For defense of themselves and the State
Gun rights commentators frequently hold up Switzerland as a model of a European nation with a high rate of gun ownership. (4th in the world, behind the US, Serbia, and Yemen.) However, in Switzerland, the right to keep arms is limited to the “common defense”. Young men are obligated to serve 3 months in the armed forces, and to remain in the militia from age 18 to 30, or however long it takes to serve 260 active duty days. Army rifles or pistols are issued and kept at home, but ammunition is kept in a central armory. In fact, the weapons at home are supposed to be kept inoperable, by removing the barrel of the pistol, for example, so that in case of theft, they will not be used in a crime.
Using force for self-defense, especially deadly force, is illegal in European countries. The police are considered your best defense, and citizens who use force in defense will likely be jailed. In contrast, in the United States, all 50 states have some provision for using deadly force to protect yourself from imminent death or great bodily harm. But of course, you’ll need some kind of arms to accomplish that if your attacker is armed, and especially if you are old, young, female, or disabled, and your attacker is not.
Is the 2nd amendment written to codify the right to keep arms for the common defense, or the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense? Many on the left today continue to raise the false dichotomy of either common defense or self-defense because of the initial clause stating that a “militia being necessary to the security of a free state”, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.
Nearly all of the original 13 states had a right to bear arms written in their state constitutions before the US Constitution was written. Some had a right to bear arms “for the common defense” (Massachusetts), or the “defense of a free government” (Maryland), or even the “defense of the State” (North Carolina). Less common was the right to bear arms for “defense of themselves and the State” found in the Pennsylvania constitution.
When the first national bill of rights was being debated in the US Senate, however, a motion was made to amend the right to bear arms as being “for the common defense”. That motion failed. Clearly the senators felt that the right to bear arms was not restricted to the common defense, or defense of the State, but was meant to be for self-defense as well.
As for the militia, referred to in the amendment, the National Guard is NOT the militia. The militia of 1789, and up until the Civil War, was made up of all adult men, trained to arms, who could respond to invasion or civil unrest. Although the militia was controlled by the governor, the men elected their own officers. The National Guard would have been called a “select militia”. It is largely made up of young men, and is controlled by the State government and would have been seen as part of the “standing army” in 1789. And most state constitutions regarding the right to bear arms had language such as “standing armies in a time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up” (Pennsylvania).
Whether or not it is wise to “keep up” a standing army in a time of peace can be debated. What is not open to argument is the “unalienable right” to “life, liberty and property” (from the Virginia constitution) which includes the right of self-defense and the necessity of keeping and bearing personal arms. Part of self-defense is acting in the common defense in times of invasion or civil unrest, but we do not surrender our personal liberty when joining a community, we simply agree to protect the “life, liberty, and property” of the others, as we would protect ourselves, with our personally owned weapons.
E Pluribus Unum, from many, one is our motto. Each citizen is responsible for the common defense, but is equally responsible to the community to defend himself or herself first. I can’t bear arms for the common defense as a casualty. Chesty Puller told his troops at the Chosin Reservoir that if they were shot, they wouldn’t be a hero, they’d be a hole in his line. If I allow myself to be injured or killed by some thug, I am a hole in the line of common defense.
A well regulated militia being necessary to a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.