Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Jeffersonian Firearm Consideration

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.”


Justin Geis said...


This is a very well reasoned support of the second amendment. Unfortunately, all to often thoughts like this are overshadowed by the "Guns are scary" crowd.

Good job :-)

Sarah Scott said...

Why thank you my gun-savvy future husband.

For any who read this and think I just undermined Justin's non-biased credibility by exposing him as my fiance, trust me when I say he absolutely will *firmly* disagree with me if he thinks I am mistaken.

Vertigo said...


I usually agree with your posts, but I have some reservations about this one.

Here are my thoughts...

1. Are there not parallels between your argument that "bad people will get guns anyways, so we might as well legalize them", and the argument that "people will get abortions anyways, so we might as well keep abortion legal" or "people are going to smoke pot anyways so we might as well legalize it"?

2. Your view seems to imply that if more people have guns, then we will be safer. Is the safest society the one where everybody has a gun? That seems counter-intuitive. What actually happens is that when a gun is introduced into an altercation, the violence escalates rather than the opposite.

The view from north of 49 is a little different.

Sarah Scott said...

Hi Vertigo,

Thanks for commenting and voicing your concerns-- I appreciate them! :)

On your first question,
I believe the reason why these are false analogies is because on both accounts, there is danger in *all* uses of the two examples. Every time, there is damage done. Abortion is murder every time, and there have been brain scans showing damage from just one use of marijuana. However, the mere posession of firearms, and even the responsible shooting of such firearms (such as at a controlled shooting range) does not mean that violence or harm will necessarily follow. In fact, most gun afficionados seem to be some of the safest and least violent people I've been around personally (though I'm aware that this is testimony, not argument).

On your second question,
I offer a scenario: Imagine that you were a criminal (no matter how far from the truth that may be!) and trying to decide which house to break into. One house had a sticker on the window that said "Member of the National Rifle Association" and the other house had nothing. Which one would be the likely target? A leading crime deterrent is if the criminal is uncertain if there may be guns in the targeted home.

Justin Geis said...


Good questions, but I believe that the analogies of the abortion and marijuana usage are flawed in this case. For them to truly be the same as Sarah's statement, they would have to run more along the lines of "People use scissors to perform abortions, so we should ban scissors." In the case of the marijuana usage, the correct analogy would be "People use pipes to smoke marijuana, therefore we should ban all pipes." This is what is being done with gun control. People say that "Violent crime is being commited with firearms. Therefore, if we ban firearms, the crimes will stop." Reasoning like this is incorrect because crime is already illegal. Adding laws banning firearms will not be a deterrent to criminals because they are already breaking the law with their criminal activity.

As to your second question, while it may seem counter-intuitive to believe that firearms ownership reduces crime, I can assure you that in reality it does. Statistically, every time an area bans firearms, crime rates shoot up. Take England, for example. They enacted an outright ban on firearms ownership. Since their ban was enacted in 1997, their violent crime rate skyrocked. The same was true for Washington DC, which enacted a similar ban on handguns. From 1976, when the DC ban was enacted, until 1996, Washington DC's murder rate rose 134% while the national average fell 2%.

Finally, I will have to disagree with you about violence escalating when guns are introduced into altercations. I would argue that this would be a deterrent against escalation. Would you be more likely to escalate a situation when you know the other person might be armed? I believe the author Robert Heinlein said it best when he said, "An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life."

Vertigo said...

Justin and Sarah, thanks for your thoughts.

I have always been a little mystified at how many USAmericans think about gun ownership. I have never been able to wrap my brain around the idea of the, presumably natural, right to bear arms.

This has been instructive.