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The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is in jeopardy these
days — dangerously so. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure
that we will remain an armed people, able to defend our liberty. In our
defense of firearm rights, we must emphasize this fundamental purpose of
the amendment. If we leave the impression that we think that the right
to keep and bear arms concerns hunting and sports shooting, and making
sure Americans have the right to entertain themselves with guns, we will
actually contribute to the false view that the Second Amendment is an
historical curiosity, hardly deserving the effort it would take to
officially remove it from the Constitution.

The right to keep and bear arms derives from our duty to retain the
basic means necessary to defend our country and our liberty. Certainly
it is true that the actual defense of our national borders is normally
delegated to the professional military. But we must never think that
this revocable delegation of responsibility for national defense is a
transfer of ultimate responsibility. We, the people, are responsible for
the defense of country and liberty, and the Second Amendment is crucial
to our performance of that duty.

The presence of the Second Amendment in our Constitution reflects the
history of the emergence of self-government in the modern world. One key
impediment to the assertion of the political rights of the common man
throughout much of history was that military conflict was usually left
to a professional elite. Until common people were able to get on
battlefields and defend themselves, they left that defense to
professional classes of warriors. Inevitably, or at least naturally,
such warriors became the rulers of the people whose country they
defended.

Our Founders understood that leaving matters of defense entirely in
the hands of a professional military class was inconsistent with
self-government. The American Founding was a decisive break with the old
European order in many ways, but the care our Founders took to ensure an
armed citizenry is one of the most striking. Indeed, the formal
Constitutional guarantee that the sovereignty of the people would be
defended by that people themselves, and with their own weapons, is a
kind of condensed summary of the entire doctrine of self-government on
which the nation is founded.

For this reason, it is a matter of clear national interest that we
make sure that our citizens understand the meaning of their Second
Amendment rights — indeed, their Second Amendment duties. It is
difficult to see how any citizen could have a clear understanding of his
general civic responsibilities if he does not understand the fundamental
duty he bears to join with his fellow citizens at all times in remaining
vigilant to any threats to liberty. And it is difficult to see how he
could understand this if he is allowed to come of age with a hostile or
trivial view of the Second Amendment.

Accordingly, I propose that we add a serious and mature formation in
America’s Second Amendment heritage to the basic civics education that
all our young people receive. We must teach our children about the
Constitution, its heritage and background, and its ultimate dependence
on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. But we should
also, as an ordinary part of their education, teach them about the
relation of arms to liberty.

We must teach our children that the preservation of liberty, and of
an order of society conducive to human dignity, requires that a free
people retain the moral and material means to discipline its own
government, should the temptation to tyranny take root. We must read the
Founders’ own explanations of the purpose of the Second Amendment, and
see the great care with which they discussed the basis on which any use
of the militia against government might be contemplated, much less
determined upon. Indeed, any study of the Founders is a study of
prudence in action, and this is particularly true in the matter of the
decision to take up arms in defense of liberty.

But the perennial awareness that such citizen defense against
domestic tyranny is the ultimate material defense of our liberty is a
crucial component of civic formation. Conveying to our young citizens a
mature understanding of the prudential judgments required of them as
members of the American sovereign will be difficult, no doubt. But it
was done in the past, and it can be done again, if only we cease shying
away from a clear acknowledgment of the real anatomy of our political
order.

Being an American citizen is a weighty responsibility. We must again
convey a sense of that weight to a generation of young people that is
tempted, watching the floating superficialities of our current crop of
political leaders, to think that freedom is a breezy and simple affair,
with no deep consequences beyond the constant pursuit of pleasure.

If we are serious about conveying a sense of the weight of civic
responsibility, we will not shrink from giving our students the
experience of feeling a gun in their hand as well. And so, in addition
to the theoretical component of a Second Amendment civics class, we
should require of every American student, in the senior year of high
school, a practical civics course in the basics of firearms familiarity
and safety, and of self-defense.

And really, the practical side of Second Amendment education is not
optional. We cannot allow ourselves to become habitually afraid of the
instruments that must be used to defend our liberties and our country.
The Second Amendment civics course I am proposing must include the
holding and firing of basic weapons. We need to demythologize guns
before the liberal attempt to create a totemic fear of them succeeds. If
the gun control mentality promoting fear of guns themselves becomes our
national mentality, we would turn the clock back to the days when a
warrior class ruled over the people because only they had the confidence
and expertise to deploy the means of defense and coercion. The gun
control agenda will turn us into a people too timid to defend themselves
from our would-be masters. We must give our young people a reasonable
and responsible confidence in their ability to defend themselves and
their liberties. We need to make sure that these weapons are
demystified, and that people understand their responsible use, and see
in themselves the capacity to handle them responsibly.

Some will say that recent, highly-publicized incidents of violence
show that high school is precisely the wrong time to offer “hands on”
training in firearms. But the fact that such episodes occur simply
emphasizes that we need to educate young citizens to distinguish between
the right and the wrong uses of the means of self-defense. We do not
conclude from the carnage on the highways that we shouldn’t teach our
kids how to drive, even though it is true that adolescents tend to look
first on cars as toys or symbols or emotional outlets. But through
education we are able to turn most of them into responsible drivers. The
same would be true with respect to firearms, so that the country will in
fact be safer, and less prone to violence, as a result of such
education.

The course should include the sort of weapons that people would use
for personal defense. But it should also include introducing them to the
weapons they might be called upon to use to defend their country. The
Founders intended that American citizens would be familiar with the
basic weapon of the infantry of the day. Today it would be an M-16.
Tomorrow it may be a laser weapon, or something else.

Such a course would be, in effect, a preparation for a basic
education in the nature of military activity. And this was what the
Founders intended to be the role of the militia. The universal
preparation of our young people to receive such education would
represent a partial return to the right concept of “militia.” The
Founders intended that the militia would include every able-bodied
person who was capable of defending the community. One goal of civic
education in our secondary schools should be to prepare future members
of the militia so that they can be called upon as necessary to
participate in that effort.

Through negligence and a failure to think clearly about the
implications of citizenship we are in danger of allowing the liberal
elite in America to turn the essential weapons of self-defense into
mythologized totems. Firearms education is necessary to prevent a
national return to the pre-republican mentality of docility to whichever
experts in contemporary techniques of violence happen to be in a
position to intimidate us. Let’s pay serious attention to what it will
take to educate our children in the material, as well as the moral,
foundations of our liberty.

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