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I was not born in the USA, and I am trying to understand the Second Amendment. My big question is:

When was the last time US citizens made use of the Second Amendment and fought against the US government to protect their freedom?

I expect a date, or an event, or "never" as an answer to my question (see my second edit).

If the Civil War is the answer, then I want to clarify: in the Civil War didn't people fight people rather than the government? Father vs son, brother vs brother, etc?


Edit: clarification

Some people complained that my question is too vague, and I agree with that. What is meant by government? Do local governments count? Do bullets have to be shot or is a peaceful protest with guns enough to be considered an exercise of the 2nd amendment? I will argue and say that the ambiguity of my question is caused by the ambiguity of the 2nd amendment itself. I think the 2nd amendment is too primitive to adequately cover all user cases of a much more complex world we live in today compared to the way this world was when the amendment was first written. Please use your best judgment and logic when answering questions and posting comments. As an OP, I don't know how I should make this question more specific.

Edit 2: additional clarifications

Here is where I am coming from with this question. A lot of people, when arguing about the 2nd amendment, state that they need the 2nd amendment to protect themselves from corrupt government (I recently participated in such a discussion with friends). The next natural question to those people I had is "when was the last time that happened?" So, I came to this website to find an answer. When I asked the question I expected either a specific date or event, or "never" as a reply. It turned out my question generated a lot of discussion. I received multiple dates/events as answeres as candidates for my answer, as well as requests to clarify my question and suggestions in comments that the 2nd amendment hypothetically prevented the US from a hypothetical corrupt government, which is not really an answer. I also found "counter arguments" (if they can be qualified as such) to the most currently highly upvoted answer. In the mean time, I accept an unpopular answer as "It haven't happened yet" as accepted, until a better answer emerges.

Disclaimer: I don't mean to appear anti-gun-ownership. I believe people have the right to own guns, but my opinion has no place on this website. I am on this site expecting to get unbiased, logical answers which weigh both sides of the argument.

Edit 3: I took away my accepted answer check mark so not too skew other people's opinions on this issue.

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    I would rhetorically ask, for example, when was the last time a parliamentary system prevented the rise of tyranny in Europe? It is difficult to argue when a passive defense has actually defended against something. If we could run a separate simulation of the US without the 2nd amendment, we would be able to answer to this question. But we can't, and I can't think of any way of answering this question. – arrowturnips Feb 28 '18 at 18:26
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    This is rather like asking when was the last time nuclear weapons were used to prevent the Soviet Union from overrunning western Europe. The point is that if you have a sufficient deterrent, you don't need to actually use the weapons. – jamesqf Feb 28 '18 at 19:28
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    @AlexL That is also a problem then because the second amendment does not specify that it is even for fighting the government. There is a question on here that deals with the historical context of the amendment, but the text of the amendment is "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." So the definition largely hinges on the definition of "free state" – Jake Feb 28 '18 at 21:17
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    I'm still having a hard time figuring out exactly what is being asked. The second amendment merely restrains the government from infringing on what it recognizes as being the inherent right of the people to keep and bear arms. There is no such thing legally as someone "exercising the 2nd amendment," except maybe in a court case challenging a government attempt to restrict weapon ownership. It does not say what people can do, only what the government can't do, namely, prevent the citizens from possessing and bearing arms. – reirab Mar 2 '18 at 23:27
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    @jean Actually, no -- they used real soldiers for the actual fighting. From most accounts, the militias during the revolutionary war were, put bluntly, garbage -- undisciplined, incompetent, cowardly. They deserted in droves, ran at the first sight of trouble, tried to surrender when they couldn't. Mel Gibson lied to you, sorry. – Shadur Mar 4 '18 at 12:38

10 Answers 10

79

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rebellions_in_the_United_States suggests Wounded Knee in '73.

In 1973 about 200 people mostly from a Lakota tribe took over a town on the site of a famous massacre. They held the town for 71 days sporadicly exchanging gunfire with law enforcement including the FBI.

It was sparked by a failure of regular mechanisms to remove a elected official (he had goons). It quickly escalated to be about the US not honoring treaties with natives and many non-Lokota joined.

It was fairly successful; popular opinion was in favor, the leaders were not sentenced and the phrase "poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry" was first broadcast from Hollywood. The official served another 3 years after winning an election that was invalidated because of the actions of the goons, but later upheld.

