Gun ownership and the second amendment have become rather hot-button issues, particularly in light of vicious, monstrous, and highly publicized shootings as well as the current Supreme Court case. The question looms large, tending to touch many a raw nerve: do individuals truly have the right to bear arms, and if so, should that right be limited or even revoked? Does the right to bear arms aid the nefarious, or protect the innocent? One influential thinker and founding father, Thomas Jefferson, gives us much to go on in our ponderings of second amendment rights, such as considerations of the collective versus the individual, natural law and natural rights. Jefferson's ethic consistently assumes that the primary duty of the government is to secure the natural rights of its citizens; though he warns that when left unchecked, any government would eventually try to force its will on its citizens regardless of their natural rights, and therefore supports the right to rebel when those rights are violated. Further, the Jeffersonian implication here seems to be that responsible citizens have the collective right and duty to fix a government that shows a pattern of despotism, by force if absolutely necessary. In a spirited letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson said, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms.”
Here is where firearms come into play. Jefferson logically concluded that if any government became truly totalitarian, in other words possessed too much power, then the citizens under that government would have absolutely no chance to defend themselves or to reinstate the republic if they had been previously and strategically disarmed. It is for these reasons primarily that I will argue that in the second amendment, Thomas Jefferson clearly intended to preserve the individual’s right to bear arms.
The second amendment to the Constitution states “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.” Some argue that this amendment addresses a collective right to bear arms only as part of a “well regulated Militia”. Given the context, this is a false assumption. Jefferson actually stated in a notation to the Virginia Constitution “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms (within his own lands or tenements).” Jefferson did not state that “no freeman shall be debarred the use of arms within a militia”. Rather, individual rights were assumed.
During America’s infancy, a commonly held definition of militia was a group of able-bodied private citizens who differed in vocation from a professional soldier. Without the participating individuals, there is no militia. At the time, any use of the word “militia” assumed the recognition of individual, private entities within it. Furthermore, if the national government or other governing body removes direct access to and only dispenses arms as needed to a militia, then the very definition of militia has been changed to that of a military.
Jefferson’s vision to empower the citizens to protect their country from a totalitarian regime also extends to protection from each other. Some lament the very creation and existence of guns due to violence that has occurred when they have fallen into the hands of the mentally or emotionally disturbed. However, the fact remains that firearms were created, and most of the founding fathers in addition to Jefferson recognized that the most effective way to control “bad people” with guns is to also allow “good people” likewise to have guns. One may wonder if during tragic campus shootings, how many lives might have been saved if a well trained concealed-carry permit holder was in the area. However, interlocutors must understand that this in no way justifies a hyperactive, paranoid trigger-finger. After all, Jefferson said in a 1796 letter to George Washington, “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”
According to many who advocate restrictive gun-control laws, enacting such control will theoretically prevent people who wish to harm others from gaining access to firearms. History has shown this to be naïve, revealing that malicious individuals will seek out various other ways to harm victims or will illegally come by firearms regardless. It is also worth considering that in crimes involving guns, the offender commonly is already in possession of the gun illegally. If citizens are revoked of their right to bear arms, it will only limit gun access to those who fully intend to abide by the law. Those who attained guns illegally before the hypothetical law change will simply continue their insidious activities. Their actions cannot become more illegal. Therefore, we as a society must ask ourselves, who are we truly hurting through such proposed laws and revisions?
Keeping in harmony with Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin made this wise comment in 1759: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”