"The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against a tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible."
Hubert H. Humphrey
It is increasingly claimed by those opposed to private ownership of firearms that the right to bear arms is not a right of the people. They claim that only the militia has the right to bear arms, and that the militia is now the part time soldiers of each state's National Guard. The current politically correct interpretation of the phrase "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state," has drifted a long way from the intent of the original authors.
Those who insisted the phrase be included in the Bill of Rights had a well founded fear of standing armies. They knew how often standing armies, established in the name of defending against external enemies, had instead used the power with which they had been entrusted to enslave the very peoples they had pledged to protect. Those men of wisdom also recognized how the power of tyrants almost always required control over a standing army capable of imposing the tyrant's will on an unwilling populace. The Continental Congress had no intention of allowing the liberty they sought for Americans to be easily usurped - and they were also determined not to create the means for a tyrant to seize the reins of power from the people.
Modern politically correct accounts of the Revolutionary War paint a portrait of a mean spirited Congress that callously caused cruel hardships on General Washington's troops by refusing to properly support the Continental Army in the field. Popular history recounts Washington's many appeals to Congress for more money and equipment, but we're never told why Congress was so reluctant to supply Washington's needs. It's implied that the war could have been won in a shorter time and with far less trauma if Congress had just adequately funded the army.
One can hardly claim that the members of the Continental Congress had any less interest in winning the war than their soldiers in the field. After all, by becoming members of Congress the delegates had all signed their own death warrants and fully expected to be executed as rebels if the war was lost. Some of them were hanged by the British before the war was over.
Nor could it be said that supporting the Continental Army was a significant stress on the colonial economy. By the standards of modern total war where privation and suffering by the civilian population have become a standard strategic weapon, and it's taken for granted that the bulk of the nation's productivity will be redirected toward supporting the war effort, the colonies made only minimal concessions to supporting the army fighting for their freedom. To the contrary, while the war caused localized disruptions where fighting took place or where personal property could be easily seized or despoiled by the opposing armies, for the bulk of the economy it was little more than an inconvenience.
Why wasn't the civilian government willing to properly fund the army? Contrary to the politically correct version, it wasn't because of inability, accident, short sighted greed, or incompetence that Washington's troops were only supplied with the bare minimum needed to simply survive and never enough to become a "proper" fighting force. Congress intentionally restricted the resources of the Continental Army as a means of protecting itself and the principles for which the revolution was being fought from the Continental Army. They had no desire to create an American Caesar who, having triumphed over external enemies, would then use the army to seize power from his former masters.
The members of Congress had good reason to fear their own army only a little less than they feared the British. True to form, at the close of the war against the British, the officer corps of the Continental Army did attempt to betray the principles they had sworn to defend when they plotted to install Washington as monarch.
The moment when Washington refused the crown offered by the officer corps is possibly the single most critical moment in our nation's history. Every other revolution before and since has inevitably faced just such a moment of truth, and in every other case freedom and liberty have been betrayed. But Washington was a truly great man capable of vision far beyond his own personal interests.
In stark contrast to the lesser individuals who made up the officer corps, Washington truly believed in the principles he professed, and understood that those principles were far more important than the short sighted self-interest that so dominated the rest of the officer corps. Freedom survived the attempted treason of the officer corps only because Washington did what was unthinkable to the rest of the army leadership - he refused to betray his principles for personal gain.
Popular history continues to admit that Washington turned down the crown, but focuses entirely on the significance of Washington's actions and the personal integrity he demonstrated in refusing this great honor. Little attention is given to the hard fact that in spite of every effort by the Continental Congress, even the patriots who had gone to war to defend freedom and liberty were unable to resist the temptations of power.
While the attempted treason of the Colonial Army officer corps gets little attention from modern promilitary revisionists, it didn't go entirely unnoticed when it came time to write the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The attempted betrayal of the officer corps had confirmed the view that maintaining a standing army was too dangerous for a free nation to risk. The only military force that would not turn on the citizenry was one composed of the citizens themselves - a citizen militia.
The idea of a citizen militia was hardly a new concept in 1776. The early Romans believed that only those with a vested interest could be relied on to defend the loose coalition of Roman states. Serving in the militia was considered an honor and only landowners were allowed to participate in the citizen militia that provided for the common defense. Landless men and slaves were not considered to have sufficient motivation when defending land they didn't own to be reliable on the battlefield.
As long as defending the nation was a part time local distraction, it was possible for landowners to be both members of the citizen militia and continue to run their farms. However, the idea of the citizen militia had to be abandoned when the Romans switched from defending their own land to aggressive conquest of their neighbors. With the legions fighting in far flung provinces it was hardly possible for citizen soldiers to return home often enough to maintain their farms. The Romans also discovered that while landowners were highly motivated to defend their own property, they were far less motivated to conquer someone else's land. After all, those who had already established a working farm in one place were hardly interested in risking their lives to acquire additional acreage too far away from their current lands to be useful.