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    Recommend referencing what freedoms were being protected through the armed standoff. – Drunk Cynic Feb 28 '18 at 19:59
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    While it was a internal issue the issue was connected to relations with the federal government, Wilson was thought to be a puppet of the government maintaining power illegally with federal approval or help and of favoring federal interests over his electorate's. – user9389 Feb 28 '18 at 20:31
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    Interesting. I found this article which states that "America’s Constitutional right to keep and bear arms was in part to protect one from Native Americans and even give one the right to kill Native Americans". So, did Bill of Rights cover Native Americans originally? Or is article I posted is not trustworthy and there is no truth in it? – wha7ever - Reinstate Monica Mar 1 '18 at 14:36
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    Here is another "counter argument" from Washington Post article. Quote: "the 18th-century regulations that required citizens to participate in the militia also prohibited blacks and Indians from participating as arms-bearing members". – wha7ever - Reinstate Monica Mar 1 '18 at 14:50
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    @AlexL you might ask on history.se, but it is my understanding that we have been selling guns to indians for a long time, and banning them from serving in militias is slightly different. Being assured of self protection does not necessarily mean denying the same to some other group, however, there are treaties made around that time, so it should be answerable if "not bearing arms" was a term or not. – user9389 Mar 1 '18 at 17:30
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This has happened as recently as 2014 in Bunkerville, Clark County, Nevada.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundy_standoff

The 2014 Bundy standoff was an armed confrontation between supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and law enforcement following a 21-year legal dispute in which the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) obtained court orders directing Bundy to pay over $1 million in withheld grazing fees for Bundy's use of federally-owned land adjacent to Bundy's ranch in southeastern Nevada.

As you can see, this was a confrontation between armed citizens and the government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management. Because the citizens were armed, the government was not able to enforce their will on the people.

As for shots fired:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3418491/Ammon-Bundy-arrested-three-fellow-militiamen-shots-fired-Oregon-stand-off.html

Oregon militia spokesman LaVoy Finicum has been shot dead after a traffic stop escalated into a shoot-out that saw Ryan Bundy wounded and eight leaders of the occupation movement arrested.

http://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-standoff/2016/01/militant_shot_and_killed_while.html

With the car running, she said, Finicum "got out of the car and he had his hands in the air and he was like, 'Just shoot me then, just shoot me.'"

"And they did," she said. "They shot him dead."

Sharp said she thought she heard as many as 100 bullets fired and that those remaining in the car were getting "gassed." She said they were trying to find something white they could wave out the window.

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    I'm not saying this is wrong or right, but can you explicitly state the rights they were protecting? – Azor Ahai Feb 28 '18 at 23:21
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    This does not answer the question concerning rights. Using Bundy as an example is odd since Bundy doesn't believe the US Government even exists. The Constitution, legal precedent, and common sense (Washington D.C.!) show the US Government can Constitutionally own land and thus his fees were lawful leaving him in breach of contract and subject to punitive measures. Yes, armed citizens made the government not enforce their laws. But his rights were not being infringed. – CramerTV Mar 1 '18 at 3:02
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    @DrunkCynic: You're ignoring the second half of that clause, which allows the feds to "exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be". In other words, if at any time Nevada ever consented to the feds owning that land, then they can own and govern it as they see fit. – Kevin Mar 1 '18 at 5:14
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    @DrunkCynic: Yeah, and Copyright stopped being about "promoting the progress of science and the useful arts" in 1998 if not substantially earlier, but you don't see people successfully making that argument either. – Kevin Mar 1 '18 at 6:41
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    I upvoted this answer, and think it's the best one, because regardless of whether you think there were legitimate rights/freedoms being defended (I don't), the attitude behind the Bundy standoff was that the government's position was not legitimate, and this attitude is pretty close to what most people who view 2A as a check on government power have in mind. They're not arguing that they can use 2A to rise up and overthrow a totalitarian government. They're arguing that they can win a standoff with the threat of significant injury/death on both sides & avoid doing what government tells them to – R.. Mar 1 '18 at 18:06
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It hasn't happened.

The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision. It exists to protect the American people from government tyranny and oppression.

