Politics & Policy

Bret Stephens Indeed Does Not Understand the Second Amendment

Bret Stephens on Real Time with Bill Maher in 2015 (via YouTube)
A response to the conservative New York Times columnist.

I have never understood the conservative fetish for the Second Amendment,” writes Bret Stephens today. And then he proceeds to prove that.

His column is not a rigorous one. Indeed, it is barely a column so much as it is a brusque list of ill-considered assertions that do nothing to grapple with the many arguments to their contrary. Stephens asserts confidently that “more guns mean more murder,” a claim he bases on a single flawed study that is contradicted both by numerous others and by the recent experience of similar nations. He asserts that there are fewer justifiable homicides than there are accidents with guns, and that therefore that “more guns mean less safety,” but seems not to have considered that one does not have to commit a justifiable homicide to deter a crime; that in fact an enormous number of Americans — at least 100,000; possibly 2 million — deter crimes each year without firing a shot; and that many would-be criminals will avoid even attempting a transgression out of fear the victim might be armed. He asserts that a handful of historical rebellions illustrate the futility of resistance to government, without stopping to note that this country was in fact founded in successful revolution, and that the most effective resistance to Jim Crow came, per Ida B. Wells, from the barrel of a Winchester. And then, as his pièce de résistance, he recruits no less than James Madison to his side, proposing that the author of the Constitution himself would conclude that the private ownership of firearms should be prohibited in the modern world (or at least almost prohibited, for throughout the piece Stephens seems unsure as to quite what he would like the result of his repeal to be). Had Stephens thought about this topic for the first time yesterday, it is hard to see what would be different about his essay. What a pleasure it must be to sync up with the editors.

The logical jump at the heart of his case is an astounding one. Stephens concedes that the gun-control crowd is a hapless bunch, unable to get even modest measures through Congress, and he concedes that this is because voters know that the Democrats are only paying “lip service” to the Second Amendment and thus don’t trust them around the edges. And then he submits that these same people should switch their focus to all-out repeal. Or, put another way, Stephens argues that the people who can’t get anything because the voters think they want everything should now move to the most extreme position available. How this would work in practice is never explained. How a movement that can’t get to 50 percent would win two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states is left to the imagination. Why, given his own concessions, the attempt would represent anything less than widespread political suicide is left unaddressed. Instead we get a pep talk. The NRA, Stephens concedes, is “popular,” while the “liberals” are ignorant and dishonest and untrusted. But all great endeavors are hard, and that’s why . . . gay marriage.

Stephens is not a stupid man, and nor is he unaware of the reach that tyrannies have enjoyed. On the contrary, his is often a welcome voice in the fight for the liberty of all people. This being so, it is remarkable how blithely he elects to invoke Madison as a friend to his cause, and how readily he subordinates the right to bear arms to expediency. In truth, the Second Amendment was not an “amendment” at all, for, unlike some of the subsequent alterations to the charter, it represented neither a change in policy nor a remedy for an error. Rather, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights it was the product of a disagreement as to how to best protect freedoms that were generally considered unalienable. For reasons outlined in The Federalist Papers, Madison believed that the power of the federal government would be constrained by its structure; if the central state had only a handful of carefully enumerated powers, he contended, it would not be able to exceed them. Others, the “Anti-Federalists,” disagreed, demanding a belt to add to the suspenders. The debate that followed was strictly structural — not a fight over speech or due process or arms, but over how best to ensure the maintenance of ancient liberty. Madison acknowledged this when introducing the Bill of Rights in Congress. The rights he had included, he made clear to his peers, were those “against which I believe no serious objection has been made by any class of our constituents.” In encoding the right to bear arms among the set, neither Madison nor his opponents were innovating. Instead, they were channeling Justinian, Locke, and Blackstone, and ensuring that the people of the new country would enjoy a robust right to self-defense, and the auxiliary protections that enabled it.

They were also responding to the lessons of history. Stephens seems convinced that the Second Amendment is contingent; that is, that its meaning and relevance rely upon the continuing prevalence of redcoats. Surely, Stephens insists, if Madison could see the modern world he would change his mind. I must venture that the very opposite is true. Were he to pick up a history book today, Madison would be shocked indeed. But his surprise would be at the sheer scale and disgrace of the tyrannies that have scarred us since he died. The American Revolution was a beautiful and necessary thing, and yet if one were to have read the litany of complaints to a man in the Warsaw Ghetto, or in Dachau, or in the Gulag, or in the Laogai, or, yes, in the Reconstruction-deprived post-bellum South, he would have laughed in your face. The colonists were that upset  over . . . that?

Well, yes. They were. And they should have been. But let us not pretend that their anguish was equivalent to what came next — in Germany, in Cuba, in Russia, in China, in Mississippi. And let us not pretend that there was more need for safeguards against George III and the Declaratory Act than against the blood-soaked 20th century. Certainly, Madison could not have imagined the future. But that, in truth, is to say that he could not have imagined how right he would prove to be. Power, ambition, human nature — these are constants, not variables. And it is for that reason above all else that our enduring Constitution must be cherished. There is rarely a good reason to kick over Chesterton’s fence, even when it is chipped and knotted around the edges, and the villagers are scratching their chins. Apostasy or no apostasy, Bret Stephens has made no progress today in convincing anyone otherwise. As you were, America. As you were.


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