Advice on the Second Amendment

Pravda, Guns & America (AT, Jan. 11) quoted a Russian who advises: Americans: Never Give Up Your Guns, citing the bloody and tragic result of the Communists' confiscation of arms after they came to power in 1917. The quotation has been echoing around the Internet, so here are more ringing defenses of the importance of the right to bear arms to the cause of liberty.

Another Russian, the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote about the Soviet Union in The Gulag Archipelago (p.13, note 5):

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests . . . people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror . . . but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? . . . The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt.

Russian history is not unique. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his brilliant concurring opinion in MacDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), the case that determined that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against state affronts to their right to bear arms, described the consequences of gun control in the South during the Reconstruction Era:

[The 1876 decision in the Cruikshank case] that blacks could look only to state governments for protection of their right to keep and bear arms enabled private forces, often with the assistance of local governments, to subjugate the newly freed slaves and their descendants through a wave of private violence designed to drive blacks from the voting booth and force them into peonage, an effective return to slavery . . . .

In my view, the record makes plain that the Framers of the Privileges or Immunities Clause and the ratifying-era public understood -- just as the Framers of the Second Amendment did -- that the right to keep and bear arms was essential to the preservation of liberty.

The protection of the right to bear arms that the Reconstruction legislators thought they had put into the 14th Amendment had deep roots in American History. The trigger for the American colonists' revolt at Lexington and Concord in 1775 was their belief that the British intended to seize their gunpowder, which would then enable the military to repress the populace at leisure.

Stephen P. Halbrook's The Founders' Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms (2008) documents the thinking at the time of the American Founding, and it wasn't focused on the right to shoot ducks. Check out Number 46 of the Federalist Papers, in which James Madison notes that the governments of Europe "are afraid to trust the people with arms", because if the militia were armed and governed by their own officers then "the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it."

Concerns about KKK members, Redcoats, and other potential tyrants may seem far-fetched at the moment, but as Judge Alex Kozinski (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) said in 2003, when he dissented from a pre-MacDonald decision limiting the scope of the Second Amendment :

The majority falls prey to the delusion -- popular in some circles -- that ordinary people are too careless and stupid to own guns, and we would be far better off leaving all weapons in the hands of professionals on the government payroll. But the simple truth -- born of experience -- is that tyranny thrives best where government need not fear the wrath of an armed people. . . .

My excellent colleagues have forgotten these bitter lessons of history. The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed -- where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.

James V. DeLong is the author of Ending 'Big SIS' (The Special Interest State) and Renewing the American Republic