The Second Amendment: Conservative’s Moloch

Image by Otto Pankok (1893-1966)

by John Ellis

A mere twenty-seven words hold this nation hostage. Well known, but not necessarily understood, the Second Amendment states, “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.” Those words, hotly debated, are used (and misused) by the NRA and their supporters to protect their “right” to own guns even in the face of the mounting evidence that guns are, indeed, a large part of the problem behind the statistical (and existential) horror that is the United States’ gun violence. In his landmark paper “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” law professor Carl Bogus makes the argument that, “The Second Amendment is part of the reason that the United States tolerates a level of carnage and terror unparalleled in any other nation at peace.”[1]

Other countries, reflecting God’s priority of preserving life over defending man-invented rights, have responded to gun violence by restricting guns. Shamefully, in failing to follow suit, the United States of America is far and away the “leader,” so to speak, in gun violence among industrialized countries. Some will contend that I’m setting forth a false dilemma, that preserving life and protecting the right to own guns are not at odds. They are wrong, and I’ll explain why later. First, though, to kick things off, I want to look at our cousins across the Atlantic. The United Kingdom has reduced the carnage of gun violence to almost non-existent. They’ve done so through strict anti-gun legislation. Legislation that works, undeniably so.

After the shooting spree of Michael Ryan on August 19, 1987, known as the Hungerford Massacre in which 16 people were murdered, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. The Act effectively banned semi-automatic rifles, certain shotguns, and created a license and registry for shotgun owners, among other provisions. Unfortunately, while reducing gun violence, it wasn’t enough. On March 13, 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into the Dunblane Primary School in Stirling, Scotland, armed with 4 handguns and a bag of ammunition and gunned down 16 children and 1 teacher, wounding 15 other students and teachers. That horrific act prompted the United Kingdom to take even more drastic action, and in 1997 Parliament passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997. Combined, the two acts banned all handguns. Since the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the two Firearms Acts, over a quarter of a century later and the United Kingdom has not suffered a single mass shooting. In the United States there have been two mass shootings in the last month alone[2]: in Buffalo, NY, 10 people were murdered by a racist motivated by replacement theory, and in Uvalde, TX, 19 students and 2 teachers were murdered. After the school shooting in Uvalde, Sky News Reporter Mark Stone asked Senator Ted Cruz the straightforward question “But why does [school shootings] only happen in your country? … Why only in America?” In reply, Senator Ted Cruz huffed “you’ve got your political agenda” and then stormed off.

Political agenda? Okay, sure. But it seems that certain political things should be universal. For example, the abolition of murder and grand theft auto is political. Yet almost all of us agree over the fact that those two things should be illegal. While it’s true that laws can’t change hearts, that doesn’t mean that certain acts shouldn’t be regulated and abolished for the good of the community. And while numbers aren’t known for telling whole stories, when it comes to gun deaths, the numbers tell enough of the story to conclude that our lack of gun regulations and laws are harming our communities. Across the United Kingdom, around 0.20 per 100,000 people are killed with a gun. By way of contrast, the United States? 12.21 per 100,000. Sadly, though, many people in this country believe the lie that gun control doesn’t work. This is where the crux of the issue lies. With the word “political,” Cruz meant partisan. Gun supporters’ feelings don’t care about the facts.

The belief that owning guns is a fundamental human right is woven tightly into the controlling narrative of conservatives. I’m not sure I need to defend this point. I imagine that conservatives, albeit possibly confused about what I mean by “the controlling narrative,” would give a full-chested “Amen!” to my claim that they believe owning guns is a fundamental human right. During the most recent NRA national convention, Wayne LaPierre told the attendees that very thing as a justification for rejecting any and all gun restrictions. Gun restrictions impede their culturally defined happiness, a definition that is inextricable from a specific philosophy of liberty.

Conservatives, by and large, defend tooth-and-nail a Lockean definition of liberty (including the pursuit of happiness via the enjoyment of that liberty). By their words and actions, they reveal that preserving and protecting Lockean liberty is the first and greatest commandment. That’s the controlling narrative into which the right to own guns is woven. For Christians, though, it’s necessary to confront ourselves with the reality that Lockean liberty is problematic for Kingdom ethics in primarily two ways: 1. It’s based on an autonomous epistemology and, hence, autonomous anthropology. The Bible clearly refutes this. We are not autonomous, and we don’t discover knowledge; knowledge is a revealed gift from God. 2. It prioritizes property over life. Don’t believe me? In The Second Treatise of Government, property is inseparable from liberty. Because of this, Locke writes, “This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life.”[3] Not only does this belief stand in stark, rebellious opposition to the Old Testament principle of lex talionis, it contradicts even further Jesus’ New Covenant command to turn the other cheek. The New Testament is not unambiguous in revealing that Kingdom ethics demand that followers of Jesus surrender their rights for the sake of others. Not to mention, the Bible clearly values life over property. King Jesus is not okay with me killing someone who is trying to steal my car. My property is not more important than the life of the would-be thief, and the worth of each aren’t even close. John Locke’s political philosophies are products of Enlightenment rebellions and not from a proper exegesis nor application of biblical ethics. However, the philosophies and political theories of John Locke play an outsized role within the controlling narrative of conservatives. And Locke played an outsized role in the formation of this country.

