Government Tyranny and the Second Amendment
Two of the more interesting amicus briefs in District of Columbia v. Heller argue, in effect, that we need the right to bear arms in order to protect the citizenry from the possibility of government tyranny and genocide. Here is an excerpt from an amicus brief by a group called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO).
Throughout history, the disarmament of populations has all too frequently resulted in genocide and mass oppression. History is replete with this familiar pattern. To limit the right to keep and bear arms to a state regulated militia is to disregard what the Framers understood – that individual possession of arms is essential to preventing usurpation by the state.
During the 20th Century, more than 70 million people were slaughtered on a massive scale by their own governments after first being disarmed. This pattern repeated itself in Ottoman Turkey (1915-17), the Soviet Union (1929-45), Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe (1933-1945), Nationalist China (1927-1949), Communist China (1949-52, 1957-60, and 1966-70), Guatemala (1960-81), Uganda (1971-79), Cambodia (1975-79) and Rwanda (1994)just to name a few.
In many cases, firearm confiscation followed only after the groundwork was laid by purportedly “reasonable” regulation and registration of firearms. History illustrates just how readily the standardless “reasonable” regulation of firearms invites large scale abuse by the state and ultimately paves the way for wholesale confiscation of arms and the mass slaughter of the disarmed (much like the massive censorship that likely would arise under a rule permitting “reasonable” regulation of speech and press).
Another group, Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Inc.(AAPS), makes a similar argument “that without the right to bear arms, an emasculated citizenry becomes vulnerable to tyranny, terrorism and genocide.”
I doubt the Court will be persuaded by these arguments, at least in the sense of it being a legitimate contemporary concern in the United States. But the argument may have some utility to explain historical understandings of the Framers’ intent. Both briefs argue that the Framers were concerned about the possibility of government tyranny and included the Second Amendment as a final check against government abuse. The AAPS brief argues:
While the Founding Fathers may not have anticipated genocide, they certainly did anticipate tyranny and added the Second Amendment to safeguard against it. James Madison observed “the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation” and noted how this was an important check and balance on the power of government…. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story considered the Second Amendment to be the most important individual right of all: The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.
In a similar vein, the JPFO brief argues that:
These Nineteenth and Twentieth Century examples illustrate how well the Framers of the Constitution understood the essential role an armed citizenry plays in the defense of a free people. They had before them a rich history of European despotism from which to draw the keen understanding that armed people are free people and thus were unmistakably aware of the essential nexus between firearms ownership and liberty….
The great fortune of the American people is that our Constitution was crafted in such a manner as to minimize the likelihood of needing our arms to oppose a tyranny arising from within. Yet, the Second Amendment was created as the final barricade against the unthinkable – the day when the rest of our Constitutional safeguards have failed us and we stand exposed to the brutal reality that so many in history have understood only too late.