Let’s call the 2nd Amendment what it is—the codification of a grave reality.
One of my neighbors has a bumper sticker: “The 2nd Amendment isn’t for hunting.” He’s correct as a matter of constitutional law—the Bill of Rights affirms the right to private gun ownership and, in effect, creates a form of distributed sovereignty that prevents the state from having a monopoly on force. In case after case, the Supreme Court has struck down attempts to limit this right, and seems poised to further expand gun rights next year. But pretending gun ownership is a privilege granted by government cedes too much ground. The right must unapologetically embrace the substance of the left’s complaint that the 2nd Amendment endorses violence as pillar of American politics.
In the Politics, Aristotle explains how “heavily armed men” (hoplites) form the foundation of political order. Their violent coercion, even in the form of bloodless potency, overrides both the wealth of shiftless plutocrats and the inheritance claims of the gentry. Americans will recognize the colonial minutemen as our hoplites—not an inconvenient anomaly from America’s past, but the politically necessary foundation for America’s present and future. Aristotle is being descriptive, not prescriptive: he observes that while the liberties of landowners and craftsmen should be protected, the liberties of the hoplite are protected by definition. While reason must precede law, violence always precedes order.
The American right must acknowledge the association of guns with violence, while rejecting the fallacy that all violence is evil. Like the hoplite with his shield and spear, gun owners who take their duty seriously become bulwarks against both tyranny and anarchy. Instead of pretending our guns are only for outdoor sportsmanship, a luxury graciously allowed us by a piece of paper in the National Archives, we should acknowledge what they represent and accept the violent responsibility they entail.
Heavily armed men are a necessary but insufficient condition for the rule of law. The U.S. Constitution—a mere document subject to revision and manipulation—cannot alone protect the right to keep and bear arms. Rather, the inverse is true: keeping and bearing arms, as an act of political violence, is all that protects the Constitution.
If a line in the Constitution were enough to protect the Founders’ values, we wouldn’t be facing our current predicament of surveillance and censorship—or pay income tax, for that matter. The Bill of Rights doesn’t keep gun ownership legal; the implicit violence of 400 million privately owned guns does. That’s why this fight is one of the only ones the right is currently winning. It’s not as though the left has carelessly forgotten about guns while attacking other American liberties. In fact, just this year, President Biden himself tried to argue for a novel interpretation of the 2nd Amendment—”you couldn’t own a cannon”—to signal his party’s renewed push against gun ownership. Multi-billionaires like Michael Bloomberg spend tens of millions lobbying for gun control each year. Nevertheless, laws favoring gun ownership continue to expand.
These victories don’t happen because the NRA and other pro-gun groups have some secret strategy that, say, pro-family or pro-borders groups can’t grasp. Rather, the 2nd Amendment’s advantage is its uniquely self-ratifying history. America has never imposed a new right to keep and bear arms. The keepers and bearers of arms imposed everything else.
Gun owners and supporters of gun ownership must shift the terms of the gun debate away from special pleading for positive legal rights. If we accept the left’s frame of the issue—allowing gun purchases as long as violence does not result—we are forced to take awkward policy stances, like invoking the Dickey Amendment to prevent gun-violence research. Rather, we should recognize the gun owner as the prototypical—if not always the ideal—American citizen.
Forget the apologetic façade of debating safety versus liberty. Guns kill people; they are made for violence. But this violent threat is and always has been the load-bearing wall of our house divided. Instead of begging the destructive and divisive left to allow gun ownership as an exception to their hegemony, we should acknowledge the violence implicit in arming ourselves for conflict.
Andrew Cuff writes on conservative issues and policy reform from Latrobe, Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @AndrewJCuff.
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