by Justin Hinckley, LPNC Second Amendment Issues Coordinator
Very often in debates and discussions around gun laws the focus is the text, relevance, and meaning of the 2nd Amendment. I generally find them fruitless with those ignorant of the history of the Constitution. That said, I recently had the opportunity to read a Salon article suggesting a revision to the 2nd Amendment [editor's note: we are not linking to the article here, as we don't want to give it any extra publicity, but it is called "The Second Amendment is a ludicrous historical antique: Time for it to go" by Kurt Swearingen].
In a later article I will discuss the suggested revision, as it is illustrative of a person who neither understands the purpose of the Bill of Rights generally nor the 2nd Amendment specifically. Today, we'll go over the *controversial* idea that the 2nd Amendment exists to protect a free people against the intrusions of a tyrannical government. In the interest of brevity, and the fact that I'm largely speaking to Libertarians here, we will not discuss much of the ideological and philosophical origins of the 2nd Amendment. I want to focus on the practicality of such an injunction. Is it practical to protect the right to arms of a people so they may retain the ability to resist tyranny? Put another way, a common refrain used by anti-gun people, from President Biden on down to your average Salon writer, is some version of "Your AR-15s are useless against nuclear weapons, F-15s, and tanks." This statement varies in its forms, but we have heard President Biden and almost every other major anti-gun commentator or politician say it.
Thinking in this manner shows a general lack of understanding of the fluidity of revolution, rebellion, and civil war, aside from a general dismissal of the complexity of war per se. One need only look at the closest analogue we in the US have as to the feasibility of widespread armed rebellion in our country. That of course is our last major armed rebellion, during which the rebels formed armies, navies, military installations, and a functioning government: the US Civil War. The Confederates acquired heavy arms in a manner repeated throughout history in uprisings: acquisition through seizure. Those who fought on the side of the Confederacy actually did this generally without the active use of weapons, as entire divisions, installations, and armies defected to join their respective states in rebellion. Some did so out of ideological support for the Confederates, some refused to turn against their respective state, still others who did so had many other reasons, I'm sure.
The reasons are not entirely material, as the point of studying our Civil War is to establish that rebellions can succeed, generally. Rifles help them get there as the ability to seize an armory or installation is much more in question when the people doing so are unarmed. What is not clear is, should there be a new revolution or rebellion, what reason is there to think this would not occur again? If anything, I think we could expect more upheaval in the military because of the political polarization we currently experience as a nation. This suggests the possibility of widespread small-scale defections with equipment, sabotage, or espionage. No matter who the rebels may be in another major American upheaval, it is reasonable to think the military would have sympathizers of the rebels in their ranks and would seek to influence the outcome.
Looking beyond the only real "American versus American" government example, there are many analogues in which we learn that military conflict is dynamic, but arms are always one of the greatest considerations. It is a common saying in insurgencies that the purpose of a pistol is to get a rifle. In the same way it could be said the purpose of a rifle is to acquire heavy weapons: Rifles, pistols, and machine guns serve to obtain aircraft, armor, and artillery. The storming of the Bastille occurred, in part, due to the cannons and powder inside. The Shot Heard Round the World occurred because of an attempted seizure of Colonial militia armories at Lexington and Concord. Their own weapons were what the Colonials used to resist the seizures. During the Winter War, Finns acquired Russian machine guns, artillery, anti-armor, and more via ambush with bolt action Mosin Nagants and ski-mounted infantry. Jews in the Polish Warsaw Ghetto resisted Nazi extermination with what few arms they had, the level of resistance almost certainly influenced by the arms available to the ghetto resistance.
Then we can look at the history of guerrilla warfare. Decentralized units focusing on hasty ambushes, supply line disruption, and logistics hub destruction to demoralize and weaken an enemy is a staple of insurgents and guerrillas alike. Often these fighters are lightly armed, primarily using assault rifles and light machine guns. We have seen this done in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Algeria, Thailand, the Philippines, and on and on throughout the 20th Century. History is replete with examples of resistance done with lightly armed or lesser armed fighters. The lesser armed fighters inevitably spend great time and effort to acquire more arms. Thus, the idea that an already armed populace cannot provide resistance is observably false. Certainly, a populace armed with tanks, warships, and fighter aircraft in their backyard warehouses could put up a significantly greater resistance than one armed ubiquitously with pistols and rifles. This is an argument to restrict fewer arms, not greater arms. Nonetheless, the key point is that they, for one reason or another, all had arms. The specifics of which arms or how they acquired them is not relevant to my point. Arms enable resistance.
We now come to perhaps the most critical portion of this discussion: I do not discuss this topic with flippancy or lightheartedness. The idea of employing the cartridge box to protect our liberty is one I do not take lightly. And while I agree our country has many problems and is far down the rabbit hole of governmental malfeasance, I do not think we are close to needing to break out the final and most catastrophic of the boxes we employ to protect Liberty. I am not one who has a definitive line in the sand which, if crossed, would call for people to break out the guns and overtake the closest military armory. I do not know what would cause me to consider arms as a political solution, but I can assure you it would be a bleak day preceded by many, many bleak days beforehand.
While the 2nd Amendment exists ultimately to protect us from systems that permit things like the Soviet Union's Gulag, Hitler's Holocaust, Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Stalin's Red Terror and Holodomore, it can be difficult to know, without hindsight, just how precarious a position we are in at any given moment. And perhaps our most important tool in preventing such instances is to remain vigilant to the historical and potential future predations of government, and use our first three boxes to stop such intrusions: the soap, judicial, and ballot boxes. If all else fails, as long as the option of arms remains available to us, the need to employ them actively may never arise. The 2nd amendment seems a bit of a self-preventing prophecy in that way. As long as we have the ability to resist, we may never need to employ such abilities. If we remove the ability to resist, it seems almost inevitable that eventually we will need to resist. For that reason, let us not suggest ill-conceived revisions. Let us not enable or encourage the banning of arms, the registering of those who have arms, or the prevention of carrying said arms. Let us continue to protect the texts which protect us, so that we may never have to use the most extreme measures to we have to employ.