In Defense of the Second Amendment
by Gary North: Why
the Gun Control Movement Is Doomed
I want to go
over in considerable detail the fundamental issues of the Second
Amendment to the United States Constitution: the right to keep and
There is a
great deal of emotional commitment in the United States to one of
two extreme positions: (1) the right of every non-felon adult citizen
of the United States to own any weapon he chooses, and (2) the right
of the government of the United States to outlaw the ownership of
I am hard core.
I would extend this right to convicted felons who have served their
time or have made restitution to their victims. I would not let
the federal government revoke this fundamental right of citizenship.
the Second Amendment, we need to go back to something like the beginning.
AND POLITICAL SOVEREIGNTY
common law in medieval times, meaning as late as the 13th century,
the feudal legal system limited ownership of military weapons to
members of the knightly class, and those classes over the knights.
In other words, the ownership of weapons had to do with legal status.
man, meaning a peasant, could not be called into military service.
Military service was a matter of inheritance of land and status,
and this inheritance mandated military training, which created a
military mindset. Thus, the weapons associated with this class,
which was also a matter of social status, were not to be shared
with the peasantry. This placed the peasantry at an obvious disadvantage
in terms of military power. It also extended to political power.
They had little political power. They were represented mainly by
One of the
marks of the knightly class was the right to wear armor. Armor was
heavy. So, a peasant who had a simple walking staff was in a position
to knock a knight off his horse. A knight in shining armor who was
lying on the ground could not get up by himself. He was defenseless.
So, the fact that a peasant not under a knight's authority was not
allowed to carry a sword, or a bow and arrow, did not necessarily
place him at a complete disadvantage, one-on-one, when dealing with
a knight on horseback. It all depended on the tactics of surprise.
The knight who was not expecting to be knocked off his horse might
be at a disadvantage.
on learned how to use walking sticks as weapons. Peasants could
not be deprived of their walking sticks. So, they retained a degree
of power which was not legally associated with their class. The
movie scene of Robin Hood, an outlaw from the knightly class, battling
Little John on a log over a stream was unlikely. Little John would
easily have killed him. Knights were not trained in the use of staffs.
possessed expensive weapons began with a competitive advantage in
the use of power. The knightly class was careful to guard its legal
rights. Magna Carta was a document created by the barons to defend
their rights against the king. These rights were jealously guarded
both against intrusions of power from below, as well as any intrusions
from above. It was part of a hierarchical social and legal social
There is no
question that, under most circumstances, the knightly class could
deal with the peasants in the field of military battle. There were
peasant rebellions from time to time. But, over the centuries, the
knightly class did prevail against attempts by the peasants to overturn
the legal status of the knightly class.
One of the
advantages of this system was that civilians, meaning peasants and
the people who lived in towns, were to be left alone by the warriors.
They were not to be slaughtered in a military confrontation. Warriors
were to do battle with other warriors. Warriors were not to use
the specialized implements of warfare against civilians. This was
a good arrangement for civilians.
the end of feudalism. It did not cause this decline, but it accompanied
it. Armies became professional. Mercenaries appeared. Legal access
to weapons was no longer based on birth and legal status. With the
demise of the feudal order after the 14th century, and the rise
of professional armies, which were funded by taxation rather than
by a grant of land by the king to specific families, access to military
training became available to common men. The more that the armies
depended upon conscription, or payment by the central government,
the greater the demands for the right to vote by the lower classes.
became open during the Puritan revolution of the 1640s in England.
Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army was made up of commoners as well
as members of the higher social orders. Puritans believed in the
exercise of the franchise in their local congregations. English
Puritans were Congregationalists. They did not believe in a hierarchy
of bishops, nor did they even believe in the hierarchy of presbyteries.
Presbyterianism was a Scottish concept, not an English Puritan concept.
So, with the triumph of Cromwell and the New Model Army, the issue
of the franchise became an important political issue. Debates were
held in 1647 within the New Model Army over what constituted the
right to vote. The Levelers, who were not Communists, believed that
the franchise should be extended to members of the New Model Army,
irrespective of their wealth. This was opposed by the upper classes,
including Cromwell, but there was an open debate over the issue.
