The horrible shootings at Virginia Tech again reopen the debate over the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” Most Constitutional scholars agree that this amendment was, at least to some extent, a corollary to the “Right of Revolution” set forth in the Declaration of Independence. That, in turn, derived from the struggle in England around Charles I, which led up to his execution and the establishment of the “Commonwealth of England” under Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell.
One of the long-term effects of this struggle was the passage, in 1689, of the English Bill of Rights, which included a right to bear arms. The idea was that a well-armed citizenry would act as a counterweight to royal military power and prevent a king from becoming a despot. Presumably, the same thinking carried over into the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Let’s consider the current situation. On the one hand, we have the “well regulated militia” — consisting of various random members of the American public, equipped with rifles, shotguns, and some undefined number of semiautomatic handguns of various calibers. On the other hand, we have the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, supplemented by the National Guard (if federalized) and state and local police forces. These folks have an array of weapons too long to fit on this page, ranging from all manner of fully automatic weapons to artillery, armored vehicles, heavily armed helicopters, fighters and bombers, cluster bombs and other “anti-personnel” weapons, unmanned armed drones like the “predator” and, to top it off, nuclear weapons. Does anyone seriously think that the “well regulated militia” is any kind of a credible counterweight to the combined forces of the U.S. military and police establishment??! I don’t think so. In short, I would suggest that the Second Amendment, even if taken literally, is little more than a silly anachronism — at least insofar as it might act as a check on the imperial ambitions of the federal government.
On the other hand, the right to bear arms has proved very useful to a variety of groups within the U.S.; ranging from the NRA to various right-wing militias to a whole variety of local street gangs (not to mention organized crime). The question is whether the benefit to this range of supporters of the Second Amendment is worth the havoc it plays on the rest of us through accidental and intentional homicides committed with firearms (not to mention the injuries caused by firearms and the crimes committed using the threat of firearms).
One further thought — If one really wanted to have the Second Amendment provide a credible counterweight to the power of the U.S. military, one would have two choices: either a) provide private citizens with the full range of firepower currently available to the military, including automatic weapons, artillery, tanks, etc., or b) strictly prohibit the military from operating within the United States and reduce the armament available to state and local paramilitary forces. Obviously, this could not be done overnight; but a phased program making firearms strictly illegal (with harsh punishments for violations) and coordinately removing them from the local paramilitary (i.e., police and national guard) would at least provide a “level playing field” on which disputes could be worked out — hopefully with less violence, but at any rate without the kind of massacres that now occur on a regular periodic basis.