Thesis: Right to Bear Arms

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Right to Bear Arms

In order to understand the importance of the Right to Bear Arms, one must have a clear understanding of the events leading up to the American Revolution. The American colonists were being subjected to a form of government that they viewed as a form of tyranny. They confronted that tyranny with an armed rebellion, which they asserted was self-defense against the tyranny. Moreover, in the debates leading up to the ratification of the Constitution and the selection of the American form of government, the founding fathers discussed various different methods of keeping a militia ready to defend the new nation. One of the options that were discussed was having the government keep control of people's weapons. However, in the wake of the revolt against Great Britain, it was clear to the founding fathers that the people needed to have possession of their weapons because they may have to defend themselves against the government. This is an important consideration that is frequently lost in modern discussions about gun control, which discuss the average person's need for certain types of weaponry. The reality is that the founders intended the citizenry to have access to the same type of weaponry as the government, because the right of individual citizens to bear arms was intended as a direct protection against governmental tyranny.

One of the issues with the right to bear arms is that modern America has been plagued by gun violence. There are familiar platitudes that dismiss the role that guns play in escalating American murder rates, such as "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." While that is an accurate statement, it is, nevertheless, a misleading one. The harsh reality is that ready access to guns has contributed to America's high rates of murder and violent crime. However, the fact that a civil right has definite downfalls does not mean that the civil right should be abandoned or altered. There are definite drawbacks to each of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, and permitting the government to abridge those rights would contribute to a more peaceable and manageable society. However, America's courts and citizenry have consistently reaffirmed the idea that safety is meaningless without liberty.

The American Revolution

For most of their history, the American colonies were permitted to grow and develop with minimal interference from Britain. Of course, the colonies existed to provide for the financial health of Britain, but that was accomplished through America's normal economic transactions and nominal rates of taxes. However, in 1763, England and France ended the French and Indian War, which greatly increased British holdings in America. Britain, desiring to protect its new holdings, passed the Stamp Act in 1765. Britain repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but, at the same time, passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted Britain's right to make laws that were binding upon the colonies. The Declaratory Act was significant, because, theoretically, parliament should have had the ability to pass binding laws on one of their colonial holdings absent such an act. Passing the Declaratory Act was a somewhat desperate act, because, with it, parliament tacitly acknowledged that it had lost control of the colonies. In 1768, Britain sent troops to the colonies to enforce custom laws, which provided taxes to Britain. In 1770, the Boston Massacre, the killing of four colonists by British troops in Boston, helped demonstrate that the British government was not interested in protecting the interests of the colonists. After a series of similar incidents, which revealed to the colonists that parliament was not concerned with protecting their interests or giving them any type of representation, a group of patriots protested the British Tea Act by dumping crates of tea into Boston Harbor. In 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia; there, leading colonists, many of whom would become key figures in the Revolution and the early government discussed the options the colonists had for dealing with Britain and petitioned King George for redress of some of the grievances the colonists had with Britain. In 1775, the "shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington and Concord, marking the beginning of the actual Revolutionary War. Minute men, armed colonists, were able to force the British troops back to Boston.

Forming the American Government

Given that armed citizens were the driving fighting force in the Revolutionary War, it should come as no surprise that America's earliest citizens stressed the importance of allowing the citizenry to remain armed. If one peruses the Federalist Papers, one sees that the founding fathers were very concerned about allowing the citizenry to retain their right to bear arms. Alexander Hamilton stated:

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair. (Hamilton, Federalist 28).

Furthermore, Hamilton addressed the issue of whether an armed citizenry would be necessary if the country had a standing army, and made it clear that he believed that a standing army would actually make it more important for the citizenry to be armed, "if 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 use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights." (Hamilton, Federalist 29).

Moreover, it was not only federalists who believed that the people had a right to bear arms. In the wake of the Revolution, new Americans realized that, had they not been armed, they would not have been able to triumph in the war. In early British history, citizens were required to be armed, so that they could serve as members of a citizen army, if necessary. However, as political systems changed and the government was able to provide a standing militia, the English monarchs gradually began to restrict the owning of arms, which led to a revolt and ended up with Parliament granting Protestant Britons the right to bear arms. (Hardy). Despite that, the citizen militia began to shrink and to be confined to members of the more elite class. However, that experience was not reflected in the American colonies, where colonists armed themselves, and, if unable to afford to do so, could obtain weapons from the government. There was an absolute expectation that the citizenry would be able to arm themselves. When the Revolution began, the initial British attacks were upon militia arsenals, but the people were sufficiently well-armed to ensure that the militias could seize "political control at the grass roots." (Hardy). Therefore, while not everyone supported the federal-type of government system proposed by the founding fathers, almost all of the Revolutionary-War era information about guns and weaponry unequivocally supports the idea that citizens should have the right to bear arms.

The Constitutional Right to Bear Arms

For such a significant right, which was clearly seen as essential to freedom by the former colonists, it may be surprising to know that the right to bear arms was not contained within the text of the original constitution. However, none of the enumerated rights associated with the Constitution were actually contained in the Constitution, but were the result of constitutional amendments during the first session of Congress. "Madison drafted twelve amendments, Congress proposed them, and the states ratified ten of them in 1791." (Chapter 2, p.44). Those ten amendments came to be known as the Bill of Rights and directly addressed the rights of citizens in the newly formed United States of America. The right to bear arms to form a militia, contained in the Second Amendment, grew out of the colonial experience with Great Britain. (Chapter 2, p.44). The text of the Second Amendment provides, "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." (U.S. Const. amend. II).

Given that there is currently a fierce nationwide debate about gun control, it is important to understand the scope of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment makes it clear that the right to bear arms is linked to citizens being able to protect themselves by forming a militia. Combined with the framer's intent, which can be ascertained by examining the Federalist Papers and other contemporary documents, this right was not to be abrogated simply because the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Right to Bear Arms."  Essaytown.com.  April 10, 2009.  Accessed July 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/right-bear-arms/939036.