Date: 20 July 2022 Author: Jan Hernik
Why do Americans need guns? Analysis of the Second Amendment to the American Constitution
The right to possess a gun is a distinctive attribute in American political and social life. This theme can warm the emotions of society, and it returns almost every time a tragedy involving firearms occurs in the United States. However, it is worth considering what the 2nd Amendment to the American Constitution is, what its interpretations are and what function it performs in American legislation.
The Second Amendment to the American Constitution entered into law on December 15, 1791, after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, which included the first ten amendments. This is the first major legal change that entered into force after the US Constitution entered into law on March 4, 1789.
The genesis of the right to bear arms in the United States
Guns and the right to possess them are deeply rooted in both the historical and political identity of the American people. In historical terms, it is worth mentioning that firearms and universal access to them were one of the main factors that contributed to the success of the American Revolution, i.e., the war with Great Britain for the independence of the first 13 colonies in North America. It was the universal access to weapons that allowed the colonizers to face and level the war field against the then powerful British Crown army.
The right to own a gun is also rooted in the political thought that was the guiding principle in establishment of the state by the United States’ Founding Fathers. It means a system based on the theory of natural law. It is a doctrine, of which one of the main representatives during the formation of the American state was John Locke. The English philosopher is considered to be the precursor of the modern democratic system and the first theorist of contemporary republicanism.
Referring to the second chapter of Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government”, we can define the author’s position as to what natural law means to him. The English philosopher points out that people in the “state of nature” are free and equal, able to do what they want, but only “within the limits of the law of nature.” In Locke’s understanding, boundaries are set by respect for the right of others to self-determination. The author argues that individuals have a duty to respect the property (and life and freedoms) of others, even (contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ theory) in a “state of nature”, and this obligation arises from natural law.
Locke wrote that all individuals are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. This means that there are laws that are given by God and that can never be taken away. They are obvious. Among these basic natural rights are “life, freedom and property.” Lock’s words were almost exactly recalled by Thomas Jefferson, who was the lead author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government (…)
For this reason, in the American sociopolitical sphere, the right to bear arms is an obvious phenomenon that is the cornerstone of American liberalism.
John Locke pointed out that if a ruler opposes natural law and does not protect “life, liberty and property,” the state authorities can rightly be overthrown. This, in the intention of the Founding Fathers, was to be served by the 2nd amendment to the American Constitution, which says:
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.
Taking into account the theory of natural law represented in the interpretation of John Locke, the text of the Declaration of Independence and the content of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution itself, it should be indicated that the right to possess a gun applies to citizens who may overthrow a functioning government if it deviates from its goals.
Politicians who support the Second Amendment to the Constitution also support the right of citizens to legally overthrow their power if it threatens or violates citizens’ rights.
In terms of the American approach to liberal natural law theory, it is obvious that in order to overthrow oppressive power, citizens must have a similar or the same potential as the military led by the federal government.
Looking at the history of Western civilization, it is largely established on the basis of overthrowing oppressive power, from the Magna Charta Libertatum to the US Declaration of Independence.
Interpretations of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution
The text of the 2nd Amendment has been subject to various interpretations over time. The two most popular of them are:
- “Collective rights theory”
Supporters of this interpretation point to the beginning of the amendment text, which mentions a “well-regulated militia”. In their opinion, this is an argument for citizens not having a personal right to firearms, but only by state and federal law enforcement agencies. This theory is most used by the American left, which openly opposes the right to firearms and the government to increase gun control.
- “Individual rights theory”
Proponents of this theory look mainly at the second part of the text of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, which says that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” It is an interpretation that, in accordance with the natural law and the historical and cultural heritage of the United States, grants the right to own a firearm to any eligible US citizen.
Over the last few decades, the Supreme Court has used both of the above-mentioned interpretations, but the overwhelming majority of its judgments were directed by the “Individual rights theory”. This means that the prevailing interpretation in the legal order is the individual right to bear arms that applies to citizens of the United States, and not only to their military or security and law enforcement.
The right to own a gun, and the right to self-defense
Many observers and those interested in American politics argue that the 2nd Amendment to the American Constitution guarantees citizens the right to self-defense in a life-threatening situation. This is a common misinterpretation of this provision, which makes no mention of the right to use firearms for self-defense purposes. This does not mean, however, that this right is not included in the US Constitution.
The most important piece of US legislation takes into account the circumstances that require self-defense, without mentioning it in any of the laws. This right is therefore contained in the 9th Amendment to the US Constitution, which says:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
This provision says that although a given right is not written in the document, it does not mean that citizens do not have it.
These words should be understood through the prism of natural law, which was the main guide and inspiration for the Founding Fathers of the United States, who had a major share in the creation of the so-called Founding Documents of the USA—Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Bill of Rights and Federalist Papers.
Taking into account the assumptions of natural law and the text of the 9th Amendment to the constitution, it seems obvious that the right to self-defense is an unwritten principle which, due to its obviousness, did not even have to be formally separated in the document.
Thus, contrasting the 2nd Amendment with the 9th Amendment to the American Constitution, it should be noted that the former is intended to ensure the security of citizens’ rights and prevent abuse by an oppressive government. The second, on the other hand, guarantees all inalienable and (even) unwritten rights that are due to every free man. The right to self-defense is such a principle.
Possession of weapons, the right to self-defense and the culture resulting from dealing with the military equipment is a phenomenon that is widespread and sanctioned on many levels in the United States. When assessing the widespread presence of firearms in many American states, one should always look at this phenomenon through the prism of the factors that make up American statehood, political and social culture. In traditional American society, the principles of “life, liberty, and property” are so deeply entrenched that they have become even superior to other values. Weapons also have a special place in American social life due to the history of the United States, which is marked by resistance to the oppression of tyrannical control of the British monarchy, and therefore, in the eyes of Americans, guns are a guarantee of citizens’ control over the federal government. It is thanks to such rules that the United States remains a global hegemon that continues to implement John Winthrop’s prophetic vision of “City upon a Hill”.
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