by Robert Wright
Do the people who want to mandate masks and vaccines realize that their arguments apply even more strongly to firearms, at least in America?
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 main clause is clear as day: The government shall not infringe on the right of the people to own and wield firearms. Its exact meaning in terms of policy is disputed and currently under the Supreme Court’s review, but an increasing number of states have taken it to mean what the Founders did: that governments cannot heavily tax or otherwise regulate firearms ownership or transportation. They can enforce laws forbidding people from shooting their guns into the air or in other unsafe ways, but aside from that their power is slight. Other states think they can prevent law-abiding citizens from owning or carrying certain classes of firearms, like handguns or so-called “assault rifles,” on public safety grounds, but I have pointed out before how that amounts to wishful thinking, as the states with the least restrictive gun laws are safest from gun violence.
But what interests me is the first part of the Amendment, which is a policy assertion. Such assertions are not generally found elsewhere in the Constitution. The part banning states from issuing fiat paper money (Article I, Section 10), for example, doesn’t explain that unchecked fiat emissions lead inevitably to inflation (depreciation of the paper bills of credit vis-a-vis specie), it just bans them from doing it, and rightfully and thankfully so or we would be awash in junk California and New Jersey paper money.
The policy assertion in the Second Amendment is that to remain “a free state” or nation, the government must allow militias. The Founders were rightfully afraid of permanent armies of professional soldiers, because they could be bought and used to oppress individual Americans, especially ones not well-organized and armed, including with cannon, and as President Biden helpfully explained, advanced weapons as well.
Note that I asserted in the previous paragraph that American governments must allow militias, not necessarily organize and run the units themselves. As I explain elsewhere, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans regularly formed private militia units, proof of the existence of which suffuses military histories and state statutes. Many such units obtained special charters of incorporation and took on names like the Ringgold Dragoons (mounted infantry based in a small town northwest of Frederick and northeast of Hagerstown), which the Maryland legislature chartered during its December 1846 session.
Despite being constitutionally mandated, militias, private and state, were eventually supplanted by a second or “reserve” standing military called the National Guard and a third with various names like SWAT teams. Today, the US government considers private militias tantamount to terrorism. Start one and you are likely to end up dead, or in a supermax federal pen.
And I do mean constitutionally mandated. In the Founding era, men of prime military age, generally between 16 and 50-something, who did not muster for militia duty were subject to fines and/or imprisonment. Fines were imposed by their private militia units if they opted to join one, or if they joined a fire-fighting company, which many states recognized as substitute service. Joining a private militia or fire company gave men the option of dying next to a buddy instead of some stranger, and also made exemptions easier to obtain because everybody in the private unit knew each other, and hence that Joseph’s dad just passed away and Eliphalet was in Boston on business.
Mandatory militia service faded away after the Civil War in part due to the realization that as long as the American people remained armed, they could form militias if and when necessary. More importantly, the military-industrial complex realized that it could get higher congressional appropriations if the American people felt vulnerable to invasion from Mexico and/or Canada, with help from some Eurasian or East Asian power of course. Mandatory militia service remains alive and well, though, in Israel and Switzerland, and Kennesaw, Georgia has mandated gun ownership since 1982, though enforcement is lax.
How could the leaders of those democracies, as well as America’s Founders, justify forcing citizens to bear arms? Well, via the negative externality argument many use to justify mask and vaccine mandates. See, your not carrying a gun imposes at least five major negative externalities on me, and everyone else.
- The unarmed cannot defend themselves, which might force others to do so out of some ingrained or involuntary Smithian empathetic impulse.
- The unarmed cannot defend themselves, so they attract attackers, who might kill innocent bystanders in the process.
- The unarmed cannot defend their communities, so all Americans have to pay higher taxes for a militarized police force, the overbearing tactics of which led to several waves of massive urban uprising riots in the 1960s, 1990s, and 2020.
- The unarmed cannot defend the country, so all Americans have to pay higher taxes to support standing armies and navies.
- The unarmed cannot defend the country, so all Americans have to suffer the existence of a military-industrial complex, which has been known to initiate attacks on “our democracy” by currying favor with politicians and rendering them more hawkish.
Obviously, those externalities are far more costly than the cost of mandating firearms for all, even if taxpayers have to pick up the tab for the guns and ammo.
While firearms are proven safe and effective, especially in the hands of people trained in their proper use, they remain imperfect. Sometimes the contagion of violence spreads so rapidly that individuals will run out of bullets before a threat ends. That is why it is so important to mandate that Americans carry not just one gun but two, or perhaps three or four, just to be safe. And to make sure that the weapons function when needed, maybe the government will have to mandate that every American carry new guns every year, or maybe every six months. And I do mean every American, though of course children should have smaller guns. Anyone old enough to spray Covid is old enough to spray bullets.
If mandating baby firearms for babies or being forced to serve in a militia makes you uncomfortable, consider a reasonable alternative, mandating liberty instead. Let individuals choose whether or not they want to bear arms, or bare their arms for a shot, or their teeth for a photoshoot. Negative externalities suffuse our social existence but rarely rise to a level that mandates a mandate, especially in a society that purports to celebrate diversity, which is to say heterogeneous subjective judgments of right and wrong.