The 2nd Amendment, Revolution and Self-Defense

DaveR sent me a Facebook message:  “Thought you might be interested in the article at this link:  One of our traditions — throwing off the shackles of a government that has overstepped its bounds — is at odds with another, the one that accepts the results of elections.”   We agreed to copy our long and lively discussion here.  It raises important points that I hope will provoke more discussion.

I responded: “I hadn’t thought about this idea in the article: “In a democracy the majority determines what the law is and could, at least theoretically, take away the rights of individuals for the sake of the ‘public good.’  In a republic, majority will is held in check by constitutional guarantees that forbid legislation encroaching on individual rights even if 51 percent or 95 percent of the population favors it.”  It seems more complicated in real life.   The right guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment is “encroached upon” by subsequent legislation that defines what “arms” we the people may and may not “bear” and the circumstances in which we may bear them.  In the same way, the definition of “we the people” has been the opposite of encroached upon, i.e., expanded by civil rights legislation.”

Then I got off track with an ignorant assertion:  “I always come back to the same state of bafflement about the 2nd amendment.  Do the folks who believe they need guns to overthrow the government really believe their weapons would make that possible?  Or are they like those in the South who knew in their hearts they would fail but went ahead with the War of Northern Aggression, anyway?”

Correcting my mistake led to the important topic of revolution.  Dave responded:  “Well, the South most certainly did not think it was going to lose the Civil War.  In fact, it very nearly won in the first few years.  Many also truly believed that they would receive political, if not military support from Britain (whose textile industry was utterly dependent on southern cotton in 1860).  Interestingly, part of the reason why they did as well as they did despite the North’s superiority in industry, manpower and infrastructure, was precisely because of their cultural military tradition.  Many in the Southern Armies used their own weapons, horses, and the like for the entire war, which is interesting considering this 2nd amendment debate.  I think the 2nd amendment is actually pretty important, but I am for regulation, background checks, etc.  I most certainly do not support repeal. And as I’ve said before, I choose not to avail myself of this right at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of it.  As for your last question – it’s a good one.  In the event of a true, justified revolution in this country, would gun ownership make the difference?  I think, yes, it absolutely would.  Partly, because I think a plausible revolution (not just a bunch of 2nd amendment nuts) would engage a broad enough selection of the populace that we’d see a split in the military.  Think about well-documented revolutions and civil wars – the American or the Spanish Civil Wars, for instance, and you see that the arms used were piecemeal at first, but became more professional as time went on.  Do you think the Syrian rebels wouldn’t love to have some AR-15’s?  Have you seen the improvised weapons they’ve been using?  Some are literally held together with duct tape.  And yet, despite air superiority, tanks and chemical weapons, they seem to be slowly gaining ground.  Civil war these days is an urban war, and small-arms make plenty of difference in city streets.  It scares the hell out of me, but I really do sometimes think I’m going to see a 2nd Civil War of some kind in my lifetime.”

I replied:  “The only thing I’m certain about is, I should actually study US history.  My small patchwork of knowledge means I’ll be mistaken if I believe any theories that occur to me.  I try to discard them and usually don’t believe I understand anything about the Civil War.  Thanks for the correction!  I’ll think more about “true, justified revolution” and respond later.  Thanks for making me think, Dave!”

Dave responded:  “The US Civil War was something of an obsession for me growing up.  I’m probably a bit TOO certain about my “facts” about it, though.  Ken Burns’ documentary is always a good place to start, if you’re really interested (and if you have like 12 hours to kill). And thank YOU.”

After giving more thought to the 2nd Amendment and the Constitution in general, I wrote:  “I want legislation and enforcement to reflect our evolving democratically made decisions about what firearm technologies folks in our society can have.  That requires definition of the purpose.  For example, although I do not hunt I do not want to prevent it, so I’d favor legislation that explicitly approved hunting along with what kinds of hunting firearms are authorized.  I would not expect automatic rifles to be authorized for that purpose, for example, or any kind of handguns.  I would favor background checks for all purchasers of such firearms in every market.   I’m not trying to define the legislation here, just the guiding principal.  Starting from that viewpoint, I’d prefer the existing 2nd amendment to be replaced with one corresponding to today’s society and its needs, not the situation almost two and a half centuries ago.  The amendment now reads:  “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.”  We no longer expect to defend our nation by raising an army of civilians supplying their own firearms.  We still have uses for firearms that we want to authorize, but not that one.  You make an excellent point about guerilla warfare. Having thought about it more, I agree that an armed uprising might possibly succeed. That makes me think replacing the 2nd amendment is more important, not just something that would theoretically be good.  I want our society to be made better by the working of democracy.  I don’t want there to be a Plan B where we don’t engage in the democratic process but start a Civil War if things don’t turn out the way we want.  If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.   We would probably also draft the 4th amendment in a different way to make explicit some right to privacy.  Search and seizure was the only relevant technology a couple of centuries ago. No phone, internet, satellite or security cameras, etc.  Or maybe we’d decide that in the interest of public safety, we would forgo any and all privacy.  In the real world, I think we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing about the 2nd amendment all along, ignoring the “shall not be infringed”.  We already don’t allow “the people” to have most weapons used by our military forces.”

