But Which Arms Do We Have The Right To 'Keep And Bear'?
By Vin Suprynowicz
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
M.C. writes, from somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard:
"I have noticed that you have frequently and passionately
expressed your support for the Constitutional right to keep and bear
arms. ... I have tried my usual method of moral analysis to determine
the correct position on this issue. However, I find that I am always
left with a seeming quandary, and I wanted to solicit your opinion on
this difficult question.
"I start with a predisposition in favor of freedom and respect
for the literal meaning of the Constitution. This leads inexorably to
strong support for the principle of the right to keep and bear arms.
However, when I extrapolate from mere handgun ownership up through
rifles and automatic weapons and continuing on to mortars, howitzers
and field artillery and ending with nuclear weapons, it seems crystal
clear to me that a line must drawn somewhere prior to nuclear weapons
in this progression. And yet, from a moral perspective, I cannot seem
to find the principle that makes it a right to own a pistol yet
illegal to possess a cruise missile.
"I assume that you do not advocate the unrestricted right to own
weapons of mass destruction. If you do not, perhaps you can explain
to me where you draw the line, and why.
# # #
Thanks for your thoughtful inquiry.
Many gun rights advocates rationalize a line between the weapons
which a common foot-soldier can carry into combat, and those which
are "crew-served," and thus require the logistical support of a
larger group of men to field effectively, such as Howitzers, fighter
aircraft, and, yes, nuclear weapons.
Thus, they tell us they believe the Second Amendment grants "the
people" the right to own rifles, possibly up to the size of a
Browning 30-caliber machine gun, which one person could conceivably
carry and use in combat. This argument would also have to "allow" the
citizen the use of a small mortar, but not of a wheeled 57-mm gun,
An embarrassed silence usually ensues when you ask about the
shoulder-launched, heat-seeking anti-aircraft missile. Clearly,
single Afghan "militiamen" used such weapons quite effectively
against Russian Hind helicopters, but many folks get queasy about the
obvious implication that some kind of "White supremacist Aryan Nation
militia nut" might thus be granted the unrestricted right to take aim
at any government helicopter that hies into view near his "compound."
The other approach -- common among the savvier Libertarian
political candidates, is to sidestep the issue with some kind of
dismissive joke, indicating, "I'll be happy when everyone can own a
handgun and an M-16; we won't be campaigning on personal ownership of
atomic weapons THIS year, ha ha ha."
The problem with both approaches, as usual, if that the attempt
to temper, moderate, or compromise the "principle" with whatever
seems "pragmatically acceptable," only draws attention to the "fudge
Like you, I don't get it. All such distinctions are arbitrary. In
fact, single soldiers -- admittedly not the average infantryman,
but specially-tasked SEALS and the like -- are widely believed to
have already carried nuclear devices in their backpacks, on special
covert missions overseas. So the whole rationale of what can be
"handled by a single man" will shortly collapse.
The main point is this: The federal government has no powers,
except those delegated to it by the people. I cannot delegate a power
which is not already mine. So how can I delegate to the government
the power to build, possess, deploy, yes and even use, nuclear
weapons, if I, as an INDIVIDUAL American, do not possess that right,
PRIOR to its delegation to government?
(Nor do I fully give up a power, when I delegate it. We each
retain the right to make a citizen's arrest of a fleeing felon, even
though we generally delegate this job to the police.)
Mr. Madison, and others of the Founders, said the whole idea of
maintaining an armed populace is so that any potential tyrant would
confront a body of the common folk, able to rise up and field a force
BETTER armed and equipped than the federal government. If the 82nd
Airborne (under orders from some would-be dictator) descended on your
town today, they would have small howitzers, 50-caliber machine guns,
Kevlar vests, CS gas with protective masks and suits, and so on. To
defeat them, the people would need ready access to the same stuff.
Thus in a PRAGMATIC sense, as well as in principle, individual
Americans not only can, but must, possess and be able to quickly and
knowledgably use in their own defense, any type of weapon which they
can manufacture or purchase.
Next time: Why the bad guys don't kill us
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas
Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at
http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the
United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box
4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.