The Second Amendment reads,
“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.”
Standard Disclaimer 1 and Standard Disclaimer 2 apply to this essay. This essay assumes the reader is familiar with the 2nd Amendment and its root definitions in the base Constitution. Details here. (~500 words)
It is worth noting that the Second Amendment does not guarantee any right to own arms. As a light weapons infantryman in the war in Vietnam I “kept” and “bore” arms, but I did not own them. The United States Government armed me; the United States Government owned the arms I kept and bore.
The Constitution specifically provides that Congress will “provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia…” (Article I Section 8 paragraph 16, part). Yes, this is the Militia – the only militia – guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
The original plan was that each state would have a militia, designed, organized, armed, and disciplined by Congress, with officers and training provided by the states. The militia was to be available for Congress to call up for national service at time of need. Some people feel that the National Guard as organized fills exactly those requirements and is, in fact, the Constitutional Militia, and there is a case to be made that they are correct. However, the word “militia” is not included in any National Guard enabling legislation. There is disagreement.
It is obvious that the current situation, with self-selected individuals arming themselves with weapons of war, sometimes in vast stockpiles, is (A) not working, and is (B) not supported by any reading of the words of the Second Amendment and the Constitution which it amends. Advertising and opinion writing to the contrary are powered by widespread ignorance of the documents themselves.
How would a rational society proceed from here?
One option would be for Congress to follow its Constitutional mandate to organize, arm, and discipline a militia which it might call up at times of need. There are such times. Right now today the United States is recovering from 3 major hurricanes, numerous destructive wildfires, and has serious civil unrest in at least one city. A well regulated militia, a body less formal and military than the National Guard but more broadly based and differently trained than local law enforcement, could be useful.
Following is a description of such militia, its possible day-to-day operation, and its integration into 21st Century America.
First, membership would be voluntary. There would, of course, be limitations. Citizens who wished to join the militia in their respective states would be expected to apply, to sign up, and to adhere to published standards of behavior. A person cannot join a church, a town council, The Boy Scouts of America, the Masons, or any service organization without satisfying basic standards and requirements; it would be absurd to envision a well regulated militia which did not operate under the same accepted societal norms.
As compared to, for instance, the military reserves or the National Guard, physical requirements would be far looser. Old people could join. Overweight people could join. There would be no gender limitations. Handicapped people could join. This is not a war fighting organization; the nation is well served in that capacity already. There is no reason an elderly, infirm, or wheelchair bound citizen could not render useful service in a militia.
A background check to eliminate people with histories of violence, serious crime, or serious mental illness would be required, and each member would be required to agree to follow the militia’s rules, accept its discipline, obey the officers, and swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.
I would expect to see training exercises one weekend a month, but probably without the annual two week commitment associated with Reserve and National Guard membership. Perhaps one or more weekday evenings a month would also be given over to training. As a volunteer, citizen organization, there would have to be reasonable provision for members to have regular lives. It might be required, for instance, that a member attend at least 80% of training events each year. Training should focus as much on citizenship training as on armed activity training. A well trained, well regulated militia could be a good source of public information on local laws and the specific, actual Constitution (as averse the the mythical, magic-name-to-conjure-with Constitution that makes up so much public discussion today.)
I would expect each militia to maintain an ongoing shooting and firearms safety training program. Many people enjoy shooting, and militia training events would provide a safe, organized outlet for this activity. Remember, these people have specifically joined in order to be those who are, as a well regulated militia, selected by society to keep and bear arms on behalf of the public.
I would expect to see legislation that when militia units were called to service of their states or the nation, their employers could not deny the time off nor take it from their vacation or annual leave.
Provision would have to be made that, when militia were called up for service, members’ wages would be covered, either by government or by their employers. Details are best left to Congress to sort out specifically. Again, organizing, disciplining, and arming the militia is one of Congress’s basic Constitutional obligations.
Yes, this might place modest hardship on employers. It is not too much to ask that, in order to operate in a prosperous and law abiding nation, a business carry a certain share of the nation’s burdens.
What might a militia, called up for service, do? What specific actions?
We already have police. We already have a National Guard. It would be a waste of time, money, and energy to replicate their services. So what is not being done now that might be usefully done by a militia?