“Colonials in America accepted a maxim laid down by the English philosopher John Locke: property guaranteed liberty. … Protecting the individual’s right or property was the main responsibility of government.”[4] That belief was poured into the United States of America, and alongside it came pernicious platitudes like “self-made man,” “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps,” and the Ayn Randian/objectivist plagiarism of Cain with “I am not my brother’s keeper.” Liberty, in this belief, is the key to maximizing our talents and strengths. Liberty tells us that if we fail, it’s our fault. Meritocracy is one of the primary doctrines of this country, which may seem like a claim that’s far afield from a specific discussion about the Second Amendment. It’s not.

The Second Amendment didn’t happen in a vacuum. Therefore, it’s important to understand that not only is this country and its Constitution not sacrosanct (at all), but substantial arguments can also be made that Christians need to be wary of how we interact with the Founders, their documents, and this country in general. The question needs to be asked: Do our epistemology, anthropology, and subsequent political theories owe an allegiance to the Enlightenment’s secularism at the expense of fidelity to our King?

Before delving into theology, though, I want to take a closer look at the Second Amendment.

As every American who attended high school knows, May 14, 1787, signaled the beginning of the Constitutional Convention. Two main proposals were debated: James Madison’s Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. Madison’s vision, that of completely scrapping the Articles of Confederation and starting over with a new document and new government, beat out the New Jersey Plan’s desire to simply rewrite the Articles (with some major revisions, to be fair). At stake in the debate was how much power should the central government have. Realizing this, Patrick Henry, whom historians have described as, “an implacable foe of centralized government,”[5] angrily skipped the Convention. This was problematic for the proceedings and subsequent events and has important bearing on the development and inclusion of the Second Amendment.

Combined with the states’ rights proponents at the Convention, Henry helped lead a cabal of angry antifederalists throughout the fledgling nation push back on the more federalist impulses of the majority of delegates. While the Virginian Plan won out on the Convention floor, the problem of convincing the states to accept it remained.  Among the worries of the Southern states was the issue of slavery. Historians George Tindal and David Shi claim, “Of all the issues that emerged during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, none was more volatile than the question of slavery and its future.”[6] While the issues of representation of slaves (the racist three-fifths clause) and federal intervention in slave trafficking were at the forefront, an even more important, meta issue was also at stake – an existential stake. Professor Bogus presents the argument in his article that Patrick Henry and company’s primary concern was the federal government’s authority to dictate policy to the Southern states regarding slavery. If allowed to hold, the Southerners realized that that authority would signal the death knell for the institution of slavery. Hold on to this for a few sentences, though, I need to finish erecting history’s scaffolding before looking at the details.

To placate the states’ rights crowd, including the slave owners in the South, James Madison proposed a Bill of Rights. On this promise, alongside political gamesmanship (from both sides) and fierce partisan battles, the Constitution was eventually ratified. Interestingly, of the 13 states, only North Carolina and Rhode Island had failed to ratify the new Constitution prior to the addition of the Bill of Rights. Rhode Island was so antifederalist the state had failed to seat any delegates at the Convention. However, finally brought before Congress in May 1789, Madison’s Bill of Rights were approved as amendments to the Constitution. It took until the end of 1791 for the required three fourths of the states to approve ten of Madison’s twelve amendments. The Second Amendment was gifted, for better or worse, to Americans by the Founders.

If asked, I would imagine that most supporters of gun rights would reveal an unwitting ideological debt to Stephen Halbrook. A lawyer specializing in Second Amendment cases, Halbrook dominates gun rights arguments, having had his opinions and beliefs accepted by Supreme Court Justices. In his books, subsidized by the NRA, A Right to Bear Arms and That Every Man be Armed, alongside several articles, Stephen Halbrook was one of the first, if not most prominent, voices arguing that the initial writers and supporters of the Second Amendment believed that citizens owning guns were an important bulwark against their government turning despotic. This is referred to as the individual rights position and traces itself back to the Declaration of Rights that came out of Britian’s Glorious Revolution. A position, of course, that ignores the initial statement of the Amendment that includes the words “well regulated militia.”

