Because Christ teaches using parables, people who learn from him gain an advantage. They are accustomed to remembering that things are not always what they seem, and to use their imagination to think beyond the apparent significance of a story for its additional meaning.
I thought of this today while reading a story about the Justice Department’s decision to acknowledge “that popular semi-automatic sporting rifles such as AR-15 are not inherently military weapons.” The story accurately reports that “gun control activists frequently argue that military weapons are not appropriate for ‘consumer’ use.”
The story quotes Alan M. Gottlieb, “the founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation” saying that “Not only is this a First Amendment victory for free speech, it is also a devastating blow to the gun prohibition lobby.” Given Mr. Gottlieb’s formulation, I found myself thinking “If the First Amendment stands for free speech, for what does the Second Amendment stand?” Doubtless most people would say that it stands for the right to keep and bear arms. In fact, however, the Amendment first of all focuses attention on what is necessary for “the security of a free state.” Only in that context does it focus on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
The Amendment assumes that the term “free state” refers to the condition of the people. This is in keeping with the founding principles of the United States. The Declaration of Independence epitomizes these principles. During the Constitutional Convention, and the ratification debate that followed, they were variously called “the principles of the Revolution,” “republican principles,” “democratic principle” and “the principle of free government.” The distinguishing requirement of these principles is that government derive its just powers from the consent of the governed.
In the first instance, the “consent of the governed” appears in the Declaration of Independence in the context of the national interregnum – the period when the people of the United States dissolved “the political bands which … connected them” with people subject to the sovereign rule of the British monarch. In that moment, the American people appealed “to the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” to justify the assertion that they were entitled to “assume among the powers of the earth” a “separate and equal station.” They appealed, as well, to their Creator’s endowment of rights, inseparable from human nature, such that all who are willing to follow these natural inclinations to do right according to God’s will, may come together to empower a form of government that secures their right doings.
In the context of the national interregnum, the phrase “consent of the governed” refers to those who are willing to be governed by God’s rule and to act in accordance with their Creator’s endowment of right. In pursuit of this goodwill, they come together (congregate, convene), pooling the powers they have individually decided to use for good.
This, their common power, then constitutes the just power(s) of government, derived from their consent to work together as one to make the world safe for those who would do good. Because they act according to the terms of God’s endowment of right, these people of goodwill act with God’s authority. Their exercise of the unalienable right of liberty is distinguished from the arbitrary abuse of freedom, by its conformity to God’s standard of right.
This state of freedom, conditioned by respect for God’s authority, is the free state the Second Amendment aims to secure. The right choice or election of individuals, periodically renewed, characterizes the form of government that corresponds to this free condition. This is why periodic elections are the most reliable feature of republican governments. Such elections are a necessary test of the people’s character and goodwill. If they retain the requisite character, each election confirms their will to do right. Once they lose it, each election affirms the deterioration from liberty to tyranny; from freedom used to do right, to freedom used to do and enforce wrongs.
With this in mind, we see why the Second Amendment is not simply about the right to keep and bear arms. It focuses, first of all, on maintaining “a well-regulated militia.” Now, the word “regulated” refers to action according to a rule. But we have seen that the free state or condition of the people of the United States ultimately depends on the God’s rule for right and justice. The discipline required to maintain it is therefore, first of all, a willingness to follow God’s orders. When people who prove themselves “ordinary” (i.e., law-abiding) in this sense exercise their right to keep and bear arms, they are the raw material of a “well-regulated militia,” one liable to do what’s necessary to preserve their liberty.
In this respect, the Second Amendment is a parable. It appears to be about the necessity for guns, but beyond that it is about the need to maintain the goodwill and character required to put them to good use. When we take care of that requirement, we can see the distinction between military and non-military weapons for what it is – a covert attack on the security of our free state, which assumes that the people of the United States are no longer fit for liberty. Instead of being taken in by it, we should concentrate on vindicating the fit character of the people. For if we do not trust ourselves with the weapons required to defend our liberty in battle, we have already lost the war to preserve it.