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.
This is the text of what may be the most famous, or most popularly known, of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. Among a significant portion of American citizens, this amendment is considered the most important. On it, the claim is made, all the others depend. If you don’t have a “well armed” populace, you can’t protect liberty from overweening government. 1
This claim has no basis in history. No original supporter of the Constitution endorsed this view — not at the time of its writing, nor at the time of its ratification, nor at the time of ratification of the first ten amendments, sometimes known as the Bill of Rights. That does not in itself invalidate the claim. Times change, as does our understanding of the Constitution and of our rights as citizens.
What invalidates the claim is its assumption that liberty can only be, or even finally be, defended with weapons.
Liberty is defended by citizens living free. It is defended by citizens who refuse to yield.
History has some heroic defenders of liberty, some of whom are justly famous, many of whom are not.
- Raoul Wallenberg, diplomat: Issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory saving tens of thousands of lives.
- Oskar Schindler, businessman: saved over 1000 Polish Jews by employing them in his factories and warehouses and hiding their Jewish identities.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., minister: Marches, jail and magnificent speeches to inspire Americans to do what is right.
- Rosa Parks, secretary, civil rights activist: Refused to give up her seat on segregated bus
- March 7, 1965, protesters: “Bloody Sunday” marchers were beaten, gassed and jailed while attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery to register to vote.
- March 9, 1965, protesters: “Turnaround Tuesday” march ended with the KKK beating to death a Unitarian minister from Boston.
- Ron Kovic, Vietnam Vet, bronze star, purple heart, paraplegic, antiwar protester: “I had been beaten by the police and arrested twelve times for protesting the war and I had spent many nights in jail in my wheelchair. I had been called a Communist and a traitor, simply for trying to tell the truth about what had happened in that war, but I refused to be intimidated.”
- Nancy Wake, journalist: Courier between Allies and French Resistance during WWII. Her husband, a businessman, was captured by the Gestapo. Although tortured, he refused to reveal her whereabouts and was executed.
- Dietrich Boenhoffer, minister: German anti-Hitler pastor who took part in an assassination plot, imprisoned, tortured and hanged in 1945.
- Freedom Riders, civil rights activists: May 1961, attempted to desegregate interstate bus travel, beaten and in one incident, locked inside a burning bus.
All these disparate incidents have one common element: citizens who refused to yield. Citizens. They did not wait for the guns to arrive, they did not want guns; they did not wait for the troops to arrive; they wanted liberty. And liberty was “liberty for all,” for “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” By securing liberty for others, they secured it for themselves. They understood that liberty is for those who take the risks, who act. Liberty is not gained by killing those whom you find disagreeable nor even those who represent a real or imagined threat.
Violence can never provide the answer. The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
In vain, the RTKBA’er fantasizes that crushing a couch cushion and banging down pounders is all that he needs to do — because he has an arsenal of firearms in his basement. All he has to do is kill that vague “someone” who “threatens to take away his guns.” And send more money to Glenn Beck, who will tell him who needs killing. In the meantime, he can catch the game on TV.
The notion of liberty amuses the people … When a butcher tells you that his heart bleeds for his country he has, in fact, no uneasy feeling.
— Samuel Johnson
The RTKBA’er already has agreed to warrantless and secret searches by the FBI. He’s agreed to Federal agents infiltrating and spying on local political activist organizations. He’s agreed to NSA listening posts in every telephone exchange CO. He’s agreed that protesters must be kept blocks away from delicate, sensitive politicians and multimillionaire corporate CEOs who bribe them. He’s agreed to militarized police squads, aka SWAT, that on a regular basis, break into the wrong homes and businesses, beating and even killing innocent citizens and inflicting millions of dollars of uncompensated property damage. He’s agreed to let local, state and Federal prosecutors seize and dispose of citizens’ property before trial and often, even before charges. He’s agreed to indefinite imprisonment without trial, even for American citizens. He’s agreed to copyright laws that make it illegal for a shade-tree mechanic to fix the electronics on a car engine. In fact, there’s hardly any aspect of real liberty that the RTKBA’er is not willing to part with, so long as he maintains ownership of his firearms, to kill that deadly “someone” who “threatens to take away his guns.”
Keep you doped with religion, and sex and TV,
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free.
But you’re still fucking peasants,
As far as I can see.
— John Lennon
No liberty without sacrifice. And by “sacrifice,” I mean being prepared to bear the brunt of unlawfully or immorally wielded state power: refusing to yield. Workers at lunch counters; marchers on the bridge to Montgomery; a man in a wheelchair leading a protest march; a female journalist carrying secret messages. These people didn’t get up in the morning and say to themselves, “I’m going to do something heroic today, I’m going to defend liberty.” No, they just bore witness to injustice and refused to accept it, refused to yield. Their actions came out of the moral imperative.
No sensible person is going to show up at a protest march armed with a semiautomatic rifle and engage in a firefight with police and National Guard troops. But, you can join in and engage with your fellow citizens and put your own body on the line. You may find yourself gassed, beaten, arrested. For liberty. No sensible person is going to pull out a gun and accost a group of police officers kicking and clubbing a suspect handcuffed and lying on the ground. But, you can pull out your phone and start photographing — you may find yourself arrested, beaten, your phone confiscated. In extreme cases, citizens have lost their jobs. But congratulations. You’ve taken on the responsibility of a free citizen. You refused to yield.
- Originally published 19 May 2013 on my Spankenheimer Meister blog. Formatting changes have been made, and minor grammatical edits. ↩