How Essential Is the Second Amendment These Days?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several pro-guns readers are pouncing on an email from a previous reader, Michael Gomez. Here’s Jerry Surowiec:

I am writing in reply to Gomez’s point about semi-auto rifles and concealed handguns not being protected by the Second Amendment because these items did not exist at the time the Constitution and its amendments were adopted. 

If he is going to take a strict constructionist approach, then he must also admit that there is no right to an abortion, because that “right” was discovered when it was found hiding in the shadows almost 200 years later. Also, Freedom of the Press in the year 2016 must be limited to newspapers, pamphleteers, and town cryers because the internet, radio, and TV did not exist at the time either.

His point about being proud to have never touched a firearm in his life seems as bizarre to me as my guns must seem to him. I have to wonder if he has ever baited his own hook, scaled his own fish, or gutted his own deer—things that in my part of America are as mundane as pumping your own gas.

Or making your own squirrel melts:

A few more readers continue to defend the Second Amendment:

The folks who claim “our founders never envisioned assault weapons” therefore no one should be allowed to possess handguns or AR15s, only muzzleloaders, are woefully undereducated.

If you read the related works of almost all of our Founders, it is crystal clear that their intent was that the citizenry possess weapons equal to those in possession of our own government. Our constitution was not written in a vacuum, and trying to stubbornly apply it using only today’s historical perspective is, well, naive at best and painfully ignorant or intentionally manipulative at worst. One of the most important reasons our Founders intended the citizenry to be well armed was to take action in the event that our own government became treasonous and a danger to freedom. These great men, who did everything in their power to create a truly free country like never before known on Earth, feared a rogue government as much as they feared foreign invaders.

So I will agree that the Founders, if they had known about the advent of modern “assault weapons,” would have worded the Second Amendment differently; they would have stressed that those weapons be included in the private citizen’s arsenal.

Another reader, Brett Rodler, anticipates a counterargument from anti-gun advocates:

The Second Amendment protects all the others. An unarmed citizen is merely a subject. What recourse does an unarmed individual have against a government who has decided “it knows best and will now control you”? None.  

Skeptics of this will say an individual with a rifle can do very little against the American military. Really? Ask the U.S. military how easy occupying Iraq was. Would the U.S. military carpet bomb and shell entire American cities? No, of course not. With 300 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S., almost every man, woman, and child could be armed. That is some disheartening odds for soldiers walking the streets.  

Secondly, confiscation. Really stop and picture that: ATF agents and FBI tactical teams going house to house to house trying to confiscate firearms. It would be a bloodbath. On both sides! The government would run out of agents first, but an attempted confiscation would completely destroy the United States.  

Also, think back to Prohibition. There would be such a black market for firearms; you can’t take something away that people want. I’m guessing in Australia and Britain, people didn’t want guns enough. Everyone must face the fact that firearm owners are more passionate and willing to die for the right to bear arms compared to the cerebral determination of the gun control advocates.

Hold a different view? Drop us an email. Update from a reader who quotes Mr. Rodler:

Skeptics of this will say an individual with a rifle can do very little against the American military. Really? Ask the U.S. military how easy occupying Iraq was.

While this may be a popular argument among stateside firearms aficionados, it is not borne out by the evidence. Firearms may have produced a higher lethality rate in Iraq and Afghanistan (approximately 20 percent of servicemembers struck by a bullet). However, if he had paid any attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would know that the number one casualty producing weapon was the improvised explosive device:

One point is obvious — I.E.D.’s cause the highest raw numbers of injuries in both wars. From Oct. 7, 2001, through Aug. 1, 2009, explosive devices caused 25,353 casualties in the American ranks. Gunshot injuries caused 4,102 casualties.

I have yet to see even the National Rifle Association call for widespread public ownership of improvised explosive devices.  

A better simulation of the gentleman’s fantasy resistance scenario might be the Battle of the Black Sea, popularized in the movie Blackhawk Down. There, a lightly armed force of U.S. special operations forces suffered 18 deaths and 73 wounded while inflicting approximately 300 killed and an unknown number of wounded on their small-arms-owning Somali adversaries.  

This leads me to my final note, and one that I very rarely see discussed as part of the resistance scenario. It is indisputable that training and preparation count towards achieving military success. As such, the United States has made a significant effort to prepare its troops for combat by physical conditioning, supplies of body armor, first aid and trauma kits, communications equipment, tactical exercises, night vision equipment, commonality of weapons and ammunition—the list goes on, to say nothing of the numerous support personnel dedicated to maintaining and providing medical assistance and resupply. Even the Iraqi insurgency enjoyed the benefits of standardization, as their arms and equipment were almost uniformly drawn from the former Iraqi Army’s depots.

I see very little discussion of this preparation with most Second Amendment fantasists. Rather, I expect as with many gun enthusiasts, each has their own preferred firearm and stockpile of ammunition and is prepared to launch boldly forth into the fray on that basis. If the gentleman has brought a M1A in .308 caliber to his modern-day Whiskey Rebellion and his friend has brought an AR-15 in .223, they cannot exchange ammunition. If one of them is wounded, who among them is the equivalent of a combat medic? Who among them is next in command? Have they ever conducted fire-and-maneuver exercises as a team? If called upon to operate above the squad level, can their communications equipment cross-talk? If not, where, when, and from whom do they expect to receive resupply of food, water, and ammunition? Do their rifles have sights or other equipment that will allow it to engage targets effectively at night?  If, as part of an insurgent attack, they need to drop their firearms to avoid identification as combatants, where will they retrieve replacements?

Without proper consideration of these issues and many, many others, the rifle risks becoming a heavy, useless impediment to be abandoned in flight. Clearly these problems are not insoluble, but the fact that there is almost no discussion of them suggests that most individuals have not seriously thought through their assertion that their preferred totem of manhood is the primary defense of their liberties.  

Update from Mr. Rodler:

First, let me say thanks; I don’t usually get any sort of response when I write pro-Second Amendment emails. I realize this is a debate that can (and will) exist until the end of time, but let me write a short response to the reader who commented about the ineffectiveness of armed citizens.

Your reader missed my point.  I was not arguing whether or not a bunch of armed citizens could be trained, supplied, and organized into an effective fighting force that could defeat the U.S. military. My point was that the effort it took to defeat and occupy a country that is smaller than Texas and has around 33 million people is next to nothing when compared to occupying the entire United States and its armed populace.

My second point is this: How well does martial law or a military coup work on armed citizens … versus unarmed citizens?  Would we rather be throwing rocks and bottles?  The Second Amendment will ALWAYS be relevant because it will ALWAYS be the right of American citizens to stand up for their personal liberty and freedom.

Some remaining thoughts in response to the reader:

First, what do you think the morale of the troops would be while attacking their own country?  I believe many would refuse to do so.

Second, how many ex-military citizens do we have in our population? There would be no shortage of knowledge when it comes to training and tactics for our citizens. Nor, would there be a shortage of doctors and medical professionals willing to treat injured citizens.

Lastly, I would argue that 75 percent of civilian-owned rifles are chambered in either 5.56 or .308 and probably 60 percent of civilian pistols are 9mm. All of which are the primary cartridges used by the U.S. military, I don’t believe ammo would be an issue.

We have the MOST amazing country on the planet. No one in their right mind would want something as catastrophic as a government takeover or a military strike on U.S. citizens. All I’m saying is the Second Amendment is a deterrent and has a legitimate place in our Constitution.