Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Second Amendment: The Constitution, In Miniature

"We are here now to protect you, and no one has a need for a weapon any more.” --

A Khmer Rouge soldier sent to disarm Cambodian peasants, as recounted by a survivor of the Cambodian genocide; The New Yorker, January 24, 1994

It is because Daniel Lazare makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the US Constitution that he enjoys the luxury of candor about its provisions.

In his 1995 book The Frozen Republic, Lazare assailed the Constitution for “paralyzing democracy” -- which was one of the key objectives of the Framers, who did not share Lazare's enthusiasm for “majoritarian absolutism” (as one critic aptly described the author's philosophy).

To his credit, Lazare doesn't claim to have found some previously concealed progressive subtext in the Constitution, or offer flatulent platitudes about the “true” meaning of the “living” document. He admits that the Framers created a system in which the powers of the State were to be limited by a written text and not easily expanded through demagogic appeals to the mob.

In similar fashion, Lazare's October 1999 Harper's magazine essay “Your Constitution is Killing You: A Reconsideration of the Right to Bear Arms,” Lazare – a stout supporter of civilian disarmament – offers the following rueful admission:

The truth about the Second Amendment is something that liberals cannot bear to admit: The right wing is right. The amendment does confer an individual right to bear arms, and its very presence makes effective gun control in this country all but impossible.”

Even here, Lazare misses the most important point, namely that neither the Second Amendment nor any other part of the Constitution could be said to “confer” rights of any kind; rather, they protect unalienable rights by specifying what government can do, and a few of the myriad things it is prohibited from doing.

(A brief digression: Even in the absence of the Second Amendment, the Constitution would protect the individual right to bear arms, since it does not confer on the federal government the authority to disarm the citizenry. The Amendment is an important supplemental protection, however, in that it denies the central government the luxury of using its delegated powers – for instance, that of regulating interstate commerce – to infringe on that right.)

Despite his subtle denial of innate individual rights, Lazare's admission against interest is useful, as are his pointed words of rebuke to fellow “liberals” (here meaning left-leaning collectivists, not lovers of individual liberty) who interpolate their political prejudices into the Constitution's text.

We have long been in the habit of seeing in the Constitution whatever it is we want to see.,” Lazare admits. “Because liberals want a society that is neat and orderly, they tell themselves that this is what the Constitution `wants' as well.” That desire translated into, among other things, a “purely collectivist reading” of the Second Amendment, in which the purported right mentioned in the text is that of states to create and regulate “select” militias; this is in contrast to the “individualist” view, in which the right to bear arms – like those of speech, freedom of worship, and all other rights and immunities protected in the Bill of Rights – is exercised by the individual.

The “collectivist” view, Lazare writes, “is becoming harder and harder to defend” as more honest scholarship – that is, honest scholarship, more widely reported – demonstrates what should be obvious: The American Founders, who had wrested independence from Britain in a war that began with gun-toting citizens repelling an effort to disarm them, were determined to protect the individual right to armed self-defense. And nothing could be more alien to their intentions than the “collectivist” view of firearms ownership.

“`Standing armies,' the great bugaboo of the day, represented concentrated power at its most brutal; the late-medieval institution of the popular militia represented freedom at its most noble and idealistic,” writes Lazare. “Beginning with the highly influential Niccolo Machiavelli, a long line of political commentators stressed the special importance of the popular militias in the defense of liberty. Since the only ones who could defend popular liberty were the people themselves, a freedom-loving people had to maintain themselves in a high state of republican readiness. They had to be strong and independent, keep themselves well armed, and be well versed in the arts of war. The moment they allowed themselves to surrender to the wiles of luxury, the cause of liberty was lost.”

Does anybody really think it's a good idea to let Bucketheads like these have all the guns?

Lazare is warily circling a point that he apparently doesn't want to make clearly, so I'll do it for him:

The Second Amendment does explicitly protect an individual right to bear arms, but its real significance is that it denies the government a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

The typical political science textbook published in the last five decades will either assert or assume that government claims a monopoly on force. This is Lenin's vision -- “power without limit, resting directly on force” -- not that of Jefferson, et. al. -- namely, that of governments as contingent entities “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and subject to abolition when they exceed their modest mandate.

They can't operate a parking brake on their federally funded Gestapomobiles, but they're uniquely qualified to carry and use firearms.

Lazare, like every other commentator, politician, or scholar who wants to transmute the individual right to armed self-defense into a limited, State-granted privilege, is on Lenin's side of this argument. He's simply more honest than most, even though his concessions are heavily seasoned with condescension toward the supposedly archaic views of the Framers.

“Since `we the people' are powerless to change the Second Amendment, we must somehow learn to live within its confines,” he writes as if sighing in weary frustration. “But since this means standing by helplessly while ordinary people are gunned down by a succession of heavily armed maniacs, it is becoming more and more difficult to do so.... There is simply no solution to the gun problem within the confines of the U.S. Constitution.... Other countries are free to change their constitutions when it becomes necessary. In fact, with the exception of Luxembourg, Norway, and Great Britain, there is not one advanced industrial nation that has not thoroughly revamped its constitution since 1900. If they can do it, why can't we? Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?”

