We recently celebrated Independence Day, and now that the echoes of the fireworks have faded, the hot dogs eaten and the bunting put away, let’s reflect on what it really means.
At the heart of it is the Second Amendment.
It’s customary on national holidays to express appreciation for people in the military and veterans. They indeed deserve the recognition and gratitude of the citizenry they serve.
However, those who fought in the American Revolution were not professional soldiers, sailors or marines. They were farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen. They were revolutionaries.
They knew there would be bloodshed and violence when they signed the Declaration of Independence because monarchs, even as urbane and sophisticated as England’s king, do not give up power easily.
The American Revolution was indeed bloody and long. After it ended, when the men who fought in it took the reins of government themselves, they continued to think like revolutionaries rather than as noblemen with some divine right to rule. To their credit, they wanted to ensure American citizens never lost the ability to take back control of the government, through violent means if necessary.
They expected another revolution, perhaps in their own lifetimes. So, they saw the need to state explicitly in the Bill of Rights that citizens have a right to bear arms in order to be able to launch armed uprisings against the government.
Hunting was such a common activity in the 18th century that it never entered the minds of people then that it would require any constitutional protections. But armed revolt was something that dictators have always harbored an interest in preventing, and so the purpose of the amendment was to ensure no king, tyrant or democratic government would stand in the way.
No careful reading of history can lead to any other conclusion on the amendment's meaning.
Understanding how the authors interpreted the Constitution is important because it is a contract of sorts. Courts evaluate contracts in light of the meaning attached to phrases by the people entering into the agreement, in this case the Founding Fathers and the citizens of the states that ratified the Bill of Rights. Meanings change over time, but the only way to change the terms of a contract is to amend it. The Constitution has a process for amending it.
If you think the need for the Second Amendment to arm future revolutionaries is no longer valid because human nature has changed or 250 years of legal precedent is an ironclad safeguard, then it should be amended through the assent of the citizens who are a party to the agreement.
However, it would be wrong to attempt to change the interpretation of the words to reflect modern thinking the way some judges suggest when they describe the Constitution as "a living document." Because if it is that easy to do for one provision, then it could be easily done for others. And all citizens have an interest in safeguarding our personal liberties.