Cromwell's son-in-law, Ireton, argued for wealth, meaning personally
owned land or money, as the basis of the right to vote. Rainsboro,
a representative of the Levelers, argued that mere residence in
the land should qualify a man to vote.
With the coming
of the rifle in the 18th century, it became possible for independent
farmers -- "peasants" -- to purchase the implements of
war. These could be used for hunting. Civilians were still not part
of the warrior class, but as the price of weaponry fell, beginning
in the early 18th century, a shift of political power also began
to take place.
In the second
half of the 18th century, the common citizen in the British colonies
of North America possessed a rifle. In most cases he was a man of
the countryside. He had the ability to use it. For the first time,
weapons that were available to common people had equal firepower
to weapons available to the central government.
the central government faced a crisis. The colonists in North America
were in a position to resist the King's will. After 1763, resistance
against the King's representatives increased, and the ability of
the King to impose his will on these upstarts became more a matter
of finances than technology.
Revolution was a revolution of common people who were armed with
weapons. The long rifle, fired from a distance, was a formidable
weapon. A man who could shoot straight at a distance of several
hundred yards could kill an officer on horseback. Officers wore
special uniforms. This enabled their troops to identify who was
in charge. They rode on horseback, above the troops. There was a
universal agreement among the warriors of Western Europe that they
would not target the officers. This, of course, was an agreement
honored no such agreement. Americans would target the officers from
hundreds of yards away. The chain of command of British troops was
disrupted by the American rifle. This was considered unsportsmanlike.
But the Americans did not honor the same rules and sportsmanship.
This is why
the militias were the formidable opponents of the British Army.
George Washington only had two major victories, Trenton in 1776
(won by surprise) and Yorktown in 1781 (won by the French Navy).
His army was usually unable to make direct confrontations in the
field with the British Army. In contrast, militia units, firing
from a distance against massed armies, and then running into the
woods, could not be dealt with by British Army tacticians. The British
armies were always tied to the cities. They could not venture far
into the countryside to get food, because too many of them would
be gunned down by militia members. They were dependent upon the
British Navy to deliver supplies to them.
It was therefore
impossible for the British to win that war. For as long as the Americans
would stay in decentralized units, firing from a distance into the
organized troops of the British, the British could not extend military
control, and therefore political control, over the Americans. The
Americans kept fighting until British taxpayers grew weary of funding
the war, and until the French, during one 30-day period, provided
the naval support to block the British Navy from resupplying Cornwallis's
Army. George Washington got the credit, as did the centralized army
under his command, but it
was the militia that had kept the British at bay for the previous
understood this when the leaders wrote the Bill of Rights in 1790.
This is why the Second Amendment was inserted into the Constitution.
The voters understood that it was their ability to fight any organized
army, through the organization of the militia, which was basic to
their concept of citizenship. It was the citizen warrior, armed
with a rifle that was every bit as good as that possessed by members
of the Army, who was perceived as possessing final political sovereignty.
The whole concept of "we the people," which introduced
the Constitution, rested on the well-known ability of the American
citizen warrior to grab his rifle and fight.
Quigley of Georgetown University was an expert in the history of
armaments in Western Europe. He is famous among conservatives for
about 20 pages late in his book, Tragedy
and Hope, in which he discussed the influence of the Morgan
banking interests. Very few conservatives have ever read all of
2, "Western Civilization to 1914," on page 34, Quigley
wrote a very important assessment of the relationship between weaponry
and political power.
