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On the Second Amendment: should we fear government or ourselves?

By Elvin Lim


The tragic shootings in Newtown, CT, have plunged the nation into the foundational debate of American politics.

Over at Fox News, the focus as been on mourning and the tragedy of what happened. As far as the search for solutions go, the focus has been on how to cope, what to say to children, and what to do about better mental health screening. It is consistent with the conservative view that when bad things happen, they happen because of errant individuals, not flawed societies. The focus on mourning indicates the view that when bad things happen, they are the inevitable costs of liberty.

At MSNBC, the focus has been on tragedy as a wake up call, not a thing in itself to simply mourn; on finding legislative and governmental solutions — gun control. This is consistent with the liberal view that when bad things happen, they happen because of flawed societies, not just the result of errant individuals or evil as an abstract entity.

The question of which side is right is an imponderable. Conservatives believe that in the end, our vigilance against tyrannical government is our first civic duty. This was the logic behind the Second Amendment. It comes from a long line of Radical Whig thinking that the Anti-Federalists inherited. That is why Second Amendment purists can reasonably argue that that citizens should continue to have access to (even) semi-automatic guns. They will say that the Second Amendment is not just for hunting; it is for liberty against national armies. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that a government duly constituted by the people need not fear government; and it is citizen-on-citizen violence that we ought to try to prevent. This line of thinking began with Hobbes, who had theorized that we lay down our arms against each other, so that one amongst us alone wields the sword. Later, we called this sovereign the state. The Federalists leaned in this tradition.

Should we fear government more or fellow citizens who have access to guns? Should government or citizens enjoy the presumption of virtue? Who knows. There is no answer on earth that would permanently satisfy both political sides in America, because conservatives believe that most citizens, most of the time, are virtuous, and there is no need to take a legislative sledgehammer to restrict the liberty of a few errant individuals at the expense of everybody else. Liberals, conversely, believe that government and regulatory activity are virtuous and necessary most of the time, and there is little practical cost to most citizens to restrict a liberty (to bear arms) that is rarely, if ever, invoked. Put another way: conservatives focus on the vertical dimension of tyranny; liberals fear most the horizontal effects of mutual self-destruction.

What is a president to do? It depends on which side of the debate he stands. Barack Obama believes that the danger we pose to ourselves exceeds the danger of tyrannical government (for which a right to bear arms was originally codified). The winds of public opinion may be swaying in his direction, and Obama appeared to be ready to mould it when he asked: “Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?”

Here is one neo-Federalist argument that Obama can use, should he take on modern Anti-Federalists. If the Constitution truly were of the people, then it is self-contradictory to speak of vigilance against it. In other words, the Second Amendment is anachronistic. It was written in an era of monarchy, as a bulwark against Kings. To those who claim to be constitutional conservatives, Obama may reasonably ask: either the federal government is not sanctioned by We the People, and therefore we must forever be jealous of it; or, the federal government represents the People and we need not treat it as a distant potentate and overstate our fear of it.

If this is to be the age of renewed faith in government, as it appears to be Obama’s mission, then the President will be more likely to convince Americans to lay down our arms; he will persuade us that our vigilance against government by the people is counter-prouctive and anachronistic. But, to move “forward,” he must first convince the NRA and its ideological compatriots that we can trust our government. Only the greatest of American presidents have succeeded in this most herculean of tasks, for our attachment to the spirit of ’76 cannot be understated.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears on the OUPblog regularly.

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Recent Comments

  1. Dan

    Overall, a very lucid and straightforward explanation that stays clear of the bias of one side vs. another — for the most part.

    One thing I’d point out in the second-to-last paragraph: if the Second Amendment was written to codify an individual’s pre-existing, fundamental right to self-defense (in this case, against a tyrannical government), it seems that it’s not anachronistic. That is, unless the last time you’ve seen a tyrannical, authoritarian government in this world was in 1789.

    Second, in response to your point:

    “…either the federal government is not sanctioned by We the People, and therefore we must forever be jealous of it; or, the federal government represents the People and we need not treat it as a distant potentate and overstate our fear of it”

    If this were a valid point, it would have been just as valid in the early years of the government as it was 100 years ago or as it is now. The government being sanctioned by We The People doesn’t mean that certain elements of those entrusted can’t become corrupt from power (it happens all the time). The concern existed then, and it’s not an impossibility now, even if society has drastically changed.

    Essentially, either a wariness of a potential tyrannical, authoritarian government was never a valid concern, or it’s always a valid concern.

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