The Second Amendment: A Duty as Much as a Right

Fernando Betancor
Apr 13, 2017 · 13 min read

I just bought my son his first air rifle: a Gamo G-Force breech break rifle in .177 caliber (4.5mm) shooting a 12-gram steel ball or pellet at 360 feet per second — painful but not dangerous, unless you hit someone in the eye. The synthetic polymer stock and steel barrel weigh in at just over four pounds, and from butt plate to muzzle crown, the single-shot rifle is just over 37 inches long. It’s perfect for a young man or woman and will deliver many pleasurable hours shooting at targets, “plinking,” or convincing the neighborhood field rats that they are not welcome on our property. More important, it will teach my son the discipline of arms: safety first and always, the responsibility for maintenance and care of the equipment, accuracy and pride in accomplishment when hitting a difficult target, and respect for the weapon and its potential harm when carelessly or maliciously used.

In our country, the right to bear arms is enshrined in our Constitution: important enough that the framers of that document included it as the second of 10 amendments designed to preserve the liberties of our people and avoid the despotism of a tyrannical government. It was almost left out — not because the right was disputed, but because agreement was so general and complete that many of the Founding Fathers thought it unnecessary. After all, the necessity of arms had just been proven in the Revolutionary War, with simple farmers and townspeople taking up their weapons in defense of hearth, home, and freedom from oppressive old King George.

During the extended public debate over the proposed Constitution, both those for and against the new, more powerful federal government assumed that the public would be armed. The anti-Federalists especially feared the power to form a standing army granted the new government, like the hated redcoats sent over by the British Parliament. Patrick Henry, in typically dramatic Patrick Henry fashion, argued that freedom was won and would be maintained only by force of arms; that an armed citizenry was not only the necessary and proper shield against foreign invasion but also the indispensable guardian against domestic tyranny.

In answer to the anti-Federalist fears of a standing army and centralized government, the Federalists also turned to the existence of an armed citizenry. Alexander Hamilton countered:

“If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights and those of their fellow-citizens.”

Fellow Federalist James Madison agreed with Hamilton and assured the public that anti-Federalist fears of a central government tyranny were overblown: “The people need never fear the government because of the advantage of being armed.”

The right to bear arms was not an innovation of the Founding Fathers; it was one of the “traditional English liberties,” which they had started the Revolution to protect. The militia system had a long and robust history in English law and tradition dating back at least to the Plantagenet kings of the 12th century, who required:

“that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows…and so learn and practice archery.”

It was the property-owning English freeholder, the backbone of the medieval peasantry, whose brawny arm and skill with the longbow had won the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. It was they, as much as the barons, who had imposed Magna Carta upon a reluctant King John. And during the English Civil War, it was the armed farmers and villagers who formed the core of the Parliamentary army that went on to defeat the aristocratic cavaliers and cut off the head of King Charles Stuart.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were intimately familiar with the English Bill of Rights, secured by the victors of the civil war during the restoration of the Stuarts, which guarantees:

“No Royal interference in the freedom of the people to have arms for their own defence as suitable to their class and as allowed by law.”

The English Bill of Rights had enormous influence on the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The American version goes further, raising the bearing of arms to the level of a natural right. This was in keeping with the direct experience of colonial history in the English colonies, from the first settlements to the Revolution, which was one of an armed citizenry banding together to defend hearth and home against native attack and foreign invasion, sometimes both. No doubt the memory of the citizen militia of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill played a major role in shaping the minds of the delegates to the convention; so too did British attempts to disarm the citizenry to impose Parliament’s will by force.

Today, the right to bear arms is not as universally accepted as it once was. There are a number of reasons for this, which many authors have explored over the past four decades. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the Second Amendment as something irrelevant to our times. It is much more than a license for a few farmers or sportsman to go into the woods and shoot at wild animals every now and then; it goes beyond mere self-defense. Every right the citizen reserves has a countervailing duty as well, and the obligation to bear arms is at the heart of our republican form of government.

To understand why this is so, you first must comprehend that representative government, whether a republic or a democracy[1], is an innovation that conferred tremendous military advantage on the people who adopted it. Yes, democracy is primarily a military innovation[2]. That will sound grating to many ears, especially to those who believe armaments and militaries to be unsavory relics. But throughout all of human history, civilization has progressed as much by war as by peaceful cooperation and trade. In the ancient world — as well as the modern one — you did not need to hold a sword to die by one, and slavery or death was the all too common lot of those people who failed to adequately defend themselves. In an international landscape of brutal and unfettered competition between tribes, cities, and states, anything that conferred military advantage for offense or defense was highly desirable.

