Keeping the Militia, Brigands, & Hoodlums in Check: Why the Second Amendment Is an Individual Right

“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government.”  —Ronald Reagan


First Reading: The Second Amendment as a Restriction on Federal Power

Let us begin by reading the text of the Second Amendment, and then we shall attempt to elucidate its meaning in the overall context of what the framers of the Constitution intended: “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.”  One of the challenges to reading the simple wording of this amendment is the reference it makes to regulating the militia.  The right to bear arms is granted as an individual right, in order that citizens of the United States might be granted power to regulate the militia.  This wording is carefully placed in the Second Amendment in response to specific wording extant in Article 1 of the unamended Constitution, which created a problem in its language about militias.

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The Second Amendment is an elaboration on a particular set of provisions concerning the “militia” that were offensive to the states and, therefore, had to be addressed in the Bill of Rights.  There are provisions in Article 1, Section 8, Clauses 15 and 16, and Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1.  Especially offensive to the states was Clause 15, in which Congress is granted the power to “provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”

Imagine the government has become tyrannical and out of touch with the people.  How are the people to regulate effectively—or “well”—the power of a militia of an oppressive state?  The only answer was for the people to retain the right to bear arms of their own.  And this had to be a right that could never be taken away, or “infringed,” capriciously by a simple majority vote of Congress.  It was Thomas Jefferson who so famously said, “When governments fear people, there is liberty; when the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

2nd_amendmentWhat the states realized was that, to give the national government pause and to prevent acts of tyranny by some federal police state of the future, the individual states needed the militia, as originally outlined in the federal Constitution, to be well regulated.  And they needed some kind of a restrictive clause added to the Constitution in the form of an amendment, in order that the people of the states be able to regulate this federal militia.  Giving the people the right to bear arms as an independent right seemed to be the best answer.  This is how they would succeed in being able to make sure that the federal militia was “well regulated.”


Second Reading: The Second Amendment for Protection against Hoodlums

So, let us read the Second Amendment once again, in light of what we have just discussed: “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.”  This right would also, quite naturally, extend to being able to defend against brigands or home invaders.  If citizens of the United States are allowed to defend themselves against a repressive government, they are inarguably allowed to defend themselves against unregulated criminals who mean them harm.

So what has the Supreme Court decided in this matter?  Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority of justices on the Court in the 2010 McDonald v. Chicago ruling, opined that sometimes, especially in crime-ridden areas where police resources are spread too thin, a citizen cannot wait for officers of the law to show up.  To quote Alito: “If, as petitioners believe, their safety and the safety of other law-abiding members of the community would be enhanced by the possession of hand-guns in the home for self-defense, then the Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials.”

So, in a sense, the idea of regulating the state comes once again into play, but viewed from a different angle: If the state cannot guarantee that police will respond quickly enough, when called, Americans have the right to defend themselves without waiting for help from the state.  And, indeed, it has become an adage in modern times that “when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.”


But Can’t States Limit Their Citizens to Colonial-Style Guns?

The Constitution says that the people have the right to bear “arms.”  It does not specify any particular type of weaponry by use of that word.  Knowing that weaponry might change over time, wording was chosen that would allow the people to bear whatever arms they might need in order to defend themselves against a tyrannical government militia or any other threat.  Today, this would include the right to bear arms in the form of rifles, knives, swords, and all manner of handguns.  The right of self-defense is the right to defend yourself with the same kind of force you might expect yourself to be attacked with.


What If You Called 9-1-1, and Nobody Came?

guncrimeNow, imagine you have called 9-1-1 late at night, upon hearing the sound of your front door being smashed in.  Your bedroom door is locked, and your bed chamber is located in the back of the house, but you can hear men’s voices approaching.  You try to keep your voice down, but the 9-1-1 operator can barely hear your hushed tone, so you must speak at an uncomfortable level, or no help is coming.  The men must have overheard you, because they are immediately drawn to your bedroom door.  They are just beginning the process of kicking it in, as the police dispatcher tells you she is sending officers right away.  The door slams open. . . .

What happens next, if you do not have a gun for self-defense?  Irrespective of the state of victim-disarmament law in your state, I can assure you that the criminals who are coming for you are not following the rules.  Will the hired guns you have called for get to you in time to save you?  Since the answer to that question is a definite no, should you not be allowed to protect yourself with a handgun of your own?


Koreatown Called the L.A.P.D.  The Answer?  “Sorry, wrong number. . . .”

In the 1992 L.A. Riots, Koreatown, a Los Angeles neighborhood, found itself beset by bands of brigands who would not be deterred by regular handguns or shotguns from looting, pillaging, and murdering.  The Los Angeles Police Department refused to enter Koreatown for two whole days, and only arrived on the scene after the California National Guard had shown up.  The Korean community was clearly on its own during this 48-hour period.  So shop owners and citizens with high-powered rifles took to the rooftops and fired warning rounds, off and on, during this time.

The rioters eventually had to give up their illegal efforts to commit acts of violence and robbery in Koreatown, since the shop owners succeeded in fending off most threats by the use of arms.  Only four people were killed in Koreatown, as a result of Korean Americans’ utilization of their armed-defense rights under the Second Amendment.  Luckily, the L.A. Riots occurred before Diane Feinstein’s “Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994” was passed.  Had that particular victim-disarmament law taken effect prior to the riots, the death toll would have increased substantially.

In the hands of the law-abiding, guns save lives.  Criminals will always obtain whatever guns they want; so moral, law-abiding people must arm themselves to protect innocent life, lest the criminals win out.


History Matters

What the Supreme Court ruled in 2010—that the right to bear arms was an individual right that was reserved to all of the people—was grounded in both theory and reality.  The jurists on the Court who held the words of the Constitution in high esteem had a deep understanding of the reasoning behind the Second Amendment as well as the history of repeated failure on the part of government agencies to defend American citizens adequately.  As George Santayana would have said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Indeed, in theory and in fact, history matters, whether it be in the halls of justice or in defense of innocent life.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

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