Another horrific school shooting, this time in Uvalde, Texas, has reignited the debate over gun control. On the one side are those who blame the tool—the gun—that the shooter used in the massacre. On the other are those who blame the deranged young man who was in violation of several gun laws as he gunned down innocent children in his monstrous attack.
As usual, the event featured the disgraceful spectacle of politicians and journalists exploiting the tragedy as a means of fundraising and scoring political points. For advocates of gun control, those who oppose their measures are, at best, sellouts to the NRA and, at worst, directly responsible for pulling the trigger themselves. They have the blood of innocents on their hands.
The gun control litany has been on full display since the shooting. We must ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Joe Biden has added 9 mm handguns to the list of firearms to be banned. For some, confiscation is on the table.
Gun rights advocates observe that we already have many gun laws on the books but that those who want to shoot up a school can do so because there is nothing to stop them. A “gun-free school zone” tells a shooter that no one will be shooting back. Active shooters aren’t looking for a gun fight. They don’t walk, guns blazing, into a police building Also, the Uvalde shooter (I will not name him), like many of his murderous predecessors, was known to law enforcement, but no action was taken against him.
There is a great deal of misinformation—if not disinformation—regarding “assault weapons.” Contrary to popular belief, the “AR” in AR-15 does not stand for “assault rifle” but “Armalite,” the company that first manufactured the AR-15, which it subsequently sold to Colt. Like most magazine-fed pistols and rifles, it is a semiautomatic weapon, which means that the shooter must pull the trigger for each round discharged. The military version, the M-16, which was introduced during the Vietnam War, differs from the AR-15 in that it has a selector, enabling the shooter to depress the trigger once to fire multiple rounds.
The first rifle with the features of today’s AR-15 was introduced in 1907: the semiautomatic Winchester Model 1907, which anyone could buy from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. While American soldiers continued to carry bolt-action rifles until they were issued the M-1 Garand at the beginning of World War II, American citizens had access to a rifle that differs from today’s AR-15 in that it fired a larger round (.351 caliber) and lacked the short, black, plastic stock that makes the AR-15 look so sinister.
The fact that both the Winchester M-1907 and the AR-15 were developed and sold to U.S. civilians before they were adapted to military use leads to the question often raised by advocates of gun control: why is it necessary for ordinary citizens to own “military-style” weapons?
The answer lies at the heart of America’s constitutional system and explains the critical importance of the Second Amendment. What is new about the gun control debate is that gun control advocates, who once at least paid lip service to the Second Amendment of the Constitution, now target it openly. For instance, Biden recently claimed that “the Second Amendment is not absolute.”
First, it is important to realize that the Constitution does not grant or confer “rights.” It protects the antecedent rights that individuals possess “by nature.” Those fundamental rights are enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Abraham Lincoln articulated the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution: the latter was, he wrote, a “frame of silver” around the former, “the apple of gold.” The frame of silver exists for the sake of the apple of gold.
Implicit in the right to life and liberty is the right of self-defense, both against others and a tyrannical government. The idea of an armed citizenry as a bulwark against tyranny and governmental oppression lies at the heart of the Second Amendment. America’s founders inherited the teachings of the 17th century “Commonwealthmen,” such as James Harrington, who wrote in opposition to Oliver Cromwell’s use of a standing army to abolish Parliament and rule as a dictator. They saw the same use of a standing army by royal governors to usurp the rights of colonists.
Many advocates of gun control argue that the wording of the amendment—“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”—means that only members of the National Guard, the successor to the founders’ militia, are to be armed. But this misconstrues what the founders meant by the term. For them, a militia, “a people numerous and armed,” constituted the ultimate guardian of liberty, the primary means of enabling citizens not only to protect themselves against their fellows but also to protect themselves from an oppressive government.
“The militia is our ultimate safety,” said Patrick Henry during the Virginia ratifying convention. “We can have no security without it. The great object is that every man be armed . . . .” Both the Pennsylvania and Vermont constitutions asserted that “the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state . . . .”
The Constitution represented a compromise between advocates of a standing army and the militia. Over time, the militia declined in importance, being supplanted by state volunteers from the Mexican War to World War I and eventually by a federalized National Guard, bearing little resemblance to the founders’ militia, except the claim to be “citizen soldiers.” Indeed, today the term “militia” is often used derisively as a group of potential insurrectionists and usually dismissed as “white supremacists.”
What can be done to prevent tragedies like Uvalde? Improve security at schools. Abolish the nonsensical idea of gun-free zones. Pay serious attention to potential shooters who telegraph their intentions. Focusing on guns is the worst sort of mental laziness. As the case of the aforementioned Winchester M-1907 suggests, access to powerful firearms does not explain the recent spate of mass shootings. When I was growing up, many high schools had shooting clubs. Teenagers carried rifles and shotguns in their cars and trucks. Other problems in American society, e.g. absent fathers, a disdain for masculine virtues, and social isolation, are more likely at fault.
The Second Amendment is not the culprit here. The founders understood the importance of an armed citizenry. History has shown us what happens when the country’s people are disarmed. Some may claim that our government poses no such threat to U.S. citizens, but recent events should have disabused us of that conceit. A free people must be ever vigilant against the usurpation of power and its abuse. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind those whom we are obliged to trust with power.” And an armed citizenry is the surest foundation of republican vigilance.
Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared originally at GoLocalProv in Providence, Rhode Island.