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. ~ 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution.
Nothing seems to evoke more passion from either side of the political aisle than America’s illustrious 2nd amendment. People on my side of the fence often cite the “shall not be infringed part,” but those who wish to limit or eliminate the citizenry’s right to carry arms often cite the “a well-regulated militia” part. Their argument being that the framers meant for Americans to be able to form militias (think local governments) to protect the people, and those militias would need to be armed.
Their argument seems pretty sound on the face of it. Makes sense, right? Not so fast.
If we apply some critical thinking, it is patently out of character with the rest of the bill of rights.
The Constitution was drafted, not as a set of laws for the people to abide by, but instead it is limits set on government as to how they may rule over the people.
“We the people” grant government the right to infringe on our freedoms in order to serve the greater good of our nation. But fearing that such a government could become as oppressive as our recently defeated European overlords of the time, they drafted the Constitution to protect us from future similar oppression.
For instance, our first amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” versus something like “You are free to practice any religion of your choosing.”
This pattern is consistent in the entirety of the Bill Of Rights, and while most see both those phrases as essentially the same, there’s an incredibly important distinction. As the Constitution is written, the people have the power and are imposing a limit on the government’s ability to limit their religious freedom (The first phrase, as the constitution is written). In the second theoretical example, it implies government has the power and is granting religious rights to the people.
So with that in mind, let’s revisit the meaning behind the word “militia” in the second amendment. If we assume the term “militia” refers to the military and police, which are government entities after all; those who wish to limit our gun rights believe our forefathers wrote an amendment that says that government cannot infringe on government’s rights to bear arms. This is not only inconsistent to the rest of the Bill of Rights, but its redundancy is nonsensical. If government cannot infringe on government’s rights to carry guns, then there would be no reason to even mention it in the first place.
So why do gun control advocates believe this is what the 2nd amendment implies? It’s a simple case of confirmation bias—a phenomenon whereby someone attempting to prove something they hope to be true/false, eschew interpretations that conflict with their bias and/or accept suspect data that supports their bias, due to an inner desire to substantiate their argument.
We are all prone to do this, and with the exception of devout skeptics like myself, we’ll rarely even know we’re doing it, nor act to correct it.
For instance, imagine a detective investigates the murder of a married woman. We all have heard that when someone who is married is murdered, the most common culprit is the spouse. So if the detective, after interviewing the spouse, gets a bad vibe from him, may ignore exculpatory evidence; only accepting info that could insinuate he’s guilty. As you can imagine, this leads to belief in things that often aren’t true.
In Dale Carnegie’s Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, #5 is “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” It is easy to assume gun control advocates are simply people who hate guns and want to take them away from those of us who don’t.
While this is occasionally true, some people are being quite reasonable, they just have different values or beliefs, and don’t understand our views. Opinions don’t have right or wrong answers, so we shouldn’t paint them in the light of “wrong,” just different than us.
Others may me be like former US representative Gabby Giffords who was brutally shot in 2011 by a crazed killer on an unhinged political shooting spree, or former Reagan White House Press Secretary James Brady who was shot in a failed presidential assassination attempt. Their lives were forever changed because of gun violence, so it’s quite reasonable to assume they would advocate limiting our right to bear arms. And when people have been forever affected by senseless gun violence, it behooves all of us to respect their trepidation in respect to lax gun laws. We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.
So what did the framers actually mean when they wrote in the “militia” clause? Why is it even there, if it doesn’t mean what those people think it means?
You’ve no doubt heard many people argue that the 2nd amendment was written so the people could be armed to stand up to an oppressive government, and probably assumed this was just conjecture by gun-rights advocates, or based on quotes from the framers at the time.
But it’s also the real purpose behind the “militia” clause.
What they actually meant was that the government will always be a threat to become bloated and oppressive. And while a government can pass a million laws, those laws have no teeth if there is no militia to enforce them. So in order to keep that government and its enforcement wing (the militia) well-regulated, the people should be armed as well. This way, the government (and militia) always have some level of fear from the people, to balance the people’s fear of the militia. In other words, they meant for the PEOPLE to keep the MILITIA well-regulated, not for a well-regulated militia to have arms. A militia, by definition, is already armed.
So apologies to those who wish to limit our rights to bear arms, and believe the “militia” clause supports your argument. If you want to argue against gun rights, using the “militia” argument, it just isn’t consistent with the rest of the Constitution, and you’re unfortunately misinterpreting the clause.