Militiamen Statue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I will venture to say a few words on a sacred icon of our side of the political spectrum, namely; the Second Amendment. The relevance of this discussion can hardly be doubted. The several prominent mass casualty incidents this year have not failed to draw renewed calls for gun control from activists, much as they do every time. Before my readers cease to read the rest of this essay, I reassure you, I am not here to advocate for additional gun control. I do not believe that governments are able to solve all human woes. Government structures often react poorly to a proportional increase in their power vis a vis their citizenry. To this fact we can add a multitude of tragic historical examples both in the past century and in the deeper past. The casualties from these events give mute testament to the melancholy realities of surrendered freedoms.
However, I find the mere recitation of the Second Amendment in the face of every gun control argument, to say the least, insufficient as a rebuttal. The words “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” have a great deal of clarity and meaning to gun owners and constitutional textualists, but are unpersuasive as an argument for a general audience. The average citizen is far more preoccupied with their emotional response and irrational fears to a given tragedy than to arguments about constitutionality, legally solid as those may be.
It strikes me that the core of this dysfunctional discussion, where we juxtapose our constitutional rights against arguments of fear, has a deeper level which causes this dissonance. I believe that this dissonance comes from what is often forgotten to be the logical extension of a granted right. Every right is matched with an unstated, but logically implicit duty that is incumbent on the citizen. Perhaps we can categorize the emotional outrage over the use of clearly legitimate rights, predominantly on the left, as a symptom that the duties pertaining to that right are being neglected.
For example, our constitutional right to vote carries an implicit duty to register, vote and express one’s political preferences through legitimate elections, as opposed to expressing them through rioting, demonstration or the organization of hidden political cartels. The wording of the Second Amendment also lends itself to a similar breakdown of granted rights corresponding to implicit duties.
Concealed carry. Photo: Bryan Bennett/ Associated Press
The hints can be found in both clauses of the Second Amendment. In the first clause the subject of the right is clear; it is the Militia, in the latter clause it is “ the people” whose duty it is to “keep and bear” weapons. This clause, often misunderstood by ideologues who are dogmatically opposed to the idea of an armed populace, has a very clear contextual meaning. In contemporary colonial law, the militia was understood to mean all armed and able bodied men of the given community. There is also here an implied standard for these individuals of a moral quality. Since a militia is comprised of men of a given community, it is implied that that a militia provides a service of defense to that given community. Such a service can be conceptualised as a second line of security after the more formal protectors of a community, such as police officers. Organised police forces constitute a great improvement over militias in areas that deal with the enforcement of laws, since often police forces are much more impartial actors. But cases where they do not act in impartial ways, or where their resources are stretched too thin, require a community to aid in the provision of its own security by means–of last resort–of a militia.
Secondly, the individual clause also implies certain additional conditions. The foremost of these is that the citizen has access to and possession of functioning and effective arms which they are able to use. This very clearly implies the duty to be trained and equipped to use one’s arms in a beneficent way. This by no means discounts the recreational utility of arms, but recognises that the maintenance of a healthy and active, socially recognised right relies in some part on the qualities of its users. In a similar fashion to the saying “ a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” all gun owners are judged by the least competent and conscientious of their number. For this reason, it does not strike me as tyrannical that states may require safety certifications or certain types of background checks to be passed in order to purchase a firearm. So long as this information is not used to catalog and track individuals, these regulations serve to ensure the quality of citizens exercising their Second Amendment freedoms.
Photo: Fibonacci Blue
A more balanced vision between the rights we have and the implicit duties that they carry with them is useful in regards to several other constitutional rights; the First Amendment included. Among the issues are the controversies regarding the ‘limits’ placed on free speech on college campuses. The imposition of these limits is often done in obtuse and supralegal ways, such as administrative fiat. These methods include last minute changes of venue or the imposition of unexpected and burdensome security costs on event sponsors.
While it often is argued that the speakers subject to such ‘consequences’ are the originators of their own hardships, this ignores the fundamental lack of maturity on the part of students, and lack of personal detachment required of a society that has a constitutional freedom to speak. To impose limitations on speakers in an attempt to prevent ‘harm’ from occurring places the responsibility of the psychological and emotional integrity of a given person externally, and thereby absolves the listener of responsibility for either critical engagement with ideas they may disagree with, or absolves them of responsibility for their other reactions to a given speaker.
This argument was used, among other places, to indicate that the editors of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, as well as the publisher of the Danish Mohammed cartoons, were the causes of their own suffering. The reversal of personal responsibility in the exercise and reception of the act of free speech clearly leads to dysfunctional outcomes. To say that the editors of a satirical cartoon are the causes of their own murders is to absolve the perpetrating Islamists of responsibility, and this is hardly justice. If we choose to externalise this burden of freedom to administrations or other authorities, our freedom will be diminished by the newfound restrictions we will find imposed on its exercise. These restrictions will gradually atrophy our ability to use our freedom of speech for its intended purpose and cause a greater reliance on newer and greater restrictions.
Supporters of the freedom of speech and Charlie Hebdo after the 2015 Paris terror attack. Photo: O.Ortepla/Flikr
Returning to the original theme of how a different conception of rights and duties can change the way we see the Second Amendment, this vision broadly implies a revitalization of the concept of community and citizenry, a vision based not solely on rights owed to individuals, but also on bestowing unto them reciprocal duties which aid in the maintenance of their autonomy.
Such a vision, which I consider to be the most positive possible iteration of an actively and beneficently exercised Second Amendment, implies certain duties and demeanors of the citizens who choose to actively exercise these rights. These demeanors include a conscientious attitude towards a given individual’s community, a willingness to uphold the laws ( even though not in an official capacity ), and duty of care and responsibility to ensure one’s competence and preparedness in the exercise of an individual’s rights.
This attitude towards the Second Amendment allows us to retain our rights in the most positive and active sense without becoming vulnerable to a criticism which we often level against the left–namely, that in the pursuit of our rights, we have a tendency to forget our responsibilities. We must always remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “We”… only have a republic for as long as we can keep it.” Perhaps if we, citizens, recall that the word citizen implies duties to the civitas, the city or state, we can keep the Republic alive.
Photo: US Air Force