In the renewed debate over the Second Amendment since Sandy Hook, one argument continues to pop up: The right to keep and bear arms was written into the Constitution as defense against government tyranny.
Given the pervasive nature of this claim, it is important to dig a little deeper to understand what it means. What specifically was the feared tyranny of the national government the Second Amendment was intended to defend against, and what does the Second Amendment mean in our day?
To quote self-proclaimed constitutionalists: We need to find out what was in the mind of the Framers. In the case of the Second Amendment, there is no mystery on this subject. We know from the writings of southerners like James Madison, George Mason and Patrick Henry that they were worried the Constitution could give the federal government authority to take over state-run slave patrols in the South. Maintaining peace in the South required a police state to keep slaves from revolting, and Southern states had laws drafting whites to take part in these militias. Substitute the phrase “slave patrol” for “well-regulated militia” in the Second Amendment and the somewhat strange wording immediately makes perfect sense. One habit conservatives can’t seem to shake, while encouraging us to hold exactly to the original intent of the Framers, is their tendency to conveniently forget those same Framers institutionalized human bondage into those original documents.
Given that the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments rendered the original intent of the Founders obsolete, what does the Second Amendment mean today? Recent court decisions have upheld the right of individual citizens to possess firearms, while also upholding certain restrictions on that right. But it is ludicrous to claim that these court decisions have included the legal right of citizens to take up arms against the government.
Let’s call a spade a spade. When one hears of “Second Amendment remedies” if the ballot box does not deliver the required outcome, we are speaking of armed terrorism against the United States. And what would these terrorists be fighting against? Despite the appropriation of the Tea Party label, I see no taxation without representation here. Every member of Congress and the President was chosen in free elections by a majority of their constituents. If anything, it’s Tea Party politicians who have suppressed the right of equal representation in recent years, through gerrymandering and six hour waiting lines at the polls. Political arguments in America are to be settled at the ballot box and in the courts, not at the point of a gun.
There will always be a small minority of ignorant extremists who fantasize about taking up arms against the government. However, there is no excuse for Latter-day Saints to hold these views. In addition to Matthew 5:44, which all Christians are bound to obey, we have modern revelation to give us clear guidance. “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.” (D&C 134:5).
I would also remind these wannabe terrorists that armed struggle does not work in today’s world. Change against tyranny is wrought following the model of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. My favorite example happened in January 1991, when thousands of unarmed Lithuanians stood arm in arm in Vilnius and faced down Soviet tanks and machine guns by singing folk songs. Thirteen were killed and over a hundred injured, but in an eerie resemblance to the account of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis in the Book of Mormon, the bravery of these unarmed Lithuanians so stung the Soviet troops that they stopped firing. Eight months later, the toppling of this domino by a tiny Baltic nation led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Conservatives love to quote the White Horse Prophecy, which states the Constitution will hang by a thread and be saved by Latter-day Saint priesthood holders. Church authorities have never authenticated this prophecy, but even if it is true, wouldn’t one possible scenario be the Church standing up to armed right-wing terrorists?
I hope that day never arrives, but if it does, I pray I will have the courage to follow the example of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis and the Lithuanians, standing beside my fellow Latter-day Saints singing “Let there be peace on earth” in defiance of those who would destroy our legally elected government through terrorism.