As I have written before, I tire of defending the Second Amendment from people who don’t understand it, who have never undertaken to understand it, and who are in fact determined to never learn anything at all about it. It is an intellectually exhausting and thankless undertaking. A fellow gun rights enthusiast once told me that I should ignore the historically illiterate ramblings of these people, and I’d surely love to do that, but then again that feels like a singularly risky way to approach the whole thing. One doesn’t ignore a termite infestation or a nest of rats in one’s crawlspace, after all—such problems only have a tendency to multiply into bigger problems, until your whole house falls down or else is condemned by irritated municipal employees. Or uh, your guns get taken away. You know what I mean.
At Penn Live, writer Nick Field demonstrates the popular and pervasive ahistorical interpretation of the Second Amendment. Field’s opinion is not irrelevant or unfashionable: it is held by many influential and famous people, even Hillary Clinton, who very nearly became president of these United States. It is tough to ignore a political position when it comes very close to sitting in the Oval Office. As Field writes:
“A well regulated Militia,” [the amendment] reads “being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The qualifier in the beginning is vitally important because it is not present in any other Amendment. Thus it is clear that right “to keep and bear Arms” is not an individual right, but one dependent on service in a state sanctioned body.
This might make sense—if you understand nothing of either the history or the structure of the Constitution and its amendments. The history on the matter is expansive and interesting, and beyond the scope of this brief blog post. But the structure of the Constitution is relatively simple and easy to explain, and counts as a clean and easy rebuke of this flatly incorrect act of shoddy constitutional exegesis. Puzzle this out: the Constitution grants the Congress of the United States near-total control over the state militias—what the kids these days call “plenary power.” The only powers that are left to the states are a few administrative and technical issues: the appointment of militia officers and the training of the militia (the lattermost of which is “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress,” so it’s more like a menial secretarial authority!). Congress, on the other hand, has “the power…To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States.” That’s plenary; it’s essentially absolute, and has been for over two hundred years, and no serious person has ever suggested otherwise.
Puzzle it out. Take your time: if indeed the Second Amendment stipulates a right “dependent on service in a state sanctioned body,” what would that mean? It would mean two things that are at once entirely contradictory: that (a) citizens have a right to “keep and bear arms” in a state militia, and (b) the United States government has a right to exclude those very same citizens from that state militia. This makes no sense—in fact it makes less than no sense, it is rather proactively anti-sensical. Think about it: how can one exercise a “right” if that right exists at the whole and entire sufferance of the whims of government agents? What is a “right” if you can be denied it for any reason whatsoever? Imagine if the Constitution permitted Congress to “provide for organizing, executing and censoring free speech in the United States.” Could we honestly say that the First Amendment would mean anything in such a context? Of course not. So it is with the Second Amendment, which cannot exist for the reason that people like Nick Field says it exists without changing the Constitution itself into an idiot pretzel document that turns on itself and eats itself.
Some things are opinions. Other things are facts. This is one of the latter: the Second Amendment confers an individual right to firearm ownership unconnected to service in a state militia. To believe otherwise—to believe as Nick Field and Hillary Clinton and many other people do—is to embrace a kind of Mad Hatter ethic, a Möbius strip of pure and undiluted illogic. It makes no sense at all. And yet it persists and, if unchecked, will likely continue to grow. So I think it is necessary to push back against this illiteracy wherever I find it—and you should, too.