Dave responded:  “Again, I largely agree with you.  But I have to ask a question you haven’t addressed yet: When is revolution justified? Is it ever?”

It had been taking me quite a while to figure out what I think about that.  I replied:  “Revolution can become inevitable.  Oppression can become too extreme and too prolonged.  It could happen here.  Our tax and spending policies are making hardship from technology-enabled structural change in the economy a lot more painful.  Wealth is being transferred to the already uber-rich from all others.  I expect we will change direction but there’s no guarantee.  It’s not impossible, for example, that unrest could grow severe enough that some “strong man” could use the moment to seize dictatorial control.  “President Cheney declares martial law in response to ongoing riots in cities throughout the land”.  It seems unreasonable to say revolution in such a case would be unjustified.  But if I interpret “justifiable” to mean I would be willing to kill, I can’t use the word.  In a democracy we get what we deserve.  We could have seen that our government’s actions would, if not altered, lead to revolution and we did not make the necessary effort so, shame on us.  It’s not an exact parallel but my grandfather and his five brothers all refused to fight in WW1.  My grandfather’s objection was philosophical.  I’m more moved by what one of his younger brothers said: “I thought, what would I say to his mother if I killed a German boy, or what would he say to mine if he killed me? Nothing could make it right.”  That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely a pacifist.  Maybe there could be a war or revolution where I’d feel I had to participate.  But what I believe I’d do if I saw revolution coming is try to leave and join some other society, one I could feel better about being part of.”

Dave replied:  “Thank you.  I sometimes wonder what I’d do as well.  I suppose it would really depend on what was happening at the time.  But I do think that the idea that our government is getting away from us is part of what drives the 2nd amendment types, and it makes me less supportive of any effort to repeal the amendment.  You say “If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.”  I wonder: isn’t the right to defend one’s self a fundamental human right?  I feel like I have the inalienable right to defend myself from anyone who tries to interfere with my free will.  I’m not interested in fighting, weapons, or anything like that.  I don’t think I’m particularly paranoid, and I don’t see any immediate threats to my freedom (to my health is another story), but I do see my right to privacy and to not be wrongfully seized being whittled away.  Anyway, if it came down to it, I’d probably choose exile as well. Maybe we’re more cosmopolitans than patriots, Martin?”

I responded:  “Yeah, we must work to stop our government from getting away from us.  I’ve started emailing my Representatives about issues I see as especially important and I intend to pester them increasingly more actively.  It’s a cop-out to tell myself one voice won’t make any difference.  I started my original blog because I felt I didn’t understand enough to give them good feedback.  I feel quite a bit closer now to understanding at least which are the most important issues.  Self-defense is confusing.  The way one expects to go about it may be the key factor.  We’re less likely to be attacked if we project confidence, more likely if we project fearfulness.  We need to learn how to project confidence in a way that is non-threatening.  The confusing part is I really do believe non-violence is the right aspiration.  Ahimsa.  I hope I never find myself in a situation where it would be rational, for example, to wear a handgun in order to deter violence.  I’m really not sure what I would do if my everyday life put me in that kind of situation.  I try never to get into such a place.  It was not my intent but it should have been, for example, to avoid a cool project management gig in Mexico City.  The guy I’d have worked most closely with was shot coming out of his office soon after.  But what if I couldn’t avoid it?  I can say, well, if we hadn’t allowed all those guns to be purchased there wouldn’t be nearly so many in the hands of bad folks and our world would be less dangerous, but it’s too late now. The guns are already out there.”

Topics worthy of more discussion include:

  • When is revolution justified? Is it ever?
  • What are the limits on our right to self-defense?  Are there any?

5 comments on “The 2nd Amendment, Revolution and Self-Defense

  1. I don’t think Dave’s argument about revolution holds water. European radicals gave up the notion that professional armies (armed with artillery and high explosives) could be defeated by a general populace by the time of the Paris Commune (probably before). Even in Vietnam, insurgent troops, though outgunned by the U.S., still had access to light infantry in excess of anything the 2nd Amendment protects (and the war ultimately had to be won by the NVA). In general, modern revolutions typically involved countries militarily devastated/defeated in war, and a significant revolt of the military (or at least troops). (Russian, Argentina, Portugal, off the top of my head, it was the turning point in Cuba).

    In these cases and others, massive popular dissatisfaction with the government (i.e., the sort serfs and peasants feel) play a role. More to the point, an outside supplier(s) of weapons is usually involved.

    As to the Civil War, the military advantage, iiuc [admin = “if I understand correctly”], lay largely in the cadre of professionally military officers that the South had (many of them West Point graduates). The fact that southerners were using their own weapons should be seen as a liability not an asset in the war. But even there, established military doctrine was becoming irrelevant due to the technology of mass fire weapons. The brilliant southern cavalry commanders could not decisively win battles (i.e. rout infantry forces) in the way that had been common earlier in the 19C. Northern industry always was going to make the difference. The most innovative (and effective) commander of the war, Grant, was an expert in logistics, i.e., modern war was already tied to industrial scale processes (much in the same way that the ability of the Allies to produce vast numbers of trucks, jeeps and airplanes overcame German military skill in WWII).

