The Second Amendment Was Designed to Prevent the Exact Thing that Trump Just Tried to Do

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We now know that Donald Trump requested, and in fact demanded, 10,000 active-duty military troops to use in controlling the mostly peaceful protests that have erupted in the United States since the murder of George Floyd.

It didn’t happen. Cooler heads prevailed — or at least heads that knew something about the Constitution and the rule of law prevailed. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated publicly that the situation did not warrant invoking the Insurrection Act to use military troops for civil law enforcement. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apparently had a shouting match with the President over the order.

We should all be profoundly grateful that the President was prevented from using American troops against American citizens. Without getting into the arcana of the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 — both of which still have the force of law today — we can say confidently that the action the President tried to commit was one of the nightmare scenarios contemplated by America’s Founders. It is, in fact, the reason that the Second Amendment exists.

The Historical Threat of a Standing Army
Large republics were rare in the 18th century, and the one that the Founders studied the most was Rome. Every one of them knew that the Roman Republic came to an end when Julius Caesar broke the sacred law of the land and brought his army across the Rubicon River and into the capital city. Armies were for fighting non-Romans. The presence of Caesar’s army within the city walls signaled that he intended to launch a war on the Republic and declare himself a dictator.

More recently, the American colonists had experienced profound indignities at the hands of the British Army, which maintained a standing presence in the colonies with orders to crack down on anything that looked like protests against the Crown. Since the Quartering Act of 1765, these soldiers had been maintained in the homes of the colonists, who were required to feed and house them at their own expense. Nothing was more controversial in the early Republic than the existence of a standing federal army.

The private ownership of firearms, on the other hand, was not a controversial issue at all. Western frontier, guns were an accepted fact of life. People had to hunt for food, and they had to protect themselves from wild animals and assorted bad guys. Did the Founding Fathers believe that people should be able to own guns? Of course they did. To believe otherwise at the time would have been crazy. It was simply not a controversial enough issue to require a separate Amendment in the Bill of Rights to protect it.

But a standard army was different. The colonists had experienced suffering at the hands of professional soldiers, and they had no stomach for more of it. A clear majority of Americans in 1789 did not want the new government to keep a standing army, and the most important safeguard against such an army was a strong, well-regulated militia. In America, as in England, local militias and standing armies were an either-or proposition. In a society without police forces or armies, somebody has to provide protection from external threats and internal dissent. If all able-bodied citizens own and are trained to use weapons, then local militias can handle most security needs, making a standing professional army unnecessary.

Between 1776 and 1783, nine of the thirteen colonies adopted constitutions or declarations of rights that called for the formation and maintenance of local militias. In eight of the nine documents, the clause forbidding standing armies occurs in the same article, or the article immediately following, the clause about local militias. There is simply no question that, in the state Constitutions of the time, preventing a standing army and guaranteeing the right to bear arms were seen as the same solution to the same problem. Consider the chart below

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These are the state constitutional provisions that were submitted to the First Congress for consideration in the Bill of Rights. They represent the original drafts of both the Second and Third Amendments, both of which were designed to prevent the federal government from doing exactly the thing that Donald Trump wanted to do with the federal army: to bring his army across the Rubicon and use force against citizens of the Republic.

We hear much talk of “Second Amendment solutions” these days as a sort of code word for rising up in rebellion against the government. But that is a modern interpretation of the text created by lobbyists and peddled to people who think that dressing up in combat gear is fun and reading actual history books is boring. The Constitution does not have a self-destruct sequence, and encouraging armed rebellion was the furthest thing from the minds of the patriots who created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Not only is this interpretation of the Second Amendment wrong; it is exactly wrong. The Second Amendment was not designed to give people the means to stage a rebellion against the government; it was designed to ensure that the people had the means to stop a rebellion against the government by banding together in citizens' militias that were fully empowered to keep the peace. By securing this right to civilians, the first Americans hoped to avoid even the possibility of a standing, peacetime army being deployed against American citizens. For that, they knew, was the surest path to tyranny.

Written by

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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