Representative government offered exactly that. In fact, it was so advantageous that throughout history are examples of republics routinely defeating[3] much larger and, at first blush, more powerful autocratic states: the allied Greek cities[4] defeating the vast Persian Empire; the Roman Republic defeating all comers to conquer the Mediterranean; the Venetian Republic defending itself from the Ottoman Empire; the Dutch Republic waging 70 years of revolution and war to defeat the Spanish Empire; the United Kingdom[5] conquering half the globe in the 18th century; the French Republic overcoming internal disorders and the enmity of all of Europe to defend the Revolution, and then to conquer most of the continent under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte; and, of course, the United States, the most powerful republic of them all.

What makes republicanism such a powerful military tool? Learned men from Aristotle to Madison have pointed out several factors:

  1. Representative government depends upon the rule of law more than any other system[6]. Autocratic states are ultimately legitimized banditry[7], which acts as a disincentive to production and investment. States with a strong rule of law[8] protect property rights and avoid arbitrary taxation and rent extraction, which encourages investment and productivity. Money has always been the sinew of war[9], so a more productive society starts with a material advantage in its war-making capability. Naval warfare is particularly expensive — anyone can deploy a mass of infantry — which is precisely why the most successful naval powers[10] have all had representative government: the Athenians, Romans[11], Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States.
  2. Representative governments are also more efficient at financing their military struggles. Because they enjoy greater legitimacy than autocrats, they are able to more effectively levy exactions on the population that would lead to revolts in other systems. The repeated bankruptcies of the House of Habsburg was a principal cause of imperial Spain’s defeat by the smaller Dutch Republic, which never suffered a cash shortage despite fighting the entire 70 years of war on its territory. The Venetian Republic was so proverbially efficient and financially stable that the ducat was the gold standard of currency for the entire Renaissance and much of the early Enlightenment. The English Civil War broke out over taxes[12], as did the French Revolution.
  3. Republics and democracies, based on a much broader franchise and participation in government than autocracies, are better able to mobilize and energize their populations for the defense of the state[13]. The Greeks and Romans were able to mobilize much more significant percentages of their populations than their imperial competitors and came closest to the concept of the “people in arms” in the ancient world. This is how the Greek city states were routinely able to beat the stuffing out of the Persian Empire after 479 B.C. despite the latter’s enormous advantage in size, population, and total wealth. The Roman Republic suffered catastrophic defeats against Hannibal for more than a decade during the Second Punic War but was able to reorganize army after citizen army to take the field and win eventual victory. The Dutch Republic defeated the might of the Spanish Empire and the feared tercios, having only a tenth of the population and resources of the latter. The French Revolution reintroduced the levee en masse to go from utter defeat to total victory on all fronts in the pre-Bonaparte wars. It took the entire might of all Europe’s great powers to defeat Republican France over 20 years of war.
  4. The rent extraction, suppression of revolts, and internal policing that are a common feature of autocracies are all expensive to install and maintain. They require substantial resources, which must be diverted from the common defense or expansion to internal security and repression. An army that is garrisoning major cities and towns to prevent revolt is not one that is easily deployed abroad or very efficient when it is deployed. Because of their greater legitimacy, representative governments can use their resources more efficiently and are able to face the prospects of sending most of their military on foreign adventures or reducing the size of the peacetime army without fear of the peasantry immediately taking up their pitchforks.

If the benefits of representative government are so self-evident and decisive, the obvious question is why haven’t there been more of them? Republics and democracies have been as rare as hippogriffs for most of human history; the five or six examples cited above pretty much exhaust the list until the late 18th century. The reason for this should also be obvious: In democracies and republics, the people have a greater share of power. It is an unfortunate reflection on human nature that the vast majority of elites in all times and all places have shown far less interest in pursuing the common interest than in maximizing their own power, influence, and wealth. “Commonwealth” is synonymous with “republic”[14], but elites have almost always shown that they would prefer to dispense with the “common” and keep all the wealth for themselves. For this reason, it has always taken an unusual set of circumstances to bring forth representative government and military necessity has often been one of those catalysts.

While representative government is unquestionably the most advantageous for the general public in securing their rights and wealth and the rewards of industry, it is also the most exacting and demanding in the imposition of obligations upon the whole body politic. In an autocratic state[15], the only obligation is obedience: All other civic duties are forbidden, since they lead to political power. For a representative government to function properly, the people must exercise their power and fulfill their duties.

