Winning NRA Essay

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Homeschooler Henry Hoffmann was the winner of the NRA Annual Nationwide Essay Contest (Senior Division). Here is the winning essay:

In a letter to his friend, John Cartwright, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[A]ll power is inherent in the people. … [I]t is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”1 Many Second Amendment activists view the right to keep and bear arms as a right to be exercised at one’s discretion. But as this quote from Jefferson hints, the Second Amendment recognizes more than a right–it identifies a duty.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “right” as “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way,”2 while a duty is something still more imperative: “a moral or legal obligation; a responsibility.”3 A right is permissive and protecting; a duty is obligatory.

Clearly, the Second Amendment recognizes the individual right to keep and bear arms. Scholars have long advocated this view, and recently the Supreme Court concurred in its watershed decision District of Columbia v. Heller.4 The Second Amendment, however, does not create any right; it simply recognizes a pre-existing, God-given, right. John Adams argued: “Rights [are] antecedent to all earthly government; Rights . . . cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; Rights [are] derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”5 Because rights come from God, governments lack the necessary authority to grant or revoke them. George Tucker, an influential early American political figure, recognized the right to armed self-defense as the most prominent, because it is the one right that protects all others. In his annotated Blackstone’s commentaries, he wrote: “The right of self-defense is the first law of nature. . . .Wherever. . .the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”6

While governments certainly oppressed unarmed populations during the time of George Tucker, this oppression has become even more horrific in recent times. Consider the record: in the twentieth century, 262 million unarmed civilians were slain by governments7 –more than six times the number of war causalities during the century.8 An unarmed population is a vulnerable population. Judge Kozinski poignantly noted in his eloquent dissent in Silveira V. Lockyer, “All too many of the other great tragedies of history— Stalin’s atrocities, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, to name but a few—were perpetrated by armed troops against unarmed populations. Many could well have been avoided or mitigated, had the perpetrators known their intended victims were equipped with a rifle and twenty bullets apiece…9

History conclusively confirms Judge Kozinski’s verdict. From the mountains of Switzerland to the wastes of Afghanistan to the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto, small numbers of armed civilians have valiantly withstood overwhelming odds. Throughout both World Wars, and for centuries previous, the comparatively minute nation of Switzerland has maintained a successful armed neutrality. Why? Dave Kopel explained: Switzerland was (and still is) defended by a universal militia. Every man was trained in war, had his rifle at home, was encouraged to practice frequently, and could be mobilized almost instantly . . . Rather than having to defeat an army, Hitler would have had to defeat a whole people.”10

The Afghanistan Mujahadeen also illustrated the effectiveness of an armed citizenry. Initially using improvised weapons and ammunition, the Mujahadeen bogged down the Russian forces, and when advanced weaponry became available, the Afghan fighters were able to expel the Russians from Afghanistan.11

The Warsaw Ghetto is one final, though saddening, example. A few hundred sparsely-armed Jews defending the ghetto were able to fend off the German war machine for a month.12 While the ghetto defenders did succumb eventually to overwhelming odds, they still achieved their aim. They were not herded to gas chambers. They did not fight to survive, they fought to die free. They did not give up their guns; they made the German monsters wrench them from their cold, dead hands.

It was earlier noted that governments cannot deprive men of rights. Rights are gifts from God, over which governments possess no power. A man possesses divinely imputed rights whether he finds himself in Stalinist Russia or America. As the Declaration of Independence forcefully asserts, governments must recognize and defend those rights, or forfeit any claim to legitimacy. But the corollary to this truth dictates that men cannot disown these gifts; in other words, men have a duty to preserve their God-given liberty, as declared in the 1772 Boston document, The Rights of the Colonists, “…the right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of Man to alienate this gift.”

As Jefferson observed, the Second Amendment recognizes more than an inviolable right. It prescribes a responsibility. An armed citizenry is necessary for a secure and free state. The Founders, realizing this, affirmed that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” As the exercise of this right becomes increasingly restricted, Americans must take Judge Kozinski’s warning to heart: The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed—where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.13

America must not make that mistake.
1 “Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government: The Sovereignty of the People.” Accessed Nov. 29, 2008
2 Oxford New American Dictionary
3 ibid
4 “The Court Gets It Right on Guns” by Sheldon Richman, July 2, 2008. Accessed Nov. 29, 2008
5 John Adams, The Works of John Adams, cited by Barton, David. The Second Amendment: Preserving the Inalienable Right of Individual Self-Protection. Aledo: Wallbuilders, 2000. p. 13
6 Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes and Reference, St. George Tucker, editor. cited by Barton, David. The Second Amendment: Preserving the Inalienable Right of Individual Self-Protection. Aledo: Wallbuilders, 2000. p.17
7 “20th Century Democide” RJ Rummel, Accessed Nov. 30, 2008
8 ref. 7.
9 Silveira v. Lockyer, (May 6, 2003), U.S. C.A. 9, 01-15098;$file/0115098o.pdf?openelement
10 “Target Switzerland.” Dave Kopel. Accessed Nov. 30, 2008
11 Maybury, Richard. “World War I and How it Affects You Today.” Placerville: Bluestocking Press, 2003. p. 115
12 Ref. 9
13 Ref. 9

1 Comment

  1. Leif Rakur

    In the quote from Jefferson’s letter to Cartwright, he was not referring to the Second Amendment, as you imply. Rather, he was referring to state constitutions, as becomes apparent when you start the quote at the beginning of the sentence:

    “The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people;…that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”

    Since no state constitution made it the duty of the people to be “at all times” armed as individuals, it’s pretty clear that Jefferson had in mind the duty of the people as a political society to be at all times armed through a militia.

    In advocating a Bill of Rights, Jefferson invariably advocated the inclusion of a measure that would limit the use of a standing army, but he never addressed a Bill-of-Rights need for a provision on personal gun rights. In a letter to the scientist Dr. Joseph Priestley in 1802, Jefferson described the Second Amendment as a “provision for the substitution of militia for a standing army.”

    Response from Henry Hoffmann:

    In some versions of the quotation from Jefferson, the United States Constitution is referred to along with the state constitutions. But even if Jefferson did not have the Second Amendment in mind when he wrote the letter, Jefferson did support the individual right and duty to keep and bear arms for self-defense. Jefferson clearly supported the right to overthrow one’s rulers, saying that the tree of liberty had to be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants and martyrs. He also said, “And what country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” And also, “No [citizen] shall ever be debarred from the use of arms.”



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