In order to change from a defensive force into the empire building Roman Legions that conquered the known world and periodically turned on Rome itself, the early Roman citizen militia had to become a full time paid professional army - a standing army. From that point on the Roman standing army became an ongoing danger to everyone both inside and outside of the empire. The Roman Emperors, most having gained their thrones by using the army to overthrow their predecessors, tried to retain their power by keeping the army busy building roads and walls far away from the capital when not engaged in fighting the empire's many well deserved enemies. But history indicates this ploy was not always successful. Nor was this a viable solution for the American colonies. The American frontier at the time of the Revolution was far too close to the capital to provide any protection from a general with ambitions.
During the Revolutionary War, the well practiced accuracy of independent frontiersmen had exacted a heavy toll on British regulars both formed up on the battlefield and traveling the roads. Hit and run attacks by irregulars firing from cover and then slipping away decimated British units trying to return to their bases after easily defeating the regulars of the Continental Army in traditional set piece battles. The standing army had been defeated in nearly every battle it fought, while the armed citizens who continually harassed the redcoats had bled the British until they reconsidered their priorities.
The British empire was not defeated by the tiny colonial standing army, but rather decided that with all of their other concerns around the world, subduing the armed and determined populace of the American colonies was simply not worth the cost. To this end it could be argued that the citizen militia had been as effective in defending the freedom of the citizens as the standing army.
Creating a standing army had been necessary if only as a measure of credibility in the minds of America's tradition bound European allies. But even there the existence of a citizenry already proficient in the use of arms made it possible to quickly raise the needed standing army in relatively short order.
The standing army, represented by the traitorous officer corps, had demonstrated that it remained a danger to the liberty of the citizens and their elected representatives after the war. The citizen army, represented by all the citizen soldiers who left their shops and farms to rally to the defense of the nation, and having done the job were anxious to get home and return to their former lives, were the real defenders of liberty and the only ones who could be trusted with real power.
The original intention of the Founding Fathers was that America would not risk maintaining a traditional standing army. The new American nation was to be founded on the high principles of freedom, liberty, and respect for life and property. As such the only concern was to defend the nation, not establish the means to conquer America's neighbors. When a need to defend the new nation arose, they would do as they'd done to fight the British - rely on a well armed citizenry motivated by enlightened self-interest to defend their own lives and property.
An armed citizenry also provided another perhaps even more critical protection for a free nation. The citizens of Europe had long suffered the abuse of tyrants because they lacked the means to defend themselves and their loved ones from the king's men. Previous attempts to create free societies had been overthrown when the free citizens were unable to defend their freedom. An armed citizenry, proficient in the use of their arms and practiced at cooperating with their neighbors in common defense, was the best protection freedom could possibly have against enemies both inside and outside of the nation.
The established methods of war at the time of the drafting of the Constitution required both skill in the use of weapons as well as the ability to work together as organized groups. Maintaining the ability to use their weapons and maneuver as disciplined fighting units required regular practice. A "well regulated" militia unit was one that possessed the skills and discipline required to execute the standard military maneuvers considered necessary on battlefield of the day.
To ensure that the citizenry would always be ready and able to defend themselves and their nation, the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights. Membership in the militia was specifically addressed in US Code, Title 10, Section 311, which reads: "Every American male between the ages of 17 and 45 is a member of the national militia."
Unfortunately, the nature of war and the needs of the nation changed from the days when the citizen militia was first established in our founding documents. It took time to raise and organize the militia, and the nation needed at least a token full time fighting force that could respond immediately to chronic threats like pirates and bandits. However, even as late as the war of 1812, the Congress remained sufficiently paranoid of military authority that they refused to allow any ranks above captain in the fledgling navy.
Over the years militarists have succeeded in incrementally expanding the standing army as generations passed and the wisdom of the founders faded. Both the central government and the states established their own standing armies. And as the federal army and state national guards expanded, the rich and comfortable citizens of the most free nation in the world found they had better things to do than spend their time practicing with their arms and drilling on the town square. Those desiring to avoid their duty to appear for militia practice were more than willing to relinquish the task of defending the nation to the standing army.
Even after the establishment of the permanent standing army, the force levels were kept to a minimum during peace time. This resulted in America being largely unprepared for its entry into both world wars. The available lead time coupled with the protection of being on the other side of an ocean from the main areas of fighting allowed American industry to gear up for war production over months and even years. There was even time to develop new technologies that had not even been the figment of someone's imagination before the war into mature weapons systems.
During the Cold War the nature of modern warfare continued to narrow the available response time while modern technology largely eliminated the protection of distance, increasing the need for military preparedness. While we did manage to avoid the insanity of yet another global conflict, our always ready to fight military did find justifications for their readiness in various places around the world. There is an ongoing controversy over whether our various military interventions since the second world war were valid responses to real needs, or simply the result of an idle standing army looking for something to do.
