The renewed debate over gun rights that has followed the massacre of elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., has included scrutiny over why gun advocates believe they need a right to bear arms. Among the reasons: Many advocates believe that individual gun ownership helps preserve American liberty, making government fearful of trampling on rights of its citizens. If government goes too far, the argument goes, Americans have the right to revolt by force.
Is that argument correct? Or does it belong to fringe gun enthusiasts?
Does the Second Amendment guarantee a right to armed rebellion? Who cares? We Americans are heirs to revolutionaries, men who pledged their fortunes and their honors to each other to break away from a repressive empire and start a new country — one whose rhetoric of freedom and liberty that has required most of the last two centuries to come to fruition in the lives of most of our fellow citizens.
But even in the midst of revolution, the Founders were also cautious.
In the Declaration of Independence, they asserted the right to “alter or abolish” governments in favor of new forms more likely to serve the happiness of the people. Such moments, they warned, are exceedingly rare.
“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration.
If the Second Amendment is a right to armed rebellion, then, it would seem to be a right the Founders intended almost never be exercised.
And indeed, it’s been 150 years since the last major rebellion against this country’s government.
In 2010, there was no revolution in America. But nearly 20,000 people committed suicide by gun. Another 11,000 were murdered using firearms.
And in 2012, of course, 20 children lost their lives at Newtown.
Guns are uniquely efficient killing machines. That’s why their advocates like them, and critics wish they would go away. There are other, better arguments for gun ownership. The right of rebellion, though, isn’t actually one of them. It’s abstract and meaningless next to the real sufferings that many people endure, the pool of blood shed by innocent children.
The Founders never intended the right of rebellion be exercised that often. Does anybody really think they would want to sacrifice entire generations of Americans just to preserve that ill-defined, never-used right? Seems doubtful.
Joel Mathis, email@example.com, is a writer in Philadelphia.