A Fighting Chance
In “The Right to Bear Arms and Popular Sovereignty” (February 11), Charles C. W. Cooke reports that the Second Amendment was designed to protect the right of the citizenry to defend itself against state tyranny. One difficult question is this: Has the right become purely theoretical or symbolic, given that the people will never have military weapons? When the people and the state would have fought each other with muskets, the right certainly would have meant more in practice.
Charles C. W. Cooke replies: My view here is twofold. On the theory side, that the citizenry could not necessarily win a fight against tyranny by no means undermines its right to try, nor its right to keep arms in case such a situation arises. I almost certainly couldn’t outshout a tyrannical government, whose access to the bully pulpit would give it a range far beyond my own. But this wouldn’t render my First Amendment rights valueless in fighting back or render them anachronistic. A citizen’s having the right to protect himself against future oppression is not a recently developed idea. New Hampshire’s constitution of 1784 went so far as to codify it:
[Art.] 10. Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.
On the practical side: Although the citizenry could almost certainly not win a pitched battle against the concerted efforts of the state, it would be almost impossible for a tyrannical government effectively to rule a people that was in open rebellion against it. The Americans in 1775 were underpowered — with a chronic lack of training and gunpowder — but they had on their side a divided British parliament and a distaste for fighting among many British soldiers whose loyalties were divided.
A lesson from Iraq, Afghanistan, and especially Vietnam is that, in the long term, you just can’t beat a guerrilla force. Orwell wrote:
Ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon — so long as there is no answer to it — gives claws to the weak.
America’s federal government is now possessed of an arsenal of “complex weapons,” whereas the people have hundreds of millions of “simple weapons.” Nonetheless, 270 million “simple weapons” presented against a divided U.S. military in an interconnected modern world? Unless we presume that the tyrannical government’s aim would be one-time annihilation, I’d take my chances.