerned with calling men to service in order to resist those who took up arms against the State.  And when, seven years later, Washington mobilized a civilian militia to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, he invoked the Constitution’s second Amendment–in keeping with the “Militia Act”–to uphold those same ideals. It would have never occurred to him that the provision might someday be re-purposed to posit an unconditional right for civilians to stockpile arsenals for their own personal crusades.

The Amendment-in-question was written because–in the absence of a standing army–civilian militias were required for maintaining the security of the State. To pretend that this was intended to furnish people with the ability to RISE UP AGAINST the State, or to use lethal force against burglars, is nothing short of preposterous. Yet with some exegetical hocus pocus, extracting the predicate whilst disregarding the conditional clause is as easy as pie.

Subsequently, the imagined text of the Second Amendment is taken to read: “Each and every individual’s right to arm himself with lethal weapons of his own accord, for his own purposes, is hereby proclaimed to be unconditional; and thus immutable. This prerogative exists so that any person may–by his own devices–use deadly force to protect his person, his private property, and his domicile from perceived threats. Moreover, each person must also be sufficiently equipped to rise up against the nation’s federal government should he / she ever see fit to do so. Hence the entitlement to amass a personal armory of firearms at one’s own discretion, without restriction, must remain inviolate for all eternity, irrespective of circumstances.”

This may seem to be an overwrought articulation of the American gun-fetishist’s reading of the actual passage. But at the end of the day, people see only what they want to see–regardless of what is plainly before their eyes. When ideological commitments are sufficiently instantiated, reality may be held in abeyance indefinitely.

Considering the conditional clause, it is clear that the Amendment-in-question only protects the right of “the People” to bear arms insofar as they are serving in a civilian militia charged with ensuring “the security of a free State”.  In lieu of a standing army, this was a necessary measure at the time the Bill Of Rights was composed.  Said “militia” was not merely a contingency in times of war; it was a permanent fixture that existed even in times of peace–as is made clear by the wording of the 5th Amendment.  The “catch” was that said militia was to be REGULATED BY the federal government it was chartered to protect.

It was for that purpose, and no other, that the Amendment was written.

Be that as it may, the license to bear arms for other reasons is, indeed, tenable. However, such tenability can NOT be based on this (now obsolete) Constitutional provision. In other words, the case for such a right COULD be made; but it would need to be made independently of said Amendment. In the meantime, given the existence of the Department of Defense, honoring the Amendment-in-question would be entirely compatible with forbidding firearms amongst the citizenry.

Genuine and robust reform will not be possible until Americans disabuse themselves of illusions about the continued relevance of the 4th-cum-2nd Amendment. Alas, those who fetishize the U.S. Constitution effectively blind themselves to the spirit behind it, and render themselves incapable of bringing their critical faculties to bear on its (eminently fallible) text. This should come as no surprise, as we encounter the same delusive thinking when it comes to ANY fetishized document. {29}

Bottom line: Hidebound ideologues often see only what they want to see.  And once someone with an agenda has made up their mind, eisegesis has no limits. {1}

Those dismayed by the predicate of the Amendment-in-question fail to recognize that we are still “in the course of human events” that was referenced in the Constitution’s hallowed preamble. It seems not to occur to them that said course did not terminate in the 1780’s.

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