In a period
of specialist weapons the minority who have such weapons can usually
force the majority who lack them to obey; thus a period of specialist
weapons tends to give rise to a period of minority rule and authoritarian
government. But a period of amateur weapons is a period in which
all men are roughly equal in military power, the majority can
compel a minority to yield, and majority rule or even democratic
government tends to rise. . . . But after 1800, guns became cheaper
to obtain and easier to use. By 1840, a revolver sold for $27
and a Springfield musket for not much more, and these were about
as good weapons as anyone could get at that time. Thus, mass armies
of citizens, equipped with these cheap and easily used weapons,
began to replace armies of professional soldiers, beginning about
1800 in Europe and even earlier in America. At the same time,
democratic government began to replace authoritarian governments
(but chiefly in those areas where the cheap new weapons were available
and local standards of living were high enough to allow people
Civil War transformed military tactics. The rise of the railroads
and telegraphy made possible the coordination of the movement of
mass armies. The only way that the American South could have won
that war, other than simply by outlasting the Northerners on the
battlefield, thereby weakening the will to continue the war among
Northern voters, was to resort to guerrilla warfare. But the generals
were mostly the products of West Point, or were promoted on the
battlefield by graduates of West Point, and their concept was the
same as George Washington's, namely, that centralized armies financed
by the national government were the basis of military success. They
were not in favor of guerrilla warfare. (This was not true of Nathan
Bedford Forest, a businessman turned self-funded cavalry officer.
He was a guerrilla, and he was highly effective.)
From the end
of the Civil War until today, nations have been committed to what
is sometimes called second-generation warfare. These are armies,
navies, and air forces that can assemble massed firepower, using
highly precise and very expensive weapons. These military units
no longer can consistently defeat guerrilla movements on the ground.
Fourth-generation warfare, meaning guerrilla warfare, is now reestablishing
the sovereignty of the common man. Vietnam is the obvious case,
but Afghanistan certainly qualifies. In the case of Afghanistan,
the common man has always had the advantage. Nobody has been able
to conquer Afghanistan for more than a few years. This goes back
to Alexander the Great. The topography of the nation, and the commitment
of its men to fight to the bitter end, meaning the bitter end of
the invaders, has been such that these people have not been defeated.
The one Western
European nation that fully understands this is Switzerland. Every
Swiss male up the age of 60 is expected to serve in the military.
Every Swiss male who serves in the military is expected to master
the use of the rifle. It is a matter of honor to be a good rifleman
in Switzerland. Bankers in their 50s compete against clerks in their
20s as marksmen. This has been true for five centuries. This is
a nation of citizen warriors. It is a nation with a very weak central
government, the weakest in the modern industrial world. The presidency
is a symbolic office, and it is held on a rotation basis, with only
one year as its term. Yet the nation's army can be mobilized in
a matter of days. Switzerland has the longest history of political
freedom of any continental European nation.
It is true
that the Swiss surrender their ammo back to the local armory at
the end of each summer's training. It is also true that the political
tradition of democracy is so deeply ingrained that it would be impossible
for any Swiss government to refuse to return those weapons the following
summer. The Swiss are not a disarmed population. They simply let
the government store the ammo during the year. The attitude is not
that the government lets the citizens have access to weapons. The
attitude is that the citizens allow the government to store the
ammo. The mentality is completely different from the gun control
advocates in the United States.
In every nation
except Switzerland, gun control advocates want to centralize the
ownership of any weapon that could be used systematically against
agents of the government. This is not a random outlook. All the
arguments about reduced crime are refuted by the statistics of increased
crime whenever the government confiscates the guns of the population.
Guns are as easily available to the criminal class as illegal drugs
are available to the citizens and all other residents.
control advocates insist that the centralization of gun ownership
into the hands of the monopolistic government is a moral obligation.
Why is it a moral obligation? It is a moral obligation because these
people really do believe that the central government possesses legitimate
original political sovereignty, an exclusive sovereignty, over the
weapons that could be used against the central government.
It is one of
those peculiarities that conservatives who say they believe in the
right of gun ownership, and who sometimes even say that this is
a means of defense against tyranny, are also in favor of invading
foreign nations, when those foreign nations have adopted the concept
of universal gun ownership that is comparable to the philosophy
of American conservatism. The well-armed "little people"
in Middle Eastern countries are able to defeat American invading
troops, just as others like them did in Vietnam, precisely because
the decentralization that is made possible by a diffusion of gun
ownership and explosives is effective in combating the expansion
of centralized political and military control. In other words, American
troops cannot defeat these tiny countries, precisely because of
widespread ownership of effective weapons that can be used against
the occupying troops.
the rest of the article
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 31-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2012 Gary North
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