Kaili Joy Gray’s article on the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights is excellent. She argues that liberals should interpret the right to bear arms as broadly as they interpret other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. As a libertarian in a family that’s mostly liberal, I was with her. My family mostly favors restrictions on gun rights. I occasionally point out that if people can’t bear arms, we can’t protect ourselves against tyranny. The right of revolution, however, seems screwy and even ephemeral in light of citizens’ practical desire to get handguns off the streets.
Gray argues that the fundamental concept behind the Second Amendment is the right of revolution – the right to replace our government should it destroy rather than protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Gray is correct that the right of revolution is the most essential right we have. We’ve seen in the last decade that if we don’t have that, we don’t have any political rights at all. Constitutional government has no practical meaning without it. Without a right of revolution, people in power pretend to follow the constitution to give their rule the appearance of legitimacy. Without a right of revolution, formal checks on power become legalistic tools or bargaining resources in the political process. The only fundamental protection people have is the right to alter or abolish their government, and to institute a new one.
Gray’s article raises an interesting question that comes to mind after the Supreme Court overturned Chicago’s restrictions on handguns. The question arises because the Second Amendment refers to arms, not guns. We’ve argued a lot about whether the Second Amendment extends to machine guns and other automatic weapons. What about bazookas and other anti-tank weapons, mortars, or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles? What about improvised explosive devices? What about nuclear weapons?
A knife or a box-cutter is a weapon, as is a powerful bomb. All qualify as arms. The framers probably had guns in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment, but arms included many kinds of weapons then as now. So the question persists, to what extent does the government have a monopoly on instruments of violence? If its monopoly is absolute, the right of revolution becomes a thought experiment rather than a real constraint on governmental power.
Absolute monopoly or not, most citizens wouldn’t feel comfortable if an individual could buy a nuclear weapon, no matter how many restrictions we placed on the sale. Liberals who favor gun restrictions say we have to distinguish between permissible weapons and impermissible weapons – then draw the line so as to keep dangerous weapons away from criminals and nuts. People who want to protect Second Amendment rights ought to consider why handguns should be permissible, but not bombs or nuclear weapons, since a public safety issue exists for both.
The Hobbesian contract is that citizens turn weapons of force over to the state in return for the state’s protection of their liberty. The open question is what happens when a government controls the means of force, but becomes destructive of the liberty it’s supposed to protect. Do citizens become helpless, with no recourse to force or the threat of force? One might add this hopeful idea to simplify things a bit: we don’t need nuclear weapons to replace our government.
Gray’s article explains why we all have an interest in protection of Second Amendment rights. It explains why the Second Amendment exists in the first place. Most importantly, it places the right of revolution at the center of our political tradition, where it belongs.