(adapted from a comment I made in discussion following an earlier SOB entry)
The right to keep and bear arms, protected by the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, was written primarily for two purposes rather than simply left to the assumption that a right to property would protect such a subordinate right in and of itself:
to ensure the security of a free nation from foreign aggressors even in the absence of standing armies
to ensure the security of a free nation against its own government’s excesses
One might ask:
Are we really at that point where we have to arm ourselves with military weapons in case our own government turns on us?
I feel compelled to ask in return:
Have we not always been at that point?
The fact of the matter is that, if we waive our right to arm ourselves with modern weapons of war (whether explicitly or implicitly), any tyrannical government that may arise will certainly not allow us to assert that right once again when we need it. Once ceded, we cannot so easily reclaim it, and more lives may be lost in defense of liberty against some future tyrannical government than would otherwise be necessary.
As John Philpot Curran said:
It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.
The common summary of that statement, erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, is “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” The extent to which we allow that vigilance to wane is the extent to which our additional sweat and — quite literally — blood must be spent to purchase our liberty anew. To ensure liberty for our lifetime and for those that follow, we must not only watch our elected representatives, demand that our liberties be respected and protected, and exhort others to do the same, but also prepare to defend those liberties with our lives and the lives of those who would take them from us. Se vis pacem para bellum; to secure the peace, we must prepare for war.
One may have legitimate concerns for a public safety downside to allowing civilians to keep and bear modern military arms:
What if someone goes postal? Would not the Virginia Tech shooting, the Columbine High School shooting, or a literal postal shooting, be much worse if perpetrated with fully automatic military arms? Wouldn’t it make more sense to limit such acts to the damage that can be done with a six-shot revolver instead, if we cannot reasonably bar ownership of firearms altogether?
Of course, such a limitation would greatly reduce the effectiveness of an armed populace as a deterrent to the growth of tyranny in government. Even if the only answer we can give such questions is that we must count such dangers as part of the price of freedom, I feel that is answer enough. There is more we can offer as answer than that, though.
The truth is that this public safety downside of military arms in the hands of civilians is not nearly so terrible as one might think. The truth is that cases such as the Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and post office shootings could not reasonably have resulted in much greater loss of life — if it would be any greater at all — just because more than one shot per trigger pull was possible. A greater cost in property damage would be likely, but spraying a room with automatic fire is not particularly more likely to kill people than taking aimed shots in quick succession with a semi-automatic firearm. The value of fully automatic firearms is greatly exaggerated in film, for instance, for most circumstances. It is highly valuable in military engagements where suppressive fire, concealed targets, indistinct targets, and hardened targets are the norm, but not so much in killing sprees in the hallways of a building. In fact, the typically greater weight and ammunition demands of automatic military arms could actually serve to hinder such a “postal” murderer.
Even more important to understanding how little additional damage one might expect is the fact that there are many other things we allow civilians to own and operate without a second thought, including large cargo vehicles such as moving vans, cleaning chemicals, and the tools of mass communication — any of which could conceivably produce far greater harm and terror in the hands of someone who has gone “postal” than a machine gun.
Then, of course, there is the rapid end to a rampage with a machine gun that could result from another armed civilian with better intentions who happens to be on the scene, while the police are still twenty minutes away. There were no armed students on the scene at Virginia Tech to bring the killing spree there to a premature end; there were no armed teachers at Columbine High School to bring the killing spree there to a premature end, either.
It took Eastern bloc countries decades to reach the point of its essentially bloodless revolution, toppling the final remnants of the Soviet regime that had ruled there for most of the 20th Century. That revolution occurred where there were more-free countries elsewhere insinuating their ideals into the Soviet Union through communications media and commerce, and they were only able to do so very effectively because there was a long period of liberalization (in the prescriptive, rather than modern politically descriptive, sense) that preceded the end of the Soviet Union.
Consider the generations of crushingly oppressive rule under Stalin, where people were far too afraid to even voice their fears because it might lead to being “vanished”, whisked away to the gulags, let alone demand any change in government. It is only when the weight of tyranny was lightened enough to allow a blodless rebellion to occur — with the complicity of the government itself, in fact — that such a change was possible in the former Soviet Union. The new direction of the Soviet Union was not so much a bloodless rebellion by the general populace, because it was spawned more at the top than the bottom. Terms such as “glasnost” and “perestroika” may be good places to start a search for more information on the subject.
I, for one, would rather have the opportunity to end a tyrannical reign before hundreds of millions of people were murdered by it, rather than wait generations for it to dismantle itself after hundreds of millions have already died, as they did at the hands of Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. A bloodless revolution after a long and bloody reign is not superior to a bloody revolution that sets things right before the first hundred million have died for nothing.
There is another option, however: eternal vigilance, never faltering. The best bloodless revolution is the revolution in thought that ensures we are forearmed against tyranny, aware of our government’s actions and involved in setting them right, so that the need for a bloody revolution never arises in the first place. This, really, is the most important reason to not only fight for our right to keep and bear arms, but practice what that right affords us.