AR-15s and the Basis of Republicanism

August 21, 2019 Updated: August 21, 2019


In an interview with The New York Times, Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney said he supports the Second Amendment, which, he claimed, “gives the American people the right to bear arms.”

But then he specified by saying, “Under the Second Amendment, they have the right to bear handguns.” At least he’s frank.

The mass shootings in Texas and Ohio are only the most recent occasions for gun control activists to call for outlawing the kinds of guns that mass shooters use in their attacks.

Do private citizens have any business owning guns such as these, with which they can kill many people quickly? Often people assume a negative answer to this question, and this assumption reveals why they consider outlawing such weapons a “common sense” gun control measure.

This is a tough question, though, and unfortunately, there’s nothing common about the sense needed to deliberate about it. For example, most people who ask this question specify they mean only “assault weapons,” “high-powered rifles,” or “weapons of war.” But those terms are meaningless. Nearly all guns could fit those descriptions.

What gun control activists don’t like about the guns used in mass shootings is that the weapons are efficient—efficient at killing people. Thus, they think it common sense to restrict the right that people have to bear arms only to owning guns that are inefficient.

A thing is efficient or inefficient, though, only in respect to a given end. Therefore, the question of the end or purpose for owning guns ought to direct our thinking about how best to regulate them.

This debate about gun rights is especially relevant to Americans because of our form of government. It is deeper than a common welfare issue; it is a regime issue.

Rights, Duties of Citizenship in a Republic

In a republic (Latin for “the people’s thing”), the people are their own rulers. Those in government are merely servants who facilitate the people’s sovereignty.

Therefore, the people assume the ultimate responsibility of caring for themselves and maintaining effective sovereignty over their government. Accepting these responsibilities allows them to claim the noble title of citizens, not subjects.

While everyone has an inalienable and natural right to self-preservation, citizens in a republic have an inviolable right to bear arms because they have an inescapable duty to fulfill their republican responsibilities. And the extent of that right must be commensurate with that duty.

For citizens to be able to fulfill that duty, they need to have access to efficient weapons, so that, if necessary, they can face well-armed military personnel or other orchestrated forces intent on subduing them. In fact, a citizenry thus armed generally acts as a deterrent to such takeover attempts.

Facing such circumstances is easily within the realm of possibility. These days, members from both political parties are conscious that our government—like any other—could become tyrannical and need to be overthrown. The satirical news website The Babylon Bee captured an apt irony with the headline “Nation That Calls Trump ‘Hitler’ Demands He Take All Guns Away.”

An increasing number of people in the United States believe that our political division could soon spill over into violent civil war. Meanwhile, natural disasters easily throw whole cities into a violent state of nature.

We have become increasingly dependent on our power grid, and it has become increasingly vulnerable, whether from foreign cyberattacks or—as New York learned recently—from accident.

In all these circumstances, those with ultimate responsibility to exercise sovereign authority have a duty to do so. In a republican system, ultimate responsibility falls to citizens, not the government.

This republican ethos suggests a straightforward interpretation of the Second Amendment: Because the people are ultimately responsible for the maintenance of their republic, they must have the right to use the necessary tools to fulfill that responsibility, and that means guns, efficient ones.

Outlawing Law-Breaking Won’t Stop It

It’s fair to argue that republican government only makes sense within the logic of government based on consent through a social contract; that same logic permits the governing body to establish regulations to limit that right.

Gun-rights supporters often forget that it’s precisely the unlimited feature of the right to enforce the law of nature that individuals give up in civil society. Gun-control supporters often forget, however, that people only join civil society on certain conditions, and they must not be deprived of the means of protecting themselves, should those conditions not be met.

Further, republican citizens recognize that the best government in the world can’t protect people in every situation. Thus, within the social contract is an assumption that citizens will be allowed to possess effective means to secure their own protection when the government can’t.

Some might argue by analogy that during the outbreak of a virus, concern for the common welfare requires the government to limit individual liberty through quarantines and rationing. Similarly, mass shootings endanger the common welfare and require the government to limit the right to bear arms to handguns only.

The problem with this argument is that the situations aren’t similar. A virus outbreak is a temporary occurrence that justifies exceptional infringement on liberty. But mass shootings are a symptom of general human depravity, as well as a much deeper and more enduring cultural sickness.

The infringements on liberty that gun-control supporters call for wouldn’t be temporary, exceptional infringements on liberty. They would be only the first in a never-ending series of attempts to eradicate suicidal murder sprees with legislation and executive orders. And they won’t work. Deranged and radicalized people will always find a way to exercise their insanity.

People want government to “do something,” because they desire a sense of security, but what they need is true security. And taking guns from law-abiding citizens will only make them less secure.

The masses of desperate migrants trying to enter the United States are a sobering reminder that whenever a government is unable to enforce the law, unarmed people become slaves to necessity and the whims of the few evil men who always find a way to arm themselves.

The fact is, there’s no way that U.S. citizens generally can be deprived of the right to own guns that are efficient at doing what guns are designed to do, namely, kill people, and our government remain a republic. If such weapons are only in the hands of the military, then despite what we call ourselves, we will effectively have become an oligarchy with a mercenary army under its control.

Are we now willing to give up on our republican experiment and say to a government, “Please rule us, for we can rule ourselves no longer”?

Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.