Recent mass shootings have put gun control on the national discussion agenda again but have not improved the quality of that discussion. Control enthusiasts propose laws which do nothing to decrease the number of guns already floating around the country. Nor do they deal with situations where weapons legally acquired are stolen or accessed by criminals or the mentally ill.
Control opponents note that proposed laws will do little to cut down on mass shootings, but are even more adamantly opposed to stronger laws. And some argue that an armed population is necessary to prevent the development of a tyrannical government. If such a regime were to rise, in these folks’ view, people who have guns could rise up and overthrow it.
Even if Congress were to enact reasonable new restrictions, there is a good chance that the courts would find that they violate the Second Amendment. We therefore might need to consider repealing the Second Amendment. (There is precedent: the unwise 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcoholic beverages, was repealed by the 21st Amendment.)
Before any such repeal, however, we need to re-examine the idea that an armed population could protect liberty by violently overthrowing a tyrannical government.
As a student of history, I cringe when anyone refers to revolution as a desirable thing. For several decades at Adrian College I taught courses on the Soviet Union, and students would sometimes ask if the Communists could be overthrown by a revolution there. I would answer that I certainly hoped not, since the U.S.S.R. was just beginning to get over the horrible results produced by the revolutions back in 1917 when the Communists seized power.
The problem with revolution is that it is fairly easy to destroy a bad government but very difficult to replace it with one that is better. We are currently seeing the results of revolutions and wars that overthrew tyrannical regimes in the Middle East. It is no surprise to me that the new regimes are themselves either tyrannies or, even worse, anarchies in which armed groups within the population kill each other in large numbers.
Philosophers have long understood the dangers of revolution. Spinoza, for example, warned that “[I]t is … dangerous to remove a king, even though it is perfectly clear that he is a tyrant. For a people accustomed to royal rule, and kept in check by that alone, will despise and make a mockery of any lesser authority; and so, if it removes one king, it will find it necessary to replace him by another, and he will be a tyrant not by choice but by necessity.”
Even revolutionaries like Marx and Engels, who claimed that workers “have nothing to lose but their chains,” had to admit that their vaunted “class struggle” historically “ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the struggling classes.” (Emphasis added.)
Americans do not need guns in order to protect our liberties. We have much better ways to protect ourselves. Our Constitution provides for elections, judicial review of laws enacted by Congress, freedom of speech, due process and equal protection of law. The best protection against tyranny is an educated and attentive public.
The Constitution gives us many blessings, but we should not assume that it is perfect. Our founders could not anticipate today’s weapons technologies. It would be no disrespect for them if we repeal the Second Amendment, which may be necessary if we are to have adequate control of guns.
Paul F. deLespinasse, who now lives in Oregon, is professor emeritus of political science at Adrian College. He can be reached through his website.