by Larry Elder
A prominent 20th-century Democrat made the following statement about the purpose of the Second Amendment: "Certainly one of the chief guarantees of freedom under any government, no matter how popular and respected, is the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. … The right of citizens to bear arms is just one guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard, against the tyranny which now appears remote in America but which historically has proven to be always possible."
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down the 1976 Washington, DC, ban on handguns. The court ruled that the Founding Fathers wanted the Second Amendment to allow individuals the right to keep and bear arms. The minority disagreed, arguing that the right only extends to those belonging to a state "militia," such as the National Guard.
The Second Amendment reads as follows: "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." What did the Framers mean?
Is "Militia" -- as the Framers intended -- an arm of government? Or did the Framers define militia as something completely different -- a group of armed citizens with a right to "keep and bear Arms" to guard against unjust or tyrannical government power.
The Founding Fathers assumed that any government, including the one they established, could grow into a monster. They argued that only "the people" with a right "to keep and bear arms" could prevent such a tyranny.
James Madison, the "father of the Constitution," stated that tyrants were "afraid to trust the people with arms," and lauded "the advantage of being armed, which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: "What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms."
George Mason said, "To disarm the people -- that was the best and most effectual way to enslave them."
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said: "What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. … Whenever governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins."
Noah Webster, the prominent political essayist who fought in the Revolutionary War, wrote: "Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive."
Samuel Adams likened the Second Amendment to the First: "That the said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms."
Dictators throughout history sought to disarm their citizenries in order to impose power:
Vladimir Lenin said, "One man with a gun can control 100 without one."
Mao Zedong said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
Josef Stalin said: "We don't let them have ideas. Why would we let them have guns?"
Adolf Hitler said: "The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by doing so."
Thomas Paine, in 1775, spoke about another kind of "tyranny." Bans and restrictions on firearms affect the law-abiding citizenry, shifting power to the non-law-abiding. Criminals ignore laws. That's why we call them criminals. Paine said: "The peaceable part of mankind will be continually overrun by the vile and abandoned while they neglect the means of self-defense. … (Weakness) allures the ruffian (but) arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe and preserve order in the world. … Horrid mischief would ensue were (the good) deprived of the use of them. … The weak will become a prey to the strong."
Oh, the prominent Democrat quoted in the first paragraph? It was said Oct. 22, 1959, by future senator and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. How times -- and much of the Democratic Party -- have changed.
- Mr. Elder is an attorney, syndicated columnist, syndicated radio talk-show host and author of Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies, and the Special Interests That Divide America. (St. Martin's Press, 2002)