(Centennial Fellow) Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another..." He then proceeded to lay out why the American colonies would rightfully "assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." As he wrote this, Jefferson was laying the groundwork for what ultimately would become necessary: the forceful overthrow of an unjust political regime.
In order to succeed at a revolution, the colonists of course had to be armed and must have had the ability to take up arms against the government that was over them.
Is it possible that this might be necessary again? There are plenty of examples of democratic regimes that, through democratic means, have become tyrannical. To think we are immune from this would be naïve. We the people are the government, but that doesn't mean that we always will be.
A professional army oppressed our founders. Nevertheless, our founders proved that a well-armed citizenry was able to defeat the better-armed professional army. We can find two more recent examples, both from Afghanistan, where we find a better-armed power, losing to a weaker, though more committed force. Both the Soviet and the United States militaries have been proven ineffective against the Afghans, despite overwhelming military superiority. A rebellious force does not need identical weaponry, only adequate weapons.
Much is made of the second amendment's invocation of a "well-regulated militia." While it is certainly true that roving bands of armed men would fail the test of "well-regulated," the ability for ordinary citizens to organize themselves when needed is a far cry from the professional military of standing military and even state National Guards.
To get a sense of the thinking on the concept of militias at the time of the founding, we can turn to Adam Smith, who in the Wealth of Nationswrote the following: "Men of republican principles have been jealous of a standing army as dangerous to liberty. In a militia, the character of the labourer, artificer, or tradesman, predominates over that of the soldier: in a standing army, that of the soldier predominates over every other character; and in this distinction seems to consist the essential difference between those two different species of military force" (Book V, Chapter 1). Smith's comparison between a standing army and a "militia" is clear: militias, as distinct from standing armies, are ordinary men who take up arms, when necessary, to oppose oppressive standing armies. Standing armies, like the National Guard, aren't the solution when defending an oppressive regime; they are the problem and certainly would not be the type of "militia" referred to in the 2nd Amendment.
The NRA and other gun groups have devoted much of their argument for 2nd Amendment protection in the area of hunting and sporting. If you visit the NRA web page, hunting, sporting and some discussion of personal defense are emphasized with little to no discussion about the founder's inclusion of the 2nd amendment. When this is the primary argument, defenders of the 2nd Amendment are going to lose the fight. When we base our argument primarily on an individual's desire to go hunting or target shooting, we are asking the general public to weigh two options: letting potential murders have access to guns who might perpetrate an evil like Columbine or Newtown versus the desire to go hunting or target shooting. When this comparison is made, supporters of gun rights lose, as the emotional appeal of "protecting innocent kindergarteners" is far more compelling to the general public than is recreational shooting.
Many supporters have used the hunting/sporting argument as the default position to oppose new government regulations. If this is what we stand on in opposition to any new regulations supported by the White House and members of Congress, the 2nd Amendment will lose. The general public is going to weigh a person's desire to shoot their AR-15 against the tragedy in Newtown and, in the end, public sentiment will be overwhelming in favor of a gun ban.
This is not what the 2nd Amendment is about. It isn't about hunting or target shooting with a specific caliber firearm. It is about the ability for individuals and groups of people to be armed, as necessary, to defend themselves from standing armies, both foreign and domestic.
CCU political professor Greg Schaller wrote this for "A Line of Sight," Bob Beauprez's ezine.