Citizenship in a republican or democratic state is hard work. There is no room for apathy or disinterest — this leads to the rapid concentration of power in elite hands. There is no such thing as a republic with a mercenary army or with a dynastic political cadre. In ancient Athens, citizens were obligated by law to participate in government and fulfill their duties. Shirkers not only faced fines; they were also reviled and shamed by their peers.

Our republican form of government belongs to us, the citizens. Ultimately, it is ours to defend or to lose. National service — in all its forms — is not something to be avoided by running to Canada, nor can it be fulfilled by others so that we are not inconvenienced. Representative Steve King recently said to Europeans, “You can’t save your civilization with someone else’s babies.” But he should have reflected that Americans can’t save their republic if no one serves it. The congressman should perhaps be more concerned about the family dynasties that are increasingly prevalent in U.S. politics and business, or the fact that the vast majority of soldiers in our military are from a tiny percentage of underprivileged citizens and foreign immigrants: a situation many late-Empire Romans would have found surprisingly familiar.

So before you decide that the Second Amendment is an anachronism fit only for psychotics and hillbillies, you may want to reflect that the entire history of republican government rests on the willingness of an active citizenry, familiar with and having access to arms, defending their hard-won rights from all enemies, both foreign and domestic, who would strip them of those rights. You may want to reflect that the Founding Fathers might have thought about and debated the Constitution they were drafting a bit more than you have, and that it has survived for 230 years with only periodic updates to improve it. You may want to consider the wise words of former President Barack Obama: “Rights may be self-evident, but they have never been self-executing.” There is always someone, somewhere, who wants to take them away from you.

Sources and Notes

[1] We tend to use these terms interchangeably in our modern society, but they are not. There are no true democracies in the world today, only republics. In a republic, people vote for representatives, who vote in their name and interests (supposedly). In a democracy, like that of classical Athens, the people vote on all matters directly.

[2] Victor Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Why the West Has Won, Doubleday (2001).

[3] Not every republic has survived everywhere and forever. Size does matter, and God favors the bigger battalions. Other factors are also important and influenced local results.

[4] All of the principal Greek poleis of the classical period had representative governments, even the Spartans, with their dual monarchy. There was a wide variance in the degree of enfranchisement and citizen participation, to be sure, but none were patterned after the traditional Near Eastern autocratic state of the centralized palace-temple.

[5] The United Kingdom was not a republic, of course, but it wasn’t an absolute monarchy like its continental rivals, either. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British had a stable and limited constitutional monarchy, with a strong — and moderately representative — Parliament playing a decisive influence in government.

[6] Other forms of government can derive legitimacy from other sources, usually divine in origin. From the Chinese “mandate of Heaven,” to the theocratic states of the ancient Near East, to the “divine right of kings” in Western Europe starting with Charlemagne, all supreme autocrats claimed to derive their authority from a supernatural power, which is one of the only tried-and-true means of enforcing subordination on the mass of humanity at a low cost. Backstopping legitimacy is brute force, always the ultimo ratio regum.

[7] Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships, Basic Books (2000).

[8] The father of Athenian democracy, Cleithenes, called his 5th century BC reforms isonomia, rather than demokratia. The former means “equality before the law,” which is what the small-scale Greek farmers were demanding from the aristocratic horsemen who held sway at that time.

[9] Marcus Tullius Cicero, “The sinews of war are infinite money.”

[10] There are exceptions, like the empire of Japan, the great Ming Dynasty fleets of Zheng He, the Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to the Americas, the Ottoman fleet of Suleiman the Magnificent and Murad Reis Bey — but over the long term, republican fleets always defeated imperial fleets, even in cinema.

[11] The Romans are traditionally considered to be a land power, thanks to the reputation of the legions, but the republic built a mighty fleet from scratch during the Punic Wars to defeat Carthage and didn’t give up naval supremacy of the Mediterranean for another 600 years.

[12] The wider dispute was about who held power, the king or Parliament. But the specific nature of the dispute was the king wishing to levy taxes so he could establish a permanent army (to potentially subdue Parliament).

[13] Frederick the Great of Prussia famously said that the best wars were those the public never heard about, but this was an extreme example of the “cabinet wars” of the early 17th centuries, which were considered almost affaires d’honneur between ruling families rather than wars in the modern sense. Certainly no one would say that the Thirty Years’ War or any of the wars of religion lived up to this “ideal.”

[14] Republic is the English translation of the Latin “res publica,” which literally means “public affairs.”

[15] There is a range of autocracies, just as there is a range of democracies and republics. In some, all power accrues to a single person; in others, the “elite” — usually a professional civil service — is so broad as to compare with some republics of limited franchise.