According to some, the primary purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that citizens have enough firepower to overthrow the federal government, should it become necessary to do so. If the government ever loses its fear of such a revolt, the theory goes, our liberty ends and tyranny begins.
Let me be blunt: That is mythological claptrap. But like a lot of mythological claptrap, it can push weak-minded people — the Timothy McVeighs of the world — to do stupid and dangerous things.
It is certainly true that when the Second Amendment was drafted back in the 18th century, it was plausible to believe that an armed citizenry could be a check on overweening government power. Back then, there wasn’t much difference in the weapons available to private citizens and the weapons available to the military. It could have been, and sometimes was, a more or less even fight.
Today, that is no longer the case, and it hasn’t been the case for a century or longer. Around the world, governments have access to a range of weaponry that private citizens have no hope of matching or withstanding. There is simply no comparison between the brute, deadly force that a government can wield and that wielded by private citizens, individually or collectively. Technology has rendered that aspect of the Second Amendment a dead letter.
If you want to rejuvate that aspect of the Second Amendment, you have to be willing to grant private citizens access to fully automatic weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, grenade launchers, etc. And it’s not going to happen.
That’s not just my opinion. It is also the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, as expressed by one of its most conservative members, Justice Antonin Scalia, in the most important Second Amendment opinion the court ever issued.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, issued in 2008, Scalia and the court made it clear for the first time that the Second Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.” But in that same opinion, Scalia brushed aside claims that the Second Amendment guarantees citizens the means to armed revolution. He concluded that technology has rendered that part of the amendment an archaic artifact, because “a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large” and that “no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks.”
For that reason, Scalia made it clear that the Second Amendment “does not protect those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes,” and that the government is fully within its rights to ban military-style weaponry.
In Iraq, for example, gun ownership is extremely widespread, with many if not most households owning fully automatic weapons that would be banned in this country. Yet Saddam Hussein had little trouble imposing and maintaining a brutal dictatorship in that country for decades. He did not confiscate guns, because he understood that such guns posed no real threat to his tyranny.
And as Joshua Keating notes at ForeignPolicy.com, look at Tunisia and Egypt, where private gun ownership is very low but citizens have nonetheless managed to overthrow brutal military dictatorships. If government now has a massive advantage in terms of brute force, innovations such as Twitter, Facebook, cellphones and satellite TV have more than offset it in the cause of freedom.
Guns don’t overthrow tyranny or guarantee liberty. People do.
– Jay Bookman