19 March 2008|
The District of Columbia v. Heller
A watershed battle over the Second Amendment in America's captial
By Joe Holmes
"The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government." - Thomas Jefferson
The Bill of Rights clearly articulates rights guaranteed to all citizens of the United States. Rights are largely a moral concept – the concept that facilitates individuals living within a larger society. The Bill of Rights essentially gives legal meaning to the moral rights expected of a free society. Stated another way, individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law. Since it cannot rightly be said that “society” is a tangible entity capable of coherent, singular action, rights can only apply to individuals.
But many government officials seem to disagree. A case currently before the United States Supreme Court may change this conception of individual rights altogether. District of Columbia v. Heller, a case disputing the constitutionality of a Washington DC law banning handgun ownership, seeks to undermine the right to bear arms and the nature of Constitutional rights in general.
For your convenience, here is the Second Amendment:
“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.”
The City’s argument essentially boils down to this – the right to bear arms isn’t about individuals owning guns for their own private purposes but is instead a matter of being able to have guns for the sole purpose of forming a militia. Does this make any sense?
I read the Amendment as follows: “Since it is the right of the people to form a militia, the government shall not restrict gun ownership.” The Founding Fathers clearly believed that private citizens should be able to form militias to fight against potential tyranny. In order for citizens to be able to form a well regulated militia, they require guns. The right guaranteed in the Second Amendment is not the right to form a militia. The right guaranteed is even more fundamental – the right to bear arms as an individual. Without this more fundamental right, it would be impossible to form a well regulated militia.
The City is confusing the issue. Either the City believes that only militias have the right to own guns or individuals are allowed to own guns only to the extent that they are in a militia. Both conclusions are logically indefensible. First, militias cannot bear arms, only individuals can. Once again, the Bill of Rights was drafted in order to protect fundamental rights of individuals from infringement by the government. Since a right can only be granted to an individual, it makes no sense to say militias have the right to bear arms. Second, if extra-governmental militias are necessary to the security of a free State, it cannot follow that the government should regulate these voluntary organizations of citizens by restricting these citizens’ right to own a gun. The Founding Fathers recognized that government poses a potential threat to its citizens; this is why the right to bears arms was included in the Bill of Rights in the first place. It is impossible to get around the fact that the Bill of Rights guarantees individuals the right to keep and bear arms. But if this is so cut and dry, why is this very issue being debated by the highest court of the land? How is it that rational, intelligent people can disagree on a matter that seems so cut and dry?