I'm Not So Sure About the Second Amendment Anymore

My life has been defined by bullets in more ways than I care to contemplate.  I grew up in the post-Columbine United States and watched the news as solemn anchors reported gun massacres on countless occasions – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, UC Santa Barbara, a school in Oregon I can’t quite recall in detail, a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Parkland.

I’ve always had something of a libertarian streak and been sympathetic to those who value the Second Amendment, but I’m also skeptical of any argument that treats the Constitution as infallible in lieu of considering why the rights and processes it enumerates are important on their own.  Even in the darkest of days-after, however, those two impulses have managed to avoid colliding.  I want reasonable regulations on what guns are available and to whom, but always appreciate the value of the Second Amendment.

I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.  My appreciation for the Second Amendment has eroded, one falling body at a time.  It’s time to ask hard questions about why we cling to it so tightly in the first place.  The two reasons I hear most often – and the two I think of myself – are that the right to keep and bear arms is an extension of other property rights and a means of resisting a tyrannical government.  Defense of property, however, requires only a small fraction of the firepower we cling to in the name of the Second Amendment so it’s the latter that interests me most.

In his 1945 essay “The Atomic Bomb and You,” George Orwell wrote that “a complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak.”  Implicit in that sentence is an eloquent theoretical defense of the right to keep and bear arms.  The democratization of force is what keeps tyranny at bay.

According to Orwell, however, the role of weapons in his world was not so simple.  He stated further that “tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, longbows and hand grenades are inherently democratic weapons.”  To Orwell, the atomic bomb was the pinnacle of a trend toward ever more complex and expensive weaponry that completely precluded any threat of real insurrection or challenge.  A few governments had so much force at their disposal that smaller states or a rebellious citizenry had little hope of breaking their power.

In that light, it’s unclear what hope an armed citizenry has of toppling or coercing a potentially tyrannical United States.  Even with our country’s extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment, any rebellion persists only insofar as the government lacks the will to extinguish it.  An armed insurrection survives only so long as the government stops short of utterly annihilating it.  The Second Amendment only protects against a democratic government that is at least somewhat committed to not killing its own citizens with impunity (against the hypothetical American tyranny with its 700 billion dollar defense budget, perhaps not). Sometimes, however, the purpose of the armed citizenry is only to test that commitment, not to resist a nihilistic repression.  But the Second Amendment may not even be an effective way of doing that.

In their book Why Civil Resistance Works, social scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan argue that non-violent resistance is more effective than violent resistance in almost every situation.  Moreover, they argue that violent insurgency of any sort against any government decreases the likelihood that the government that emerges will be democratic.  Chenoweth and Stephan state that governments fighting a violent resistance are more likely to “circumvent civil liberties and repress the campaign violently” and restrict electoral politics in its aftermath.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the sort of resistance for which the Second Amendment provides is ineffective and more likely a threat to our other liberties than to any potential tyrannical government.  Why, then, do we cling to it if our love of liberty outweighs our infatuation with force?  

But I digress.

Abstractions aside, I’m fairly certain that I occupy the mainstream on this particular issue.  I’m not a gun person, but even gun owners seem to share this pragmatic space.  I’ve never been a Second Amendment purist and our national obsession with firepower disgusts me, but I understand the importance of the Second Amendment.  Ideally, I would like to see it preserved in a way that allows people the right to protect their property and safeguard their families and homes.  This, however, marks the first time I’ve ever set out to theoretically consider whether the right in and of itself is worth the cost.  I doubt I’m the only one, and I'm not sure where the exercise leaves me.  I wonder who counts that among their victories.