Myth: Second Amendment protects individual liberties

Myth: Second Amendment protects individual liberties
© Getty Images

Heavily armed citizens showed up recently at protests in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Montana, Colorado and Idaho to allegedly protected peaceful protesters from antifa. 

In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, groups of 25 to 50 armed men in combat gear spent successive nights patrolling the downtown area, following internet rumors that antifa agitators would be arriving from Seattle. 

The FBI stated there is no evidence that any protests have been linked to antifa. Still, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJoe Arpaio loses bid for his old position as sheriff Trump brushes off view that Russia denigrating Biden: 'Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have' Trump tees up executive orders on economy but won't sign yet MORE tweeted: “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course. LAW & ORDER!”

ADVERTISEMENT

In his June 1 Rose Garden address —  amid vowing to shield American citizens from “professional anarchists, violent mobs, or arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, Antifa” — the president promised to protect Second Amendment rights.

In January, he tweeted, “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” days before a gun rights rally in Richmond. The gun-rights rally itself drew 22,000 people—many of them heavily armed and in combat gear—to protest Democratic state legislators’ pledge to enact new gun control legislation.

In mid-April, after blue-state governors enacted quarantine measure, he also claimed multiple times that these governors were trying to take people’s guns away. In an odd non-sequitur, the president seemed to conclude that lockdown restrictions were also tied to Second Amendment rights.

Less than two weeks later, armed anti-lockdown protesters descended on Michigan’s statehouse. In response, some state legislators wore bulletproof vests, and the state’s legislative session ended early.

In each instance, armed protesters used the Second Amendment to undermine democracy and individual rights. Democratically elected bodies in Virginia and Michigan were effectively threatened if they choose to act on measures — gun control and an extension of lockdown orders — that had wide public support. When citizens descend on a state capital brandishing guns, they effectively end any commitment to democratic debate. 

ADVERTISEMENT

While gun control advocates point out that 36,000 Americans are killed by guns each year, it is also essential to consider how guns threaten First Amendment rights and the will of democratic majorities.

The idea that a right to bear arms is necessary to protect oneself from a tyrannical government implies that violence would, at some point, be justified.

The contrast between the anti-lockdown protests and the Black Lives Matter protests demonstrates the limits of the Second Amendment to check government tyranny.  Mostly white, heavily armed, protesters were able to challenge largely popular public health measures by intimidating state officials.

However, it is difficult to imagine Black Lives Matter and other anti-police brutality protesters using the Second Amendment effectively. It stretches the bounds of credulity to think that heavily armed Black Lives Matter protests would be met with anything other than large-scale state-sanctioned violence. 

The historical context of the Second Amendment also cannot be overlooked.

During debates regarding the ratification of the Constitution, some anti-federalists took particular notice of Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution. The offending passages give Congress the “authority” to “call forth” and “train” militias. 

At the time, Southern slaveholders worried that since the federal government was given power over the militias, Congress could eventually block southern states from using their militias to put down slave rebellions.

The full text of the Second Amendment 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.” It is not an accident that James Madison, a slaveholder himself, mentions the need for states to have militias in the Second Amendment.

The great irony here is that the Second Amendment can be read a different way — as protecting Americans from an overly militarized police force.

The use of the term “militias” in both Article 1 Section 8 and the Second Amendment is a reflection of the fact that the founders feared permanent professional standing armies would be a threat to liberty. The Second Amendment mentions militias because the framers intended military units made up of part-time citizen-soldiers to be the first line of defense.

The photos and video footage from around the country of a heavily militarized police force firing rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters certainly seems to justify the founders’ warnings to the dangers of standing armies.

The First Amendment protections of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, have proven to be the most effective tool for civil rights leaders — past and present — to demand justice and challenge instances of government oppression. 

In contrast, the Second Amendment has historically been a tool of the oppressors rather than the oppressed. It is time to let go of the myth that the Second Amendment is an effective tool for protecting individual liberties.   

Katie Scofield has a Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, with a focus on comparative constitutional law. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the Ecuadorian Constitution and its treatment of human rights and teaches government at Blinn College in Texas.