The recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas have reignited the gun control debate, with some gun control proponents once again calling for a federal “assault weapon” ban. Supporters of such a law often argue the founders never imagined powerful weapons available today in the hands of the people. But this argument completely misses the primary reason the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights in the first place.
The “assault weapon” ban argument tends to go something like this.
“Does anyone think the founders of our nation foresaw weapons like we have today? I think they’d expect us to make common-sense reforms.”
Actually, the founders weren’t dumb.
I’m pretty sure they realized more powerful weapons would come along. I have no doubt humans will develop even more effective ways of killing each other in the future. It seems likely people as smart as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington at least imagined the possibility that more effective and deadly firearms would evolve with time.
But whether they did or didn’t forsee advanced weaponry misses the crucial point. The purpose of the Second Amendment wasn’t to ensure people could always go hunting. It wasn’t primarily meant to allow people to defend their homes and families. Fundamentally, the Second Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights to ensure the people would always have the means to match the firepower of a federal army. It was intended to ensure the people could resist tyrannical government with force in the last resort. The founding generation understood that an unarmed populace would open the door for the government to trample its liberties.
In simplest terms, the Second Amendment was meant to ensure the people could take on the government if necessary.
In 1787, Noah Webster wrote “An Examination into the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution” in support of ratification of the Constitution. He forcefully argued that an armed people would serve as a check against a national standing army.
“Another source of power in government is a military force. But this, to be efficient, must be superior to any force that exists among the people, or which they can command: for otherwise this force would be annihilated, on the first exercise of acts of oppression. Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.”
The American colonists had firsthand experience with government attempts to strip away their means of self-defense. In fact, British efforts to disarm the American colonists led to the first shots of the American Revolution. The Red Coats marched on Concord with the explicit purpose of capturing or destroying guns and powder belonging to the colonial militias. During the Virginia ratifying convention, George Mason referred to British efforts to disarm the colonists as he argued for the need to protect the right to keep and bear arms.