Challenging the “individual rights position,” Professor Bogus’ thesis is clear that, “The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South’s principal instrument of slave control. In effect, the Second Amendment supplemented the slavery compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and obliquely codified in other constitutional provisions.”[7]

That’s a big claim, and one that’s likely jarring to people first interacting with it. And it’s not necessary to my argument, which I’ll demonstrate below, but Bogus goes to great lengths to plum primary sources to provide close to airtight evidence for his thesis.

During the fight to ratify the Constitution, Virginia was viewed as the swing state, federalists having written off New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and North Carolina (New York and New Hampshire did ratify the Constitution, but only after Virginia had exerted enough pressure on the federalists to create changes and assurances that satisfied the two previously recalcitrant states). While it would seem that convincing Virginia to ratify the Constitution was balanced towards the federalists owing to the fact that James Madison was a favored son of the Commonwealth, the opposition was led by the fiery, charismatic, and popular Patrick Henry with the intelligent and respected George Mason standing right beside him. Recognizing the power of fear, Henry steered the debate into the larger issue of slavery. “The Southern states had made it plain that they would not join the Union if emancipation was an open issue and insisted that the Constitution protect the slave system.”[8] Bogus later contends that, “Although the federal government could not abolish slavery directly, however, there were ways in which it might undermine the slave system indirectly. For the South, this was a terrifying prospect.”[9] Patrick Henry was fully aware of this, seeing how he was one of the primary drivers of the fear, and he continued to play that fear off the federalists’ need for Virginia to ratify the Constitution.

In his article, Bogus provides historical anecdotes that fueled the growing fear among Southerners that removing even a little of their power over the slave system would amount to violent disasters. Since enslaved people made up a sizeable percentage of the population in the South, the ability for whites to control them was of tantamount importance. To keep the enslaved people in-line and under their thumb “the South had developed an elaborate system of slave control. The basic instrument of control was the slave patrol, armed groups of white men who made regular rounds. … Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgian all had regulated slave patrols. By the mid-eighteenth century, the patrols had become the responsibility of the militia.”[10]

During the American Revolution, the Southern states were wary of committing their militias to the war effort because they were afraid of what would happen if the militias weren’t present to assert control over the population of enslaved people. The existence of militias and their owning of guns was not an abstract issue to Southerners in the late-18th century. However, Halbrook and the NRA pull out of context quotes given about militias during the American Revolution to support their individual rights to own guns as protection against “standing armies”/tyranny theory. The “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech, which is the only thing most people know of Patrick Henry, is the bludgeon used by Halbrook and the NRA to support their position. At the time, though, the militias were the only “army” available to take on the British army on the field of battle. Patrick Henry and others were directly promoting citizen militias during a specific time and place as the only tool available at hand to ensure the objectives of the colonists, and they used rhetorical devices of propaganda to galvanize the citizen militias to fight. Contrasting the perceived nobility of citizens defending their land against the perceived corrupt standing army of England, the leaders of America’s revolt stoked the ego of the armed colonists. As the war progressed, though, it became readily apparent that a standing, professional army was needed to defeat the British. I mean, North Carolina and Virginia’s militia turned tail and ran without even firing a shot during the Battle of Camden, SC. “The Founders, therefore, had a different view of the militia after the war than they had when the Revolution began.”[11] Unlike what Halbrook, the NRA, and defenders of the “individual rights” theory would have us believe, the Founders left the American Revolution with their belief upended and refuted that armed citizen militias stood a chance against a government with a standing army, and this was during a point in history when the average citizen could arm himself with relatively the same equipment as what the professional army used. The Founders would be puzzled over the notion that citizens armed with AR-15s, shotguns, handguns, etc. are a bulwark against a government that possesses F-22 Raptor fighter jets, M109 Paladin 155mm artillery, and military grade drones and technology.

So, when Patrick Henry delivered his impassioned speech in Richmond during Viriginia’s 1788 debate over the ratification of the Constitution, he argued that the continued presence of an armed militia was necessary to safeguard the Commonwealth, the question needs to be asked from what or whom? Clues to the answer can be found in the fear of the federal government having control over Virginia’s militia; fears that were further stoked by George Mason who warned in his speech that it would be a disaster if Virginia’s militia was sent to New Hampshire, to use his example. In other words, Henry and Mason wanted to remove the federal government’s authority to move Virginia’s militia to another state in the instance of problems in that other state. He wanted Viriginia’s militia to be used for Viriginia’s purposes and nothing else. As already argued, one of the Viriginia militia’s main purposes was to control enslaved people.

