[While working on the next installment of the series about the proper response to the Newtown massacre, I reread this article , which first appeared on WorldNetDaily (now WND).com on December 17, 1999. It stuck me that I could have re-posted it here on December 17, 2012, as a timely response to the tragic events in Connecticut, almost without changing a word. As I recall the article was based on a speech I gave at the time about preserving 2nd Amendment rights. It’s a shame that foresight is a commodity unappreciated by so many American conservatives. A recent article by Christopher Monckton at WND, and the discussion sparked by the NRA’s response to the school massacre offer some hope that sound policy may yet be given serious attention. But think where we could have been had the thinking in this article been implemented at the start of the decade, even before September 11, 2001? I dare to think that our people and our rights would have been spared at least some major part of the terrible damage they have suffered in the last 12 years?]
Educating the Defenders of Liberty
The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is in jeopardy these days — dangerously so. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that we will remain an armed people, able to defend our liberty. In our defense of firearm rights, we must emphasize this fundamental purpose of the amendment. If we leave the impression that we think that the right to keep and bear arms concerns hunting and sports shooting, and making sure Americans have the right to entertain themselves with guns, we will actually contribute to the false view that the Second Amendment is an historical curiosity, hardly deserving the effort it would take to remove it officially from the Constitution.
The right to keep and bear arms derives from our duty to retain the basic means necessary to defend our country and our liberty. Certainly it is true that the actual defense of our national borders is normally delegated to the professional military. But we must never think that this revocable delegation of responsibility for national defense is a transfer of ultimate responsibility. We, the people, are responsible for the defense of country and liberty, and the Second Amendment is crucial to our performance of that duty.
The presence of the Second Amendment in our Constitution reflects the history of the emergence of self-government in the modern world. One key impediment to the assertion of the political rights of the common man throughout much of history was that military conflict was usually left to a professional elite. Until common people were able to get on battlefields and defend themselves, they left that defense to professional classes of warriors. Inevitably, or at least naturally, such warriors became the rulers of the people whose country they defended.
Our Founders understood that leaving matters of defense entirely in the hands of a professional military class was inconsistent with self-government. The American Founding was a decisive break with the old European order in many ways, but the care our Founders took to ensure an armed citizenry is one of the most striking. Indeed, the formal Constitutional guarantee that the sovereignty of the people would be defended by that people themselves, and with their own weapons, is a kind of condensed summary of the entire doctrine of self-government on which the nation is founded.
For this reason, it is a matter of clear national interest that we make sure that our citizens understand the meaning of their Second Amendment rights — indeed, their Second Amendment duties. It is difficult to see how any citizen could have a clear understanding of his general civic responsibilities if he does not understand the fundamental duty he bears to join with his fellow citizens at all times in remaining vigilant to any threats to liberty. And it is difficult to see how he could understand this if he is allowed to come of age with a hostile or trivial view of the Second Amendment.
Accordingly, I propose that we add a serious and mature formation in America’s Second Amendment heritage to the basic civics education that all our young people receive. We must teach our children about the Constitution, its heritage and background, and its ultimate dependence on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. But we should also, as an ordinary part of their education, teach them about the relation of arms to liberty.
We must teach our children that the preservation of liberty, and of an order of society conducive to human dignity, requires that a free people retain the moral and material means to discipline its own government, should the temptation to tyranny take root. We must read the Founders’ own explanations of the purpose of the Second Amendment, and see the great care with which they discussed the basis on which any use of the militia against government might be contemplated, much less determined upon. Indeed, any study of the Founders is a study of prudence in action, and this is particularly true in the matter of the decision to take up arms in defense of liberty.
But the perennial awareness that such citizen defense against domestic tyranny is the ultimate material defense of our liberty is a crucial component of civic formation. Conveying to our young citizens a mature understanding of the prudential judgments required of them, as members of the American sovereign, will be difficult, no doubt. But it was done in the past, and it can be done again, if only we cease shying away from a clear acknowledgment of the real anatomy of our political order.
Being an American citizen is a weighty responsibility. We must again convey a sense of that weight to a generation of young people that is tempted, watching the flitting superficiality of our current crop of political leaders, to think that freedom is a breezy and simple affair, with no deep consequences beyond the constant pursuit of pleasure.
If we are serious about conveying a sense of the weight of civic responsibility, we will not shrink from giving our students the experience of feeling a gun in their hand as well. And so, in addition to the theoretical component of a Second Amendment civics class, we should require of every American student, in the senior year of high school, a practical civics course in the basics of firearms familiarity and safety, and of self-defense.
And really, the practical side of Second Amendment education is not optional. We cannot allow ourselves to become habitually afraid of the instruments that must be used to defend our liberties and our country. The Second Amendment civics course I am proposing must include the holding and firing of basic weapons. We need to demythologize guns before the liberal attempt to create a totemic fear of them succeeds. If the gun control mentality promoting fear of guns themselves becomes our national mentality, we would turn the clock back to the days when a warrior class ruled over the people because only they had the confidence and expertise to deploy the means of defense and coercion. The gun control agenda will turn us into a people too timid to defend themselves from our would-be masters. We must give our young people a reasonable and responsible confidence in their ability to defend themselves and their liberties. We need to make sure that these weapons are demystified, and that people understand their responsible use, and see in themselves the capacity to handle them responsibly.
Some will say that recent, highly-publicized incidents of violence show that high school is precisely the wrong time to offer “hands on” training in firearms. But the fact that such episodes occur simply emphasizes that we need to educate young citizens to distinguish between the right and the wrong uses of the means of self-defense. We do not conclude from the carnage on the highways that we shouldn’t teach our kids how to drive, even though it is true that adolescents tend at first to look on cars as toys or symbols or emotional outlets. But through education we are able to turn most of them into responsible drivers. The same would be true with respect to firearms, so that the country will in fact be safer, and less prone to violence, as a result of such education.
The course should include the sort of weapons that people would use for personal defense. But it should also include introducing them to the weapons they might be called upon to use to defend their country. The Founders intended that American citizens would be familiar with the basic weapon of the infantry of the day. Today it would be an M-16. Tomorrow it may be a laser weapon, or something else.
Such a course would be, in effect, a preparation for a basic education in the nature of military activity. And this was what the Founders intended to be the role of the militia. The universal preparation of our young people to receive such education would represent a partial return to the right concept of “militia.” The Founders intended that the militia would include every able-bodied person who was capable of defending the community. One goal of civic education in our secondary schools should be to prepare future members of the militia so that they can be called upon as necessary to participate in that effort.
Through negligence and a failure to think clearly about the implications of citizenship we are in danger of allowing the liberal elite in America to turn the essential weapons of self-defense into mythologized totems. Firearms education is necessary to prevent a national return to the pre-republican mentality of docility to whichever experts in contemporary techniques of violence happen to be in a position to intimidate us. Let’s pay serious attention to what it will take to educate our children in the material, as well as the moral, foundations of our liberty.