On June 26 the Supreme Court struck down the District of Columbia’s unconstitutional ban on handguns. That it did so is somewhat unremarkable, given that a nearly absolute prohibition against owning handguns patently violates our fundamental freedom to keep and bear arms. What is remarkable, however, is that the decision was 5-4. In other words, had just one justice voted differently, the Supreme Court would have declared that such a ban does not violate the Second Amendment. That’s how perilously close we are to having a Supreme Court that would essentially sweep the Second Amendment into the dustbin of historical relics.
But I don’t want to write today about the Heller decision. Instead, I think its useful to reexamine how we consider things such as the right to keep and bear arms, and just what the Bill of Rights does and doesn’t do.
The fact of the matter is that the United States Constitution does not grant us the right to keep and bear arms, and it never has. Nor does it grant us the right to freedom of speech, or freedom of religion. Those rights, along with all the others mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and many others not specifically mentioned, are instead granted to us by God. They are reflections of our God-given right to liberty, and are, as such, natural rights possessed by all free people. And that will remain true no matter what the Congress or the Supreme Court may ever say.
This basic truth is likely unknown to the vast majority of Americans, who no doubt are comfortable in their belief that they have a “constitutional right” to free speech, freedom of worship or to keep and bear arms. But these rights pre-exist the constitution, and the only mention of them in that document is in the Amendments that forbid the government from impairing or infringing them.
Consider the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Plainly the First Amendment doesn’t create a right to free speech, for example. Rather, it prohibits Congress from abridging that already extant right.
Likewise the Second 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.” This doesn’t create a right to keep and bear arms. Instead, it prohibits the government from infringing that right, which the people already possess.
During the ratification debates, the Anti-federalists, who were rightfully fearful that the federal government might someday act to restrain the natural rights of the people, insisted that a Bill of Rights be included in the Constitution, specifically declaring that Congress could not infringe on the basic liberties inherent in a free society. The Federalists objected on the grounds that such a Bill of Rights was unnecessary. As Alexander Hamilton put it, “Why declare that things shall not be done, when there is no power to do so?” No one involved in creating the Constitution would have dreamed that someday Americans would believe that the Bill of Rights somehow created rights.
So we need to lay to rest the notion that the Constitution, or the government, somehow give us the right to keep and bear arms. They do not. The Constitution merely reaffirms that the government may not infringe that pre-existing right.
But we must also keep sight of the fact that the government would have no authority to infringe our right to keep and bear arms, even if the Second Amendment were repealed, or had never existed. As is so beautifully expressed in our Declaration of Independence, we have been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which is liberty itself. Being inalienable, those rights cannot be justly taken away by any government. Indeed, those rights, our liberties, are not gifts from the government. They are gifts from God.
And we must not lose sight of that truth, for as Mr. Jefferson put it, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”
Grace and Peace