Firearm Ownership: A Few Common (and Commonly Overlooked) Fallacies About the Second Amendment

Recent tragedies such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which left 20 children dead, have understandably fueled a firestorm of debate surrounding this nation’s stance on the legality of firearms. The increasing antipathy toward firearms and those who own them is understandable: for many middle- and upper-class Americans, such weapons are something from another world entirely, something with which they have had little – if any – contact, and something that, having had such limited contact with it, they naturally fear. But as natural and understandable as this fear is, it should not excuse us for making irrational and contradictory policies, the far-flung effects of which we may not completely grasp from our current vantage point.

People in many other developed nations look on, wide-eyed, at the gun violence in the United States and wonder how it is that we continue to have such liberal (using that word in the true sense) policies when it comes to firearms. What’s wrong with the Yanks? Why do they continue trying to live in the Wild West? Can’t they see that their children are dying?

Ignoring the statistically absurd idea that children all across the United States are looking death in the face whenever they go to school, the simple answer to this issue is that we have the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment, a part of the U.S. Constitution, was included as the second item of the Bill of Rights, just after the amendment establishing freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the freedom to assemble. It is followed by the amendment that prohibits the government from stationing troops in people’s houses except in certain conditions. As an item in the Bill of Rights, it was included because the founders of our country felt that it was an important right, as are the other items in the Bill of Rights. The exact text of the Second Amendment is: “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.”

As opponents to firearm ownership in the United States typically like (or claim to like) the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, as a whole, they often encounter some trouble when it comes to applying the Second Amendment to our present circumstances. In trying to make their case, they make several common fallacies, which I will list here:

The Obsolescence Fallacy
Argument: “The Constitution is a living document. The Founders never intended for it to be something that would go unchanged forever; it is ours to change and interpret as we will. This amendment was made in a time in which there was a real and present danger of foreign invasion, as occurred in the War of 1812. Due to the strength of our military and modern diplomatic processes, this fear is no longer an issue.”

Response: Yes, the Constitution is a “living document” in the sense that we can amend it. Indeed, the amendment process was included as part of the original Constitution. However, it is not a “living document” in the sense that we can interpret it any way we want. The Constitution means what its writers intended for it to mean. If it can mean absolutely anything – if its meaning is a completely relative matter of interpretation – it does not actually mean anything, and you cannot expect it to protect your rights when it matters. If the Second Amendment is truly obsolete such that it should no longer apply, we must do away with it by applying the proper processes. If we simply decide to ignore it and make laws that tread on the rights established in the Second Amendment, we give license to others who would like to ignore the other items of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as a whole.

The Assault Weapon Fallacy
Argument: “Yes, the Second Amendment gives you the right to bear arms, but why do you need an assault weapon? No one needs a firearm like that unless you plan on going on a shooting spree. Pistols, shotguns, and hunting rifles are fine, but assault weapons are unnecessary.”

Response: As the Second Amendment states, its purpose is to protect the people’s right to form a “well regulated militia”. A militia is “a body of citizen soldiers as distinguished from professional soldiers”. The Second Amendment’s purpose is not to protect people’s right to hunt or shoot at targets: no single recreational activity is important enough for constitutional protection. Gun control advocates are therefore extremely disingenuous when they make the issue about hunting. The Second Amendment is about the people’s right to defend against tyranny and invasion – hence the phrasing “to bear arms”, which intrinsically refers to martial circumstances. (One does not “bear arms” against a deer or a clay pigeon.) If you feel that this is an obsolete concern, please re-read the previous point. Also, please note the following:

  • Statistically, if we were going to go after a specific type of firearm, it would make sense to go after pistols, not assault weapons, as they are many times more dangerous. This is because those who purchase firearms with the intent to commit crimes prefer pistols, as they are easy to conceal. Sandy Hook does not change that fact.
  • If we are trying to protect the people’s right to form militias as the Second Amendment states, assault weapons should be the last weapons we would want to ban. A militia is a fighting unit intended to be able to fight battles – which means using the same weapons that infantrymen would carry into battle.
  • The attitude of “Hunting rifles are okay, but assault weapons are not!” makes no sense because those who say it usually do not even know what the definition of an assault weapon is. They see two versions of the same weapon – one with a wooden stock, one with a black plastic stock – and they assume that the first is fine while the second is evil. What they fail to understand is that there is usually little – if any – difference in functionality.

The Regulatory Fallacy
Argument: “The Second Amendment says that militias should be ‘well regulated’. That means we can place limitations on gun ownership as we see fit.”

Response: There is a difference between regulation and prohibition. If we ban assault weapons, as Dianne Feinstein and others would like for us to do, we are essentially prohibiting militias, not regulating them. While it makes sense to ban civilians from owning things like land mines and rocket launchers, as there is a much higher risk there of accidental deaths, we cannot ban all weapons that a militia would conceivably use and then say that we are honoring the people’s right to form a “well regulated militia”. Even if government does regulate militias, that is something that must be done on the local or state level, as the federal government is given no Constitutional authority to do so.

The Inefficacy Fallacy
Argument: “Second Amendment advocates say that the Second Amendment is instrumental in ensuring that a military dictatorship never arises in the United States, but this is ridiculous because an army equipped with fighter planes, tanks, and drones is not going to be afraid of a few people with hunting rifles.”

Response: The U.S. Armed Forces have about 1.5 million active personnel, with many of those being stationed abroad. There are over 300 million people in our country. If you were a would-be military dictator, and if you knew anything at all, you would be very afraid of trying to oppress 120 million people (an approximate number for the amount of people capable of fighting) who own assault rifles, regardless of the military’s technological superiority.

For those from other countries who feel that it is laughable for us to think the Second Amendment has anything to do with liberty, I ask: In over 200 years of history, we have not yet needed to overthrow a tyrant – can you say the same? Not many of you can. Even those countries that established representative governments soon after we did have found that liberty is a difficult thing to maintain.

The Security Fallacy
Argument: “Sometimes you have to give up your rights to make the world safer.”

Response: Hello again, Tyranny. It’s strange how you continue to find the same tactics to be so effective after having used them so many times.

The greatness of the United States lies in its ability to establish a society of liberty. So long as people are imperfect, liberty will be a messy – and scary – thing. So long as our moral fiber continues to fray, liberty will become increasingly scary. I only hope that my country will realize that virtually all social ills result from a lack of that goodness that must be generated by the populace and cannot be legislated into existence.