The American War for Independence was fought, and the Constitution of the United States of America subsequently constructed, so that Americans could live in a free society. The particular connotation of “freedom” paramount in importance was that of self-government. The British crown and parliament were seen to interfere with the ordering of American colonies by themselves: the crown and parliament were thrown off. What then proved to be an interim measure, the Articles of Confederation, was homegrown but the resulting government was ineffectual and even bad: the Articles were superseded. The Constitution as it took effect in 1789 provided a much more effective structure for the central government of the United States: but as government is entrusted with maintaining by compulsion those things thought necessary in society – or at least by the governors of society – a more effective government is also a greater threat to individual and social liberties.
Thus, with ratification beginning in 1791, several Amendments – the Bill of Rights – were quickly added into the structure of the new government. From the standpoint of modern practice, these protect freedoms ranging from our most prized (such as speech and religion) to the apparently quaint (not quartering troops) to the generally ignored (authority of individual states and the people). Today, while the exact limits of the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment – speech, religion, assembly – are hotly debated, the most controversial item in the Bill of Rights is the Second Amendment:
“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 abridged.”
The security of any State is threatened by foreign encroachment; but that of a free State is also threatened by its own government, should that government turn tyrannical. This latter was certainly that consideration by those drafting this amendment. The Constitution already provided for armed forces. The rest of the Bill of Rights asserts rights against government: why would this be different? The Founders had just fought a war against a government they considered tyrannical.
At the time and in context, militia were lightly trained and loosely organized citizens with ordinary or perhaps slightly outdated infantry weapons. The Second Amendment thus speaks directly to the legitimacy – even necessity – of a “civilian military”, under regulation. The weapons in view for the citizenry to possess – the Militia Acts of 1792 required citizens to provide themselves with these arms – were recognizably those used in war.
It is worth noting that the Second Amendment has nothing to say about what individual states in the Union might require or disallow with regards to arms (except as superseded by national militia regulations). However, the authority of states in this question would seem to have later been strictly curtailed by the Fourteenth Amendment, although I do not know whether this reasoning following the letter of the Constitution is routinely followed itself in court cases.
Militia service was assumed to be a duty for citizens. The Militia Acts prescribed militia service for all white male citizens in the United States, subject to requirements established in the various states. This reflects the common practice of probably a majority of nations throughout history, free or not. It is still common practice throughout the world to require some degree of military service. It is, however, not true of practice in the United States today. How we got here is understandable: reluctance after the Civil War to give the Southern states opportunity for further disruptions, followed by the nationalism and centralization of the early Progressives; two World Wars and various ensuing conflicts would put the country’s military in mind to keep skill in the field at its fighting peak, a task for professionals, rather than amateur citizens. But there is something a little odd about the occasional claim that the current doctrine of an “All Volunteer Force” is somehow specially “American”.
I take it for granted that some discipline in habits is necessary in a populace to maintain a continuing society. That discipline can either be imposed from outside or maintained from inside: tyranny or at least autocracy on the one hand; self-control and self-government on the other. As a society we do not value – in fact we tend to resent – admonitions to curb our desires. We do so increasingly poorly, and are largely inclined to make jokes about our failures rather than consider them seriously. In this light, the decline of – the lack of requirement of – militia service is an indication of a people not significantly concerned with remaining free.
In light of current outrages some call for further arming, that everybody should be ready to defend themselves: but a free man should not have to go armed in a free place. The absolute horror of weapons themselves occasioned by these massacres is not significantly more palatable as an alternative, because by implication it is to admit we have surrendered our freedom. Between the desire to feel in control of one’s own safety, the emotional and symbolic implications of surrendering the instrument of that control, and the actual fact of a government that spawns ever more intrusive regulations and agencies – the threat the Second Amendment actually had in mind – it is quite easy to understand the desire to see the right to bear arms remain unabridged.
It is mainly either free or lawless societies that have been armed societies: the former to mark and protect their freedom; the latter out of necessity and terror. The Constitution of the United States was written for a people who – whatever their failures in actually carrying out these principles – wanted to live freely. Its provisions are probably not safe for a populace which does not wish to exercise self-control. But – here is the trouble – are we ready to admit that we are in fact not exactly a free people, or do not wish to be? If so, are we content with that, or will we make actual reforms?
If society as a whole reflects an inability of individuals to govern their own conduct safely, the society is not free: even those individuals who might control themselves will be restricted, out of necessities that affect the whole. I firmly believe no other nation has yet had the ideals of liberty imagined, or even achieved though admittedly only in part, so well as we have in the United States. But it is possible for a nation’s maturity to regress. Are we still free? Can we prove it? Or will Uncle Sam have to come take the scissors away from a nation of squabbling toddlers mad about who got invited to the party?