When Americans talk about guns, someone is sure to bring up the Second Amendment, and you will often hear the last part of it quoted, but seldom the rest. Here it is in full:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
If the framers had simply wanted to affirm a right to bear arms, they could have done so—nobody was holding a gun to their head. Instead, they chose to qualify it with a absolute construction specifying the purpose of the amendment: not to guarantee every man’s right to mow down a classroom full of 6-year-olds, not to blow away a movie theater full of nerds, not even to go hunting or take pot-shots at trespassers. The amendment is there to ensure the formation of a well-regulated militia.
A lot of the founders apparently saw the United States as a loose federation of sovereign countries, and wanted to ensure that these countries could defend themselves against any standing army created by the federal government. This may have made sense in 1789, and obviously made sense to some people in 1861, but it is absurdly inaccurate as a description of the nation we live in. If anything, Americans now have a stronger sense of national identity than most other people—when people in Louisiana talked about secession after the last election, everybody knew it was a joke; the same cannot be said for secessionists in Quebec or Scotland. When my Minnesotan nephew took a job with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, nobody felt that he was turning mercenary and selling his sword to a foreign power.
There are problems that arise when your laws were written 250 years ago in a different universe, and the best response would be simply to repeal the Second Amendment. Failing that, we could ignore it as having no application in the real world. But if we really are going to try and apply it, then we will need to reconsider the kinds of weapons it covers, because the idea is for citizens to be able to face down the US military. Little guns may be enough if you want to stalk and murder the random black guy who’s walking through your gated community, but if you are serious about confronting the federal government, you will need to think bigger…even your assault rifles are going to look pretty wimpy when they meet tanks and commandoes with tactical air support.
So if we’re going to take the framers at their word, we need to legalize any kind of weapon you might need to win a battle against Uncle Sam. You say you don’t actually trust your creepy neighbor to defend your liberty with surface-to-air missiles and anti-personnel mines? Well, me neither, so I think we can leave the Second Amendment out of the discussion.
I gather that some, including Supreme Court justices, have invoked a supposed right to bear arms from English law, especially as represented in the “Bill of Rights” from the Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (actually more like a Protestant coup, but whatevs). But here the “different universe” problem only gets worse: the Glorious Revolutionaries specifically mention that “good Protestants” have a right not to be disarmed by a Papist King, which seems kinda mal a propos. They claim to be invoking an ancient liberty, but (a) Brits always have to claim things are ancient, just as Romantics have to claim they are natural, and (b) there never was such a right for most Britons, who could get arrested for carrying a sword. I shudder to think what would have happened if a commoner went through town on a war-horse dressed in armor and carrying a spear. Now, if you go back far enough, you will find a time when some Britons, namely aristocrats, thought they had a right not only to bear arms but to assemble private armies I suppose that this is more or less what our radical gun-rights folks think, that we should have a democratized version of Game of Thrones, with every household a little battle-troop. I would much prefer to keep Westeros on the other side of the fact-fiction boundary.