The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Gun Control

The right to keep and bear arms, guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, is a right with a purpose. The Amendment states, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The mind of the Founders had different sensitivities than ours molded under the legacy they have won for us. They were intensely aware that they were presenting to the world something new: a nation of people who govern themselves. Thus, the government and the nation itself was the responsibility of every able-bodied man. And to fulfill that responsibility in an essentially hostile world, it was necessary that each man be armed and capable of defending the nation against invaders, or even against usurpers who might take over the government. For the safety of the nation, then, it was imperative that no governmental authority have the capacity to disarm the people for any reason whatsoever. That is the vital interest that the 2nd Amendment sought to protect.

It is difficult to translate this responsibility and concern into modern terms. Times have changed, and it would be easy to allow one's biases one way or another to intrude when contemplating the stretch that one must make to bring the 2nd Amendment into the 20th century. Moreover, if we acknowledge the deterioration of modern society and the number of people with warped minds who acquire fully automatic weapons and use them for illegitimate purposes, we must also recognize an entirely new dimension that must enter into our calculations. We must look carefully, therefore, at the interests the amendment was designed to protect.

No one in America today owns guns on the off-chance that he might need to use them defend his country against an invading enemy. Our country has developed in such a way that it does not rely on a militia of all the citizens as a first line of defense. Rather, most legitimate gun owners today want them for hunting animals (usually for food) and for protecting their property, their persons, and their family against harm. Many want them as collectors items and as part of a hobby. No doubt, these reasons were the main reasons why the early citizens of this country also wanted to own firearms.

The thought that individuals in this country might need weapons to guard against the possibility of their own government becoming a despotic force that can only be subdued by the citizens taking arms was not realistic nor justifiable, in Jefferson's view. As long as the basic features of our republic are still intact, there are means by which change may be brought about peaceably. Jefferson thought that there was nothing that should induce citizens under such a government to rise up against it, and felt that a proper society must have laws in place to deal with such an uprising should it occur.

This could never be justification for disarming the people, of course. Whereas there may be no present cause for insurrection, that does not mean that at some future time such a necessity will not arise. Were our republican institutions undermined by despotism, armed insurrection may be the only means for the people to restore self-government, just as it was in our Revolution.

Assuming that we have a republican government which is reasonably responsive to the people, the question then arises, Is any form of regulation and control of firearms justified in America today? This much seems clear: The right of a free people to defend themselves is just as essential today as it ever was. The real dangers faced by the citizen of today are every bit as threatening as those faced by the citizens of the early years of this republic. The right, therefore, to keep and bear arms for hunting and for defense is a right that should be fully protected and never infringed upon.

But does that right mean that a citizen has the right to own any kind of firearms whatsoever? Is there any justification for the government restricting certain types of firearms, and if so, on what basis?

There are no rights that are absolute. In his draft of the Virginia Constitution (1776), Jefferson included the provision that "no freeman shall be debarred the use of arms" but added the note, "within his own lands or tenements." This was many years before the 2nd Amendment, of course, but the principle is clear: The right to keep and bear arms is not infringed as a right if the use is restricted to what is reasonable and proper to fulfill the purpose of that right.

No right may be claimed for activity that is part of a crime or an intent to commit a crime. Having outlined the legitimate reasons for owning firearms, it is reasonable to propose that firearms that do NOT fulfill those legitimate needs, that are only or mainly suited for criminal activity, can and should be carefully regulated by the government. No one's rights are being infringed upon IF that person has the right to "keep and bear" arms for hunting, for defense, and as collector's items.

Based on that reasoning, Assault weapons, Machine guns, Hand grenades and any other type of weapon of mass destruction not essential for defense could be banned by the government without infringing any legitimate right. For persons genuinely interested in defense, those kinds of weapons are in many instances actually inadequate and dangerous to have around. Certainly, they are of no use when hunting game. In fact, it is likely that in a confrontation between one person with an AK-47 assault rifle and another with, say, a Smith & Wesson 38/357, where there is no sizeable distance involved, the person with the revolver would be able to bring it to bear and fire at least the first crucial shots more quickly and accurately. The AK-47 is capable of firing more shots and at a much faster rate, of course; but it cannot be brought to bear as quickly, and the man with the pistol would likely get off the first crucial and decisive ones.

The real advantage to the assault style rifles is their ability to be converted easily into fully automatic machine guns, and the availability of clips or drums which would allow far more shots that the average sporting rifle or pistol. Nevertheless, it doesn't matter how many bullets you have if you cannot deliver the first crucial ones before the other guy can. A disadvantage of the assault rifle for ordinary defense is that the bullets may go from their target through doors and walls, with unintended consequences. While still a possibility, this is far less likely with most handguns. The AK-47 would be more effective for mass murder, but the pistol would be the first choice for defense.

The problem is to find a reasonable, rational solution. A total ban of all weapons, or no ban whatsoever, is neither reasonable nor rational.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.