My most recent letter to the editor speaks to what I believe the 2nd Amendment doesn't mean. Space didn't permit me to say what, in my opinion, it does.
When I learned how to write history papers, at school, I was taught that the first paragraph should clearly state a position. They called it a thesis statement and the best advice I got, from a poli sci T.A. who was an English major, was to just come out and say it, no need to get all flowery. "This paper will argue that ... " Then begin to lay out your evidence in the ensuing paragraphs.
Similarly, when I read the Constitution, especially when trying to determine the Framers' intent, I look to the first paragraph, the Preamble. Their statement of intent, in just fifty-two words. The three most telling are, arguably, the first three. We the People ... Not we aristocrats, or we the smart people at this Constitutional Convention. Not, On behalf of his royal highness, the King. Not, We who are chosen by God. We the People.
They go on to lay out their mission statement. In order to form a more perfect union. To Establish Justice. To ensure domestic Tranquility. To Provide for the Common Defense. To promote the general Welfare. And to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
To me this means, first, that they are speaking of and for the People, as a whole. They are setting up the citizens themselves as the true seat of political power. The People as sovereign. Not a King. Not a ruling class. The people themselves. From the people will come the actual mechanics of government. A bicameral legislature, a President, and a third, co-equal judicial branch. But the people themselves shall rule (the meaning of the word 'democracy'), through these representatives (a Republic, if we can keep it, as Franklin famously said).
Next they elaborated what their purpose would be. The people, on their own behalf and in their own interest, would seek justice, peace, the welfare of the whole. The blessings of liberty.
So the people were empowered with the right of governance. They then had to ensure that right. A 'State' is typically defined as a political unit with geographic boundaries, within which the sole right to legitimate use of coercive force is reserved to the state and its designees. Which brings us to the 2nd Amendment.
"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." To me this is a bit of a statement of the obvious. If the people are the State, then of course they claim the right to arms. This, to me, is a reminder to future presidents, congresses, whoever, that it is The People that are sovereign. You guys are just office-holders. You are temporary. And you do not RULE us, you REPRESENT us.
So what do I mean, then, when I say the intent of the 2nd Amendment is NOT so the people can overthrow the government?
The people are the seat of political authority. They ARE the government. They have no need to overthrow that which is themselves. The fear, apparently, is that one man, or a small group, will take control of the levers of power and impose tyranny. (How, no one ever says.) Turn our own government against us. In my opinion this is not something that can happen. At least, I would say, the odds against it are beyond enormous. One man can't just start giving orders and have everyone blindly follow him. Suppose Obama were to try it tomorrow. 'I hereby decree that I am president for life!' Yeah, right! Good one, Barry!
Also, we have a standing army now. The Founders, especially Madison and Jefferson, from what I have read, wanted to avoid that. (They also hoped to get along without political parties.) But with 'globalization' and a couple of world wars, the American people went along with the creation of a permanent, professional military force. The strongest, most expensive, best equipped (for the most part) military in the world. No other force in the world could truly defeat it. If some group could somehow seize power and turn our own military against us we could be in some serious trouble. But it is also a people's army. It draws on the entire populace for its composition. Colin Powell was born neither rich nor well-connected yet he rose as high in the Army as one can rise. And like every other American boy he was raised on the idea of democracy, of We the People. Therein lies our strength. We the People will not follow a dictator. The Army won't, the police won't, the courts won't go along, the local leaders won't do it. It's not going to happen.
The courts have ruled that the 2nd Amendment contains an individual right to keep and bear arms. This is in keeping with the whole We the People meme. The courts have also ruled that Congress and lower level legislatures have the authority to pass reasonable regulations concerning who may own what. Again in keeping with the We the People idea. We the People want the use of guns but we don't want to be ruled by them. We want the Army to have weapons of war, but most of us don't want our crazy neighbor to have them.
So what am I saying the 2nd Amendment means? That We the People decide who can keep and bear what arms. Military has one standard, police another. We have granted them a certain monopoly of legitimate force, over the years. Citizens in good standing have another standard. Shot guns, semi-automatic rifles, pistols. But not automatic rifles, hand grenades or shoulder-fired missiles. And people with records of violent crime or people with documented mental health issues are held to another standard: they shall not be armed. Not with guns anyway. Legally. So when new legislation is proposed it is NOT automatically a violation of the 2nd Amendment, but rather, We the People, through our elected representatives, doing what we have always done. Self-governing.