Militia might, in case of natural disaster, be assigned to stand guard over buildings to prevent looting. It is an unfortunate fact of life that, under even the worst of circumstances, some people will act to make other people’s losses even greater. Looters are among this portion of society. But the militia, properly organized, would likely be a vast organization. Remember, the militia is made up of essentially all law abiding citizens who want to keep and bear arms. Unlike the smaller police or National Guard units, there should be enough militia members in any state to go stand literally in front of every building in a city that might attract a looter, not quite shoulder to shoulder but within sight of one another, up and down every city block. Only a well regulated militia could turn out such manpower.
Besides protecting private property, in any natural disaster there is a huge amount of work to be done, errands to be run, stuff to be stacked, moved, and handled, communications needs to be served. There are often sandbags to fill. Well trained, willing, available militia members could almost always be put to good use.
Natural disasters are common, devastating, and increasing. Now would be a perfect time to improve our ability to respond to them.
One of the specific, Constitutional duties of a well regulated militia is to suppress insurrections. If, for instance, a group like the Bundy family should invade and hold by force of arms another public wildlife refuge, a well regulated militia could be dispatched to stand guard, every ten feet if need be, all the way around the perimeter of the event, and see to it that no food, water, or other supplies were allowed to enter or leave. Organized law enforcement and fighting forces (again, police and National Guard) could deal with the perpetrators themselves while the militia suppressed the insurrection by denying them needed supplies.
Civil unrest – the right to peaceably assemble and object to government actions and policies – is a Constitutionally protected activity. Destruction of property is not. So once again, while police see to law enforcement, a well regulated militia might stand side by side at property lines just as they would after a disaster and prevent Constitutionally protected protest from degenerating into riot and looting. Once again, by sheer force of numbers, a militia might be the ideal entity to protect property during times of tension.
In order for a militia to perform these needed public duties they would have to be well regulated and well trained indeed. None of the Constitution’s verbiage is waste or filler. We have a societal need which is not being fulfilled.
One would also expect local militia groups to participate in public life, march in parades, stand honor guard at events, and otherwise help to provide a constant visible reminder that American society is all one people, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Congress has the Constitutional obligation to arm the militia. States have the obligation to appoint officers and train them. How might the militia be armed?
As we have seen, the militia is not an adjunct to our war fighting organizations, so there would be no reason to arm them with war weapons. War weapons have specific design characteristics which set them aside from civilian weapons; it is dishonest to blur the differences. That said, a woman guarding a building against looters is more convincing if she is armed, and the Second Amendment specifically states that her right to be so shall not be infringed. I would propose deer rifles or shotguns, with perhaps a five shot or so capacity.
It would be not unreasonable for militia to be armed with sidearms as well. Revolvers would be particularly well suited for this purpose, being simple, tough in harsh environments, and reliable. The militia is not a war fighting force; modest firepower in serious arms would be entirely sufficient.
It might be sensible, as an example, to arm each militia member with a .357 magnum revolver and a .357 magnum lever action carbine rifle. One standard ammunition round for all militia services, and militia armed with weapons which, at extreme need, would provide all the deadly force required for any reasonably close quarters action.
Once again, the specific decision on this latter item would be up to Congress, but unless Congress specifically wants to enable mass murder by rogue militia members I would think they would want to choose arms appropriate to the job at hand. Like any public armed entity, militia arms and ammunition would need to be standardized across the force.
Would militia members be the only Americans permitted to own guns? I would hope not; I would think not. Nearly all nations worldwide make provision for hunters and legitimate sport shooters to have access to guns for their sports. I personally would be gravely disappointed to have to give up my .22 rimfire rifle that I use around the farm. I am not aware of any mass murder in American history that was perpetrated using a .22 rimfire rifle; they are simply not deadly enough.
That said, all civilized nations provide sensible, firm limits on gun ownership. There would not be an assumption of some absolute right for any American to own any quantity of any sort of gun they might wish. The Second Amendment does not even imply, let alone state outright, such madness.
If America chooses the observe the Second Amendment to the Constitution as an organizing principle of our society (and it appears that we do) it only makes sense that it should be the actual Second Amendment, to the actual Constitution, as actually written. Either the right to keep and bear arms arises directly from the Constitution, or it is a murderous fiction make up out of whole cloth.
As a people we need to decide.