L. Neil Smith's
Number 310, March 13, 2005

"Words and Guns"

Conservatives and the Second Amendment
by Anthony Gregory

Exclusive to TLE

Nearly anyone will tell you that conservatives are much more favorable than liberals toward the Second Amendment. Conservatives will tell you this, and so will most liberals and libertarians.

Obviously, libertarians are the best on the issue. Distrust in government, opposition to the initiation of force, respect for the right to self-defense, understanding the failures of central planning—any one of these libertarian qualities, profoundly enough possessed, will lead a person to oppose so-called gun control, and do so as a matter of principle. Even a pacifist libertarian applies his or her pacifism and libertarianism consistently, and so would never dream of using force or delegating it to be used to disarm peaceful people or otherwise regiment and regulate their ownership of weapons contrary to their personal preferences.

Regardless of how the best rank-and-file conservatives approach the issue, or how they perceive political reality, Republican politicians have done a lousy job at guarding the right to keep and bear arms. Actually, if you look at Republican politicians such as John McCain, or even Richard Nixon—or, for that matter, Ronald Reagan—you'll see as much hostility toward the individual right to keep and bear arms as you'll see on the left (and in some cases, you'll see more: as California's governor, Reagan signed the Republican Mulford Act to disarm the Black Panthers.) Furthermore, you'll notice that average conservatives seem to care more about gun rights, and individual liberty all around, when a Democrat is in power and legislatively whittling away at the Second Amendment, than when a Republican is in power and doing the same.


For some conservatives, the reasons for the disconnect are their spinelessness, denial of the truth, and vulnerability to meager symbolism. For many other conservatives, the answer to why they're such unreliable allies in defending the right to bear arms is much more disturbing.

Putting aside the issue of gun rights per se, or even, generally, natural rights (which necessarily imply the right to keep and bear arms), let us consider for a moment the Second Amendment itself. Coming right after the First Amendment's glorious defense of free speech, a free press, religious freedom and the right to complain to the state, the Second Amendment was the second of ten articles fastened to the Constitution, intended to further bind politicians down from mischief if they ever happened to play loose with their enumerated powers, added as the necessary condition to get the Anti-Federalists—the American revolutionaries who founded this nation as one conceived in liberty—onboard in accepting the new Constitution and the government it would engender.

Not only the Anti-Federalists defended the right to keep and bear arms. Even the most royalist and authoritarian elements among the Founding Fathers, such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, declared it as a given that individuals should have legal access to weapons as powerful as the government wielded—and to take advantage of that legality and arm themselves—so as to put man and state on equal footing and ensure that the government is, as much as possible, "we the people."

The American revolutionaries had just recently defeated the most powerful empire in the world. The Federalists conceded the necessity of a well-armed populace, the Anti-Federalists comprehended it better, and the men (and women) who best understood the importance of the right to keep and bear arms were radical anti-imperialists of the highest caliber.

The revolutionaries had revolted because the British empire had ended its period of "Salutary Neglect," during which it had left the colonies alone for the most part, and henceforth began enforcing dictates, collecting taxes, stationing standing armies, prying into people's financial and economic affairs, conducted warrantless searches, imposing taxes to fund imperial wars, implementing mercantilist trade restrictions on the colonies, and depriving people of due process of law. When the British tried to seize guns at Lexington and Concord, the long-developing anti-imperial, libertarian philosophical revolution flamed into a violent one.

The American Revolution was fought and won with words and guns, and thus the Bill of Rights enumerated the significance of free speech and the right to bear arms as high priorities. Along with being rightful ends in themselves, these freedoms are especially important because they serve to protect other rights, they provide a check on the state, and, when push comes to shove, they enable revolution.

Today's conservatives like to talk about the Constitution and how much worse off we would be if it weren't for those protectors of the Second Amendment, the Republicans. As they would have us believe, George W. Bush, who currently runs an empire and carries out imperial abuses that far surpass, many times over, what the American colonists appraised as intolerable tyranny, is protecting the Bill of Rights from the Democrats—when the whole purpose of the Second Amendment, just like the rest of the Bill of Rights, is to protect us from him. (Or whoever happens to be in power at the time.)

George W. Bush has committed every atrocity of King George's empire, only on a much grander scale. To put it bluntly, President George makes King George look like George Mason.

Conservative gun rights enthusiasts are hilarious in their apparent convictions, because they still go on about how the Second Amendment will protect us from a despotism that they and their elected politicians have already put in place. All of the rights that the Second Amendment is supposed to guard have been taken out of commission without a fight. Where were the conservative gun rights activists when the Patriot Act was rammed through Congress, or when the Drug War developed on our soil? Where were they when the U.S. puppet regime in Baghdad rounded up weapons that even Saddam Hussein let his subjects own—weapons that you aren't incidentally allowed to buy in Washington, D.C. Where are they now that the National ID nightmare appears to be becoming a reality? How can the gun-rights movement say with a straight face that Republicans protect the right to bear arms, which in turn protects the other rights, when we're losing all these rights, right now, under a Republican regime?

As I pointed out earlier, even Alexander Hamilton and John Adams espoused the right to keep and bear arms. And here we can fully understand the gun-rights fašade in the conservative movement. Like the conservative Federalist royalists who established the first national central bank in 1791, who implemented the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, and whose political progeny went on to create the Republican Party, most of today's conservatives are Hamiltonian mercantilist warmongers. Whether or not they really believe what they say about gun rights is hard to know. We can't really know if Adams and Hamilton were being honest about it, either.

But we do know that the Second Amendment, and the Bill of Rights generally, are not our inheritance from American conservatives in the late 18th century, but from radical revolutionary anti-imperialists, who had just fought a revolution against an expansive empire and didn't want to see the same monster emerge on American soil. And so they forced their conservative adversaries at home to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

In retrospect, the conservatives have won for the most part, now running an empire that would make the 18th century British Crown blush. The Second Amendment is a symbol against empire and for individual liberty. This is why Republicans have done so much to disarm the people, and this is why conservatives seem to care much less about a well-armed populace and the right to bear arms when a Republican is in power.

Anthony Gregory is a musician, research assistant at The Independent Institute, policy advisor of the Future of Freedom Foundation, and writer for numerous libertarian publications. See his website, www.anthonygregory.com, for more info.


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