Over the past 200 years, militias composed of farmers wielding flintlock rifles have largely disappeared, except in historical re-enactments. These “Minutemen” have been replaced by a powerful American military consisting not only of a standing army but also a standing navy and air force. And yet, one of the primary purposes of the 2nd Amendment was to guard American citizens against possible usurpations of power by their own governments. Thus, given advancements in the government’s military, is the 2nd Amendment merely a historical artifact without modern relevance?
Many gun control supporters think the right to bear arms is outmoded. If the stated rationale for the right to bear arms—which can be found both in the text of the 2nd Amendment and within the historical record—is no longer pertinent, then the right itself must be obsolete. If individual states no longer require “a well regulated Militia” for their security, then the right to bear arms is similarly discredited. Any modern attempt to transform the right “to keep and bear arms” into a right that protects a private individual defending himself and his home is an invention—the worst kind of “judicial activism.”
On the other hand, gun rights supporters argue that the exclusive focus on state militias misses the larger point of the 2nd Amendment. It also ignores the fundamental problem that the Framers were trying to address. The drafters of this right were trying to avoid a situation in which American citizens were too weak and submissive to oppose their government should it ever become necessary.
Joseph Story gave two reasons why the right to bear arms was considered “the palladium of the liberties of a republic.” One of them was to “enable the people to resist and triumph over” tyrants once they had taken over the government. But the other advantage was the “strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.”