The ancient Romans understood that an idle standing army too often turned on its leaders, and so kept their legions busy fighting makework wars or building massive construction projects. Some say it is only coincidence while others dismiss it as a sign of the times that since abandoning conscription - the last vestige of being an army of citizen soldiers - and becoming a full time professional standing army, America's military has had very little idle time. Some say it is also only a coincidence that as the government has increased the power of its standing army, it has also become increasingly intrusive in its efforts to monitor and control the citizenry.
There is a pervasive illusion that just as the nature of our artificially created social environment has changed, so too have the basic natures of people and the organizations they form. Many of us want very much to believe that there are fundamental differences between the human beings who were attracted to become Centurions in the Roman legions, and those attracted to life in America's modern professional army. We especially want to believe that the American standing army could never do to us what the Roman legions repeatedly did to the Romans.
Unfortunately, evolution is a rather slow process from the perspective of human events. Far too little time has transpired since the days of the Roman Empire for any meaningful change to have occurred in human nature. While our technology has advanced significantly, we as human beings are only as different from the Romans as we intellectually make ourselves. Given the same perspectives, opportunities, and motivations, we would all respond exactly the same as any humans at any time in the brief span of recorded history.
Military interference with civilian government is hardly an obsolete concern. Military coups have overthrown democratically elected governments on every continent, and within the memory of anyone alive today who bothered to notice. In many countries where the standing army doesn't flaunt its political power, the military continues to pull the strings of puppet civilian officials. But these embarrassments have received little attention in the popular media and public education, creating a complacent citizenry unaware of just how rare and fragile the freedoms they take for granted are from a historical perspective. We're told instead that the American standing army is somehow different from every other standing army down through history, and couldn't possibly pose a threat to our constitutionally limited form of government or our liberty as citizens.
The public's complacency was temporarily disturbed when the standing army used military weapons intended for the defense of the nation to gun down strikers in labor disputes and unarmed students at Kent State. But for most the shock wore off far too easily and complacency returned. Some citizens were further alarmed when paramilitary government agents borrowed M60 main battle tanks and armored personal carriers from the standing army, and used them to massacre innocent men, women and children at Waco. But again the complacency returned all too easily.
Our complacency was fed and encouraged by the spin-doctors who twisted the news until they'd turned reality on its head. Compounding the original insults to reason, they portrayed the real murderers as victims while smearing their martyred victims as villains responsible for their own deaths. Worst of all, each time the standing army was used to attack armed citizens, the authoritarians attempted to twist the issue into yet another "proof" of why all power must be concentrated in the standing army.
Preserving the ability of the citizenry to resist the misuse of the military was always a primary concern of the Founding Fathers. The right of citizens to bear arms as guaranteed in the Second Amendment has become even more important with the establishment of exactly the sort of full time professional standing army the Founding Fathers most feared. But just when preserving the balance of power between the citizens and the increasing power of their government is most critically important, there are efforts to eliminate the rights of citizens to defend their lives, property, and liberty.
Disingenuously claiming emotionally manipulative motivations ranging from concern for the safety of children to fears of crime in an effort to conceal their real intentions, those seeking to tilt the balance of power in favor of the state have worked to outlaw not those those types of firearms most used in crimes, but rather those that would be most useful to the citizen militia in resisting a tyrannical government. According to the FBI's own Uniform Crime Statistics, the types of arms wrongly referred to as "assault weapons" by those seeking to ban them are used in a statically insignificant 3/10ths of 1 percent (0.3%) of firearm related crimes. But truth has always been a rare commodity in the effort to eliminate the original intention of the Second Amendment.
There have even been attempts to claim the Second Amendment, included in the Bill of Rights to guarantee the right and ability of the citizens to protect themselves and their property from both external enemies and internal tyrants, now means exactly the opposite of its original meaning. It is now argued that the National Guard, the standing army of the state, is the "modern equivalent" of a "well regulated militia", and that the Second Amendment only guarantees the right of each state to arm its own army. The problem with this perspective is that the National Guard isn't a militia, but rather an extension or reserve of the federal standing army. As the gulf war so clearly proved, when push comes to shove National Guard units owe their first loyalty to those in command of the Federal standing army, not to the states or to the citizens of the states.
If we, the real members of the citizen militia, allow our right to bear arms to be infringed we will be abandoning our single most important right - the one that provides the only meaningful guarantee for the rest of our rights. The enlightened men who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights understood just how important the right to bear arms was for both the individual citizen and the nation as a whole. They also understood how dangerous powerful standing armies have always been to the liberty of private citizens.
Technology has changed the character of our world in ways that appear to justify taking the risk of maintaining a full time professional standing army. But just because we've decided to ignore part of the wisdom of the past does not mean we should also ignore the rest. Now is not the time to abandon our best defense against both tyrants and criminals. History clearly shows that America will only remain free as long as the right of the people to bear arms is not infringed.