With the ratification of the Constitution hanging in the balance, the federalists realized that one of the primary placations needed by the supposed swing state (Commonwealth of Virginia) was an amendment restricting the federal government’s right to interfere with state militias. Ergo, the Second Amendment.

Even if you remain unconvinced of the validity of Bogus’ thesis, and to be honest, while I believe Bogus’ thesis has much merit, substantial questions remain for me, the facts remain that the Founders included the words “a well regulated militia” in the Second Amendment and militias had proven woefully inadequate (embarrassingly so) at being a bulwark against the supposed tyranny of a standing army. Those two facts are seemingly at odds unless you understand the Amendment’s emphasis to fall on “well regulated.” Even with an eye to that emphasis, the Founders’ Machiavellian language games serve as an obstacle to a full-orbed understanding of what was meant.

Ultimately, the argument comes down to the individual rights theory versus the collective rights theory. Throughout this nation’s history, the Supreme Court has leaned, at times heavily, in the direction of the collective rights theory that states that the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee individuals the right to own guns. Instead, the collective rights theory argument goes, the Second Amendment is intended to ensure that the country, via the states, is prepared to repel a foreign invasion. This requires placing an emphasis on “well regulated” to counter the experiential knowledge the Founders had with the ability of citizen militias to withstand the onslaught of a well-trained, professional army. However, since the insertion of the NRA into the debate, the game has changed. Some of the current Supreme Court Justices have bought wholesale Halbrook’s NRA funded arguments. Most notably seen in the ruling in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the rulings of the Court reflect this shift.

It doesn’t help that the Founders shrouded their intentions and meanings via the Machiavellian games they played as they jostled to get their preferred point-of-view and ideologies built into the foundation of the new nation. I’ve long been fascinated by the contradictions swirling around the Founders words and actions. For years, I’ve wondered how they could be so pro-civilian militia after having seen the humiliating inefficacy of civilian militias during the Revolution. I’ve wondered about those two words “well regulated.” If nothing else, that possible contradiction written into the Bill of Rights is reflective of how desperate the Founders were to get the United States of America off the ground. It also gives credence to the substantial arguments set forth by Professor Bogus. Furthermore, I believe that the evidence put forward by him tilts the overall Second Amendment argument so far away from the individual rights theory as to render the individual rights theory invalid. My point is that there are too many vagaries associated with the Second Amendment owing to the Founder’s Machiavellian political and language games, cultural nuances lost to history, muddied and, at times, competing objectives of the Founders, and contradictory information and ideologies working against each other for us, some 230 years later, to wholly and unreservedly marry ourselves to the specific interpretation called individual rights theory. Especially considering that the individual rights theory of the Second Amendment comes with the tragic results of gun violence that research and statistics bear out could be greatly reduced by gun control. This, of course, brings us to the all-important argument that gun ownership is a fundamental human right.

I say “all-important,” because its acceptance is the (assumed) theological trump card for many supporters of the Second Amendment. If owning a gun is a God given right, then the question should be settled. However, and quite bluntly, owning a gun is not a fundamental human right; it’s not a God given right, a synonym for fundamental human right in evangelical circles (correctly so, I believe – its use as a synonym, not the specific application under discussion, to be clear).

The argument is that God has given us the right to defend ourselves. Guns offer the best option to defend ourselves. Ergo, guns are a God given right.

I’ve tried to word that syllogism as an accurate and fair representation of the argument. I believe I’ve correctly related the subject and the predicate in the conclusion as well as correctly stating with the major and minor premises the beliefs of the argument’s supporters. The argument is valid. However, an argument being valid doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. And in this case, I don’t believe it’s true.

While I agree with the major premise, it lacks (often consciously so) theological nuance. As I wrote above, Kingdom ethics call us to surrender our rights for the sake of others. I believe it’s ethically suspect, at best, for followers of King Jesus to make the major premise of an argument about their rights. So, while in the dry world of logic the major premise stands, in the real world of ethics, especially taking into account theological priorities, the major premise is problematic for Believers.

Taking on the major premise without exegeting Luke 22:35-38 would be irresponsible of me, though. The passage is often used by Christians who are pro-Second Amendment to justify the major premise. In the verses, Jesus is giving his disciples instructions. In verse 36, he tells them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” In response, recorded in verse 38, “The disciples said, ‘See Lord, here are two sword.’” Jesus counters, “That is enough.”

