Why the First Amendment Depends On the Second

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“Do you know why there’s a Second Amendment?  In case the government fails to follow the first one.”  This quote from Rush Limbaugh is of great significance just now, when the issue of gun control is becoming increasingly important and divisive.  While doing extensive research on the Second Amendment recently, two points stood out: firstly, that the Founding Fathers seemed to consider the right to keep and bear arms as the right which safeguarded all other rights; and secondly, that the very politicians and activists who are most loudly touting gun control today are the same who are endeavoring to restrict free speech.  Religious liberty and the free exchange of political opinions are heavily restricted in media, in government, and on college campuses.  What is so fundamental about the Second Amendment then?  What is so incredibly important about the right of the people to keep and bear arms?

George Mason, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” that very Bill of Rights which contains the Second Amendment, spoke for the majority of the Founding Fathers when he discussed the issue of gun ownership and control; “Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great-Britain, the British parliament was advised … to disarm the people.  That it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”  Arms confiscation was the prelude to the restriction of other rights, including free speech.  The colonists’ use of free speech to protest and criticize the government was interfering with the autocratic rule of Parliament and the monarchy.

Mason, like other Founders, including such American giants as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, were convinced that a tyrannical government would always begin its tyranny by disarming the people.  They further thought that America was safe from tyranny only while the majority of Americans were armed.  “It is a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved,” scoffed Theodore Sedgwick, who fought in the American War for Independence and helped frame the Second Amendment.  “How is an army for that purpose to … subdue a nation of freemen who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands?”  How, indeed?

“The balance of power is the scale of peace,” noted famed American author Thomas Paine when he was declaring the necessity of widespread gun ownership.  The most profoundly revolutionary idea of the Founding Fathers was that the people would be the greatest check on the government—that, according to the Constitution, the balance of power would always be inclined in favor of the American peopleThose in America’s history who have wanted to exercise tyranny over the people have always had to change the way people think —and speak.  How can one enslave a nation of free men and prevent them from exercising free speech?  By convincing them that guns are evil and that they have no right to own guns, so that, when you begin stripping back their other rights, they have no force with which to combat you.

Yes, the First Amendment which guarantees free speech precedes the Second Amendment on the Bill of Rights, but the First depends on the Second.  George Mason knew that the colonists’ right of free speech was only safe so long as the colonists possessed arms.  As Constitutional Convention delegate Noah Webster noted, in a statement which is even more true today, unjust laws can only be enforced when “the people” are “disarmed—as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe.”  One of the most frequent comments I received while visiting Ireland was a variation on, “I would be afraid to live in America, because people there still have guns.”  The very country that spent centuries fighting off an oppressive foreign government with personal firearms has so changed that the Irish are actually afraid even to think about defending themselves. In such a situation, a man is no longer a free agent, in control of his own life; he must depend wholly on the government to direct and protect him.

I, on the contrary, would be afraid to live any place where ordinary men did not own guns. We will have even more incidents such as the recent tragedy of the shooting at Pensacola Naval Air Base (a gun-free zone) or we may even be placed in the position of the protestors in Hong Kong, who have been fired upon and subjected to shocking police violence for exercising free speech.  Frederick Douglass, years after the Founders, recognized that a man’s liberties depended to a large degree on “the cartridge box.”  The slave owner could tell the slave what to say and do because the slave could not defend himself.

To borrow from the words of the first president and “Father of his Country,” George Washington, I would adamantly insist that, “No man should scruple or hesitate a moment to use arms in defense” of his free speech.  I will always use my free speech to declare loudly that I thank God for the Second Amendment!

Much of the information and quotation in this article can be found in the book The Second Amendment: Preserving the Inalienable Right of Individual Self-Protection by David Barton

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