The right to keep and bear arms is premised on self-defense. A well-armed citizenry secures a free state by protecting the nation and its individuals from three distinct threats: tyranny, foreign invasion, and domestic dangers such as crime and civil unrest.
“The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”16 —Joseph Story, Supreme Court Justice and acclaimed author of Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
Securing a Free State Against Tyranny
A well-armed citizenry acts as a major check on the ability of would-be tyrants, enabling the people to forcibly resist oppression. In the United States, our constitutional system is premised on the theory that, in a truly free society, ultimate power lies with the people and not with the government. But should the government forget this basic principle, the people maintain the practical power that comes with being armed for their own defense. The threat of tyranny and oppression is very real, even today. In the 20th century alone, it is estimated that governments with a monopoly on the instruments of force slaughtered over 200 million largely unarmed and defenseless people.17
Of course, an armed citizenry is not the only defense against tyranny. Other aspects of our constitutional framework—like the separation of powers horizontally among three branches of government and vertically between the federal and state governments—provide important safeguards against the consolidation of power by would-be autocrats. When the right to keep and bear arms is not protected, however, the people lack any meaningful failsafe against a government that simply chooses to ignore the rights they have on paper. Consider modern authoritarian governments like those in Venezuela or China, where the people have a plethora of rights “guaranteed” in their constitutions, but not in reality. Indeed, as one 19th century textbook aptly explained about the right to keep and bear arms: “This right is not allowed by governments that are afraid of the people.”18
What about the fact that the United States currently maintains a large, professional army equipped with tanks, artillery, and fighter jets? Does this not negate the usefulness of an armed civilian population or of the militia system, more broadly? Not at all! The Founders knew that the answer to a large standing army is not to disarm the people, but to continue maintaining the entire militia as security against it. As Hamilton explained: “[I]f circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me to be the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”19 Moreover, even powerful modern standing armies are not always able to subdue determined opponents who possess little more than small arms.
Securing a Free State Against Foreign Invasion
While the framers reasonably feared the internal threats posed by large, standing armies, a truly free and sovereign state must also be capable of defending itself and its people from external threats, including the threat of foreign invasion. Recent generations of Americans are blessed to live in a country where the “threat” of full-scale foreign invasion often seems limited to video games and Hollywood movies. But in the history of the world, longstanding periods of domestic peace are fragile anomalies. Many countries today face external threats. Although seemingly unlikely, it could happen to the U.S.
“A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.”20 —JAMES MADISON
A well-armed citizenry is not only hard to oppress, but also difficult to conquer. Even with our nation’s modern and well-equipped professional military, the broader body of armed people (and the militia system through which they may be called to the nation’s collective defense) is vital to both deterring and repelling any sudden foreign invasion.
Consider this analysis by several historians of the militia’s usefulness during the Revolution:
British naval dominance meant the British army could always move faster than the Continental Army and could attack anywhere near the coast. But the militia, comprised of most able-bodied adult males, could rise wherever the British deployed….The Americans could better afford losses in battle because a large fraction of the adult population was available to fight. Redcoats or German mercenaries imported from across the Atlantic were more difficult to replace. The British could capture cities on or near the coast…yet control of the vast interior proved impossible.21
While the militia likely could not have successfully defeated the British on its own without the existence of the professional Continental Army, it is equally true that the Continental Army, without the support of the militia, likely would not have been successful.
“Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”22 —Thomas Jefferson, quoting criminologist Cesare Beccaria
Nearly 250 years later, the continued importance of maintaining a “well-regulated militia” can be seen in the recent experience of the Ukrainian people in resisting a sudden invasion by Russia, which has one of the world’s largest armies. There is ample evidence that the widespread arming of Ukrainian citizens with small arms—forming them into a type of ad hoc militia operating in much the same way as the American militia during the Revolution—has been crucial to Ukraine’s continued resistance of the Russian invasion. Imagine if, instead of having to suddenly distribute tens of thousands of firearms to untrained civilians during an emergency situation, a significant percentage of the adult population already possessed small arms useful for militia service, knew how to use them, and had their own stockpiles of ammunition?