    Even if the North had decided to give up the war, the stage probably would have been set for further conflicts (perhaps even slave rebellion) in which the rapidly growing Northern industrial sector would have provided an even more lopsided advantage. Remember, the primary reason British elites stayed out of the war was looming war in Europe, i.e., Europe was already embroiled in the competition (continental and colonial) that was going to lead to WWI.

    So I think the availability of weapons to the populace is only ever a marginal factor and not as important as the intensity of widespread discontent. When discontent gets high enough, police stations are raided, gun runners smuggle, etc. Frankly when discontent gets that bad, I would hope even our dysfunctional (or anti-majoritarian) democracy can respond in accordance with the popular will.

  2. I mostly agree with you Paul, discontent is far more important than the availability of weapons. But I don’t think self-owned weapons were a liability to the South in the Civil War – the alternative was pitchforks and bows and arrows. Sure, the factories of the North produced better weapons, but without the South’s warrior tradition (which included their home-grown sharpshooters as much as the officers), the war would have been over much sooner I think. As for decisive battles, I think there certainly were plenty of those – after all, even in the 19th century a total rout was a rarity – but I think there was a change in the political will. People and governments were unwilling to accept anything less than total victory. This is itself a precursor to WWI and attrition warfare. But obviously, this is all armchair historian stuff – we don’t really know.

    The kind of revolution I’m thinking of doesn’t really resemble the Paris Commune or that type of ideological revolutionary – those are usually far too small, unless combined with wartime problems, like the Russian Revolution, when the military was split between the Whites and the Reds. I think the closest model is the Spanish Civil War. What happens when one side refuses to accept the results of a democratic election?

    I think an armed populace can draw things out, slow things down, but not really win without military support. In Spain, the Socialist groups had been stockpiling weapons, and were able to fend off Franco’s coup for a few years. Without those guns, there would have been no war. I know it’s a different situation, but it’s a different culture too. It’s just the closest to what we’ve seen. What happens if the Democrats win a landslide victory on a platform to curtail the 2nd amendment and actually seize firearms of certain types, as many Tea Party folks fear? Might it result in something like a Franco? Might not the military support such a figure in the US, given their conservative leanings and warrior culture? I see it as a frightening possibility, if a remote one. I don’t think we’re close to that boiling point yet, but I think we’ve done a great job of laying the groundwork in the past twenty years or so.

  3. Interesting points, Dave. As to the point about taking away guns, I’ve heard the suggestion that limiting ammunition is more key.

  4. Revolution, like all war, is madness, but sometimes you can’t avoid it. There are those who want power at any cost and are willing to kill you to get it, and you may have to fight them just to survive. But look at what happened in our Civil War: somewhere around 620,000 people were killed; Whole cities razed; the economy of the South destroyed. It took generations to rebuild. Look at what’s happening today in Syria – the whole country is being destroyed. How many generations will it take to rebuild their country and reconcile their society?

    No war is justified, but when hatred of “the other” is so ingrained, as for instance, the mutual hatred of Sunnis and Shias – two cultures you would think would have much in common – destructive conflict is inevitable. I always have the naïve hope that dialogue and mutual respect will prevail, but history refutes my utopian view of humanity.

    You mention that our country is a Democracy where a simple majority can take away the rights of individuals for the sake of the ‘public good.’ Fortunately, our country is not only a Democracy, but also a “Lexocracy” that respects the precedence of the body of law, constitutional and otherwise, that has been built over the centuries, and hopefully, will not go the way of other countries like Germany where a relatively small segment of society succeeded in rendered the constitution of the Weimar Republic irrelevant.

  5. Maybe it would be productive to consider the similarities and differences between attacks by individuals on one another, attacks by a revolutionary group on their government, and attacks by nations on each other?

    In general, we’re way too ready to defend ourselves. The preparatory imagining and stock-piling tends to make attacks more likely. I was chatting with an acquaintance from Lynchburg, VA last night (I didn’t know lynching started there). She told me about her neighbor who filled his basement with arms and ammo in preparation for the revolution he knew would break out if that Nigerian Muslim socialist was elected President. It’s actually very encouraging that his expectation was mistaken.

    The problem with Syria is the same as with Libya and the Middle East in general. The borders were established by Western powers without much knowledge of the folks living there. What was there was not nation states but tribes that had forever lived in rivalry. That’s why Libya is now racked by civil war, and why the folks in Mali and other neighboring nations have been dragged into the bloodshed. The same will happen in Syria unless the existing minority regime can destroy the rebels. We’re eager to intervene for a variety of motives, humanitarian and other. We can make the situation far worse by supplying weapons. I don’t see anything we can do that has good odds of being truly helpful. This is a good overview of the situation now:

    We’re fortunate to have inherited a democratic form of government with an independent judiciary. Its operations are quite flawed right now but dialog and mutual respect are always the right approach. I don’t care if they didn’t always work in the past because I can’t change the past.

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