Lazare's writing is shot through with the sort of smug historicism one would expect of a modestly bright undergraduate: How could a group of unenlightened white males – most of them Christians of a repellently literalist sort – who gadded about in powdered wigs and tricornered hats possibly have anything worthwhile to say about our modern society and its problems?

The obvious answer is that the Framers knew a great deal about human nature as magnified by political power, and that because of their sound insights the US Constitution, unlike a milk carton, doesn't contain an expiration date.

Nothing that has occurred since 1787 has invalidated the wisdom of the Framers in decentralizing political power and denying the State a monopoly on force. Exactly the opposite is the case: When viewed in retrospect across centuries littered with war and political mass murder carried out by states that claimed a monopoly on coercion, the honest observer whose mind is not hostage to collectivist delusions is astonished at the Founders' foresight.

“Heavily armed maniacs” of the sort Lazare alludes to can kill dozens of unarmed innocents. Heavily armed maniacs in the employ of the State, and clothed in its supposed authority – the oh-so-helpful Khmer Rouge soldier quoted above, for example -- have killed tens of millions of disarmed victims. Important though the first consideration is when we're discussing the right protected by the Second Amendment, it is the latter that best illustrates why that Amendment could be considered the Constitution in microcosm.

Make sure to drop by The Right Source.


Neo said...

Will, this is a great piece to reintroduce the militia. Edwin Vieira, JD has written a book called Constitutional Homeland Security Volume 1: The Nation in Arms. In his book he ties the entire 2nd Amendment together and makes an argument, using the Constitution, that the only way to ensure a Republican form of government is to revitalize the militias of the Several States. He has written some excellent articles on the same at newswithviews.com He emphasizes that one of the main training points for a state militia is education in the Constitution and the expressed duties of the militia. He makes a good point that if this revitalization is not completed quickly, it will be impossible to complete at all - due to the fast pace of the police state.

Taylor said...


Thanks. I'm getting pretty tired of listening to so many people heave-ho about how "no one needs a gun in our modern society," it was nice to take a break and read a little common sense in writing for a change.

Mister Spock said...

Will –

While I know the conventional argument regarding the term 'Militia' in the Second Amendment, I prefer when running up against the anti-gunners that want to define 'Militia' as the National Guard or the Army, to let them have that definition.

Since one can easily show that the "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" applies to individuals (cf. Amendments 1, 4, 9 and 10), we can then paraphrase (and amplify) the Second Amendment, using their definition, as follows,

Since a well-trained Army is necessary to the security of a nation, the right of individual citizens to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed because we recognize the potential of any government to use its military against the people.

This supports your obviously correct argument that the Second Amendment "denies the government a monopoly on the legitimate use of force." While I realize that was not the definition of 'militia' at the time, and I don't support a Standing Army, that argumentation, while not correct, usually stuns the person, and they not only realize they just lost the argument, but more importantly, they truly understand the point of the Second Amendment. It seems much easier to make the point by making an end run around the word 'militia.'

Zachary said...

Here is a question for the people who
would take our guns away: how are you going to take them? I'll buy used guns, pack them in grease, bury them is a field and save them for a rainy day. It is amazing how stupid most people are that they don't realize government is the most murderous institution on the face of the earth.There are alot of good people in the military and police. There are alot of mongoloid robocops too. But it's ok for them to parade around with machine guns? Yes, just a few months ago I saw officers with the Orange County Florida sheriffs department looking for some cop killer with automatic rifles. Why can't I buy a machine gun? Someone would say "because these weapons are too dangerous." They are very dangerous weapons, but to say that individual
government employees can use them but I can't is ridiculous. We are talking about weapons individuals can carry and use against other individuals, not missiles or weaponized nerve gas. Our local police departments are starting to outgun us, and I don't like it one bit. Every time I hear somebody talking about Virginia Tech and civilian disarmament it makes me want to buy another gun. I hope I'm not alone.

Fred said...


I seriously doubt the local police are "starting to outgun us". Maybe you personally, but not US. I believe that even if a disarming of the citizenry was to occur the population would continue to outgun the local police, albeit not as obviously. But I'm an optimist when it comes to cosidering whether TRUE Americans will do what is right.

Although the fact that this disparity exists in the first place really bugs me. Parity is and should be the goal. Citizens hiding arms from the government as if they are a dirty family secret should make it obvious what type of government we have.

I remain confident Americans who own arms will not give an inch in the face of the impending gun grab. We'll see.

You mentioned your observation of cops with automatic weapons looking for a cop-killer. If you pay the federals some scratch for the stamp you too can own one. But they will know who you are. Personally I see no use for them by anyone since a semi chambered similarly is more useful, cheaper, and no stamp is required. Leave it to the federals to charge more money for something of exaggerated value!

It's possible the cops you saw didn't even have autos. They might have appeared to be, but weren't. Besides, hunting for a killer with a pistol is not a good idea. In other words, don't bring a knife to a gunfight, don't bring a pistol to a pistol fight--if you can avoid it. Always bring a more powerful and accurate gun so you don't die of lead poisoning. Pistol ammo sucks.

Denny said...

I second the vote for Vieira's book. Before I read it I had always skipped right over the word 'necessary' in the 2nd Amendment. Read the amendment again and think about the implication of the loss of the citizens' Militia of the several States.