The use of this passage to defend owning guns is not new to me, but over the last month the argument seems ubiquitous. I see it in Tweets, Facebook posts, articles, blog posts, and hear it out of the mouths of talking heads. To make the argument requires ignoring a hermeneutical rule that the clear interprets the unclear. This can be seen in theologian Rober Stein’s pushback on the hijacking of the passage to justify defending ourselves. “Understood as a call to arms, this saying not only does not fit Jesus’ other teachings but radically conflicts with them.”[12] Dr. Stein explains, “The ‘sword’ is best understood in some metaphorical sense as indicating being spiritually ‘armed’ and prepared for battle against spiritual foes.”[13]

If you do not find Dr. Stein’s thoughtful exegesis compelling, you’re still left with squaring a small passage against the bulk of Jesus’ teaching on things like turning the other cheek, how his kingdom is not spread by the sword, not to mention the rest of the New Testament, especially Paul’s, teaching on surrendering our rights and being willing to suffer for the sake of the Kingdom. You’ll also have to explain, as Dr. Stein points out in his commentary, how Jesus could’ve thought that two swords among twelve disciples would be enough of a defense against societally/politically/religiously sanctioned assailants or the might of the Roman Empire. Luke 22:35-38 makes for a poor argument about self-defense because that was not what Jesus was talking about.

Turning back to the syllogism, the minor premise requires the fallacy of the complex question. To help explain, let’s turn the minor premise into a question: Do guns offer the best option to defend ourselves? Well, we can’t honestly answer yes. To do so – to answer yes – would require an understanding of a whole host of unstated variables. The question (and statement) is a hyperbolic rhetorical device posed as a legitimate question. But the question can’t be legitimated if it can’t be answered. Adding specifics (variables) to the question, the problem is quickly revealed.

When attacked by charging elephants, are guns the best way to defend yourself?

The response, I presume, will be that I have lifted the minor premise out of the context and unfairly reduced it to an absurdity. An accusation, if made, that’s untrue. My purpose up to now has been to demonstrate what the complex question fallacy is and how it applies. And if I’m correct in my assertion that the minor premise commits the fallacy of the complex question, then the entire syllogism’s truthfulness is called into question. Speaking to the context at hand, though, turning the minor premise into a question is problematic to the point of being defeating for the pro-gun argument.

Studies are clear: Owning a gun greatly increases the risk of a family member dying from a gunshot, either via suicide, murder, or accident. The risk/reward ratio itself should be enough to call into question the truthfulness of the minor premise. How can something that statistically brings more harm than good be the best means of defense? It requires a greatly massaged definition of “best” to reach that conclusion. Just like driving 150 mph is not the best way to reach our destination quickly, owning a gun is not the best way to defend ourselves. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain scenarios that can be laid out where owning a gun is the best way to defend ourselves but the universal application does not hold. Posed as a question, the minor premise cannot support the vast array of possible (complex) variables that arise in self-defense situations.

The lack of theological nuance in the major premise combined with the presence of the fallacy of the complex question in the minor premise renders the conclusion untruthful. Owning a gun is not a God given right.

Conservative’s stiff-necked defense of the Second Amendment has precious little to do with preferring and loving other and much to do with the love of self. Worse, this defense is made at the cost of human life. The unwillingness to even entertain debates about the validity and effectiveness of gun control reveals that for conservatives the Second Amendment is the Moloch to which they bow.

It’s time for followers of King Jesus to proclaim Kingdom ethics by calling for gun control legislation. Christ has freed us from being held hostage by man-made, anthropocentric ideologies, and the Second Amendment has no hold on those who believe in Jesus, and it does not and cannot require our allegiance.

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] 31 Bogus, Carl T., The Hidden History of the Second Amendment (Winter 1998). U.C. Davis Law Review, Vol. 31, p. 313-314, 1998, Roger Williams Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 80, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1465114

[2] Depending on how “mass shooting” is defined, more than two could be listed.

[3] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 11.

[4] James West Davidson, William E. Gienapp, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle, and Michael B. Stoff , Nation of Nations: A Concise Narrative of the American Republic (New York: Overture Books, 1996), 124.

[5] George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America: A Narrative History brief 9th ed. vol. 1 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 190.

[6] Tindall and Shi, America: A Narrative History, 193.

[7] Bogus, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” 321.

[8] Bogus, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” 327.

[9] Bogus, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” 328.

[10] Bogus, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” 335.

[11] Bogus, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” 342.

[12] Robert H. Stein, Luke vol. 24 The New American Commentary gen. ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: B&H, 1992), 555.

[13] Stein, Luke, 555.

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