Securing a Free State Against Threats to Law and Order
In a civil democratic society, citizens expect the government to maintain law and order and protect them from criminal threats. In a modern context, this usually means that governments employ large, professional police forces. However, under the natural law—and, as a matter of legal reality in the United States and most Western countries—citizens do not completely cede their right to self-defense to the government. The Second Amendment ensures that, when the government cannot or will not be there in time to protect individual rights from criminal threats, private citizens have meaningful ways of fighting back and protecting themselves and their loved ones.
According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost every major study on the issue has found that Americans use their firearms defensively between 500,000 and 3 million times per year. More recently, data collected by the 2021 National Firearms Survey indicates an annual average of 1.6 million defensive gun uses.23 The best, most comprehensive studies on crime victimization in the United States have also found that victims who forcefully resist crimes are less likely to suffer serious injury or property loss than those who do not offer resistance.24 This is true even when individuals face disadvantageous circumstances, such as being outnumbered or confronted by armed assailants.25
Additionally, while state governments rarely call upon the unorganized militia to quell riots or enforce law and order during times of widespread civil unrest, armed citizens routinely band together during such times to collectively defend their communities.
16. Joseph Story, A Familiar Exposition Of The Constitution Of The United States 264–65 (1842)
17. David B. Kopel, Guns Kill People, And Tyrants With Gun Monopolies Kill The Most, 24 Gonzaga J. Of Int’l L. (Forthcoming 2022), Https://Papers.ssrn.com/Sol3/Papers.cfm?Abstract_id=3942071.
18. George A. Mocsary, Nicholas James Johnson & Clayton E. Cramer, ‘This Right Is Not Allowed By Governments That Are Afraid Of The People’:The Public Meaning Of The Second Amendment When The Fourteenth Amdnement Was Ratified, U. Wy. College Of L. Faculty Article 16 (Oct. 21, 2009), Https://Scholarship.law.uwyo.edu/Cgi/Viewcontent.cgiArticle=1015&Context=Faculty_articles.
19. The Federalist No. 29 (Hamilton).
20. James Madison, I Annals Of Congress 434 (June 8, 1789)
21. Nicholas J. Johnson Et Al., Firearms Law And The Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, And Policy 282 (2nd Ed. 2018).
22. Thomas Jefferson, The Commonplace Book Of Thomas Jefferson, A Repository Of His Ideas On Government 314 (Ed. Gilbert Chinard 1926).
23. William English, 2021 National Firearms Survey, GEORGETOWN MCDONOUGH SCHOOL OF BUSINESS RESEARCH PAPER No. 3887145 (Last Updated July 13, 2021), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3887145#.
24. See, e.g., Gary Kleck & Jongyeon Tark, Resisting Crime: The Effects Of Victim Action On The Outcomes Of Crimes, 42 Criminology 861 (2004); Stephen M. Schnebly, An Examination Of The Impact Of Victim, Offender, And Situational Attributes On The Deterrent Effect Of Defensive Gun Use: A Research Note, 19 Justice Quarterly 377 (2002); Lawrence Southwich Jr., Self-Defense With Guns: The Consequences, 28 J. Crim. Justice 351 (2000). Studies With Contrary Findings Universally Rely On Irrelevant Tests And Fail To Control For Key Confounders That Consistently Bias Results Against The Effectiveness Of Armed Resistance. See Gary Kleck, How Hemenway And Solnick Distorted The Effectiveness Of Defensive Gun Use (Aug. 29, 2020), Https://Papers.ssrn.com/Sol3/Papers.cfm?Abstract_id=3659333.
25. Gary Kleck & Jongyeon Tark, Resisting Crime: The Effects Of Victim Action On The Outcomes Of Crimes, 42 Criminology 861, 897 (2004).