The U.S. government has not exercised its power against the American people in what would be considered mass tyranny and oppression (e.g., Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Castro's Cuba, Ceaușescu's Romania, Chavez & Maduro's Venezuela).

But the threat is ever-present, and the Founders new this.

As U.S. Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski observed:

[The Second Amendment] is 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.


Judge Alex Kozinski
U.S. Court of Appeals
9th Circuit
SILVEIRA v LOCKYER (2003)

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, as the Militia Act required here. If a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto could hold off the Wehrmacht for almost a month with only a handful of weapons, six million Jews armed with rifles could not so easily have been herded into cattle cars.

My excellent colleagues have forgotten these bitter lessons of history. The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. 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.

Fortunately, the Framers were wise enough to entrench the right of the people to keep and bear arms within our constitutional structure. The purpose and importance of that right was still fresh in their minds, and they spelled it out clearly so it would not be forgotten. Despite the panel's mighty struggle to erase these words, they remain, and the people themselves can read what they say plainly enough:

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.

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    I've downvoted this answer because the primary claim that the US Government hasn't exercised its power in a totalitarian or authoritarian way is refuted by the Japanese Internment. – Drunk Cynic Feb 28 '18 at 20:07
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    But America is a young country (230 years old). A) I don't see the relation to The threat of government tyranny is ever-present (are you trying to say that China is under no threat of tyranny due to its age?) and B) according to which count? "Old countries" periodically pass through revolutions/reorganizations/restablishments; e.g. the French current Fifth Republic was stablished in 1958, Germany practically was "restarted" in 1945, etc.. OTOH, the USA was not created ex novo, as it incorporated the legal and social traditions of England. – SJuan76 Feb 28 '18 at 20:29
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    Would the 2nd amendment actually help if the USA did become an evil totalitarian state? Failed attempts to overthrow the government wouldn't really get much support from the 2nd amendment, and if they did manage to overthrow the evil, would the winners then prosecute themselves if the 2nd amendment didn't exist? – curiousdannii Mar 1 '18 at 6:03
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    While this certainly answers the question I don't really feel the answers quality is helped by outright stating that the 2nd amendment is "needed" and an "insurance policy" and therefor should exist. In my opinion that's a pipe dream that sounds like out of a bad action movie. If the US government where to turn totalitatian and "the people" where to resist that then the winner would obviously be the side that the US military would take. Thinking that some handguns would enable anyone to "fight" with the 600 billion us army (in case it sides with the totalitatian government) is ridiculous. – OH GOD SPIDERS Mar 1 '18 at 12:49
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    @curiousdannii The point (of 2a) isn't about the prosecution of victors after an overthrow, it's about making sure the government doesn't confiscate all the guns while it's non-totalitarian and only later on change. (I'm not arguing for or against here just pointing out the reasoning). – DRF Mar 1 '18 at 13:24
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The most recent event I can identify is the Battle of Athens. It was a direct confrontation with the corruption of the local government and efforts to rig the election to ensure the continuity of power. Recently returned veterans used their personal firearms to secure the ballot boxes and the court house, ensuring a free election.

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    This wasn't a "fight against the US government", as specified in the question. This was an uprising against a local government. – Michael_B Feb 28 '18 at 19:51
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    @Michael_B The armed actions followed attempts to get the Federal Government, via the US Department of Justice, to intervene. Given the failure of those efforts, armed insurrection was the remaining resort. – Drunk Cynic Feb 28 '18 at 19:55
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    @Michael_B probably this is not what the OP meant, but the local government is certainly part of the government, as its powers are a part of the "national" powers. It is certainly not part of the Federal Government, which is only a part of the government. – SJuan76 Feb 28 '18 at 20:31
  • Guys, I updated my question with clarification. – wha7ever - Reinstate Monica Feb 28 '18 at 20:57
  • I was going to reference this one too. – Rob K Feb 28 '18 at 21:35
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To address your broader question, I think you, like many, many others, mistake the scope and intent of the Second Amendment. The amendment is not limited to enabling resistance of internal government tyranny and I think too many mistakenly focus solely on that aspect.

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.

The amendment is about securing the free state against all threats, foreign as well as domestic, via a militarily capable citizenry.

Per the Supreme Court's ruling in US v. Miller:

The Constitution, as originally adopted, granted to the Congress power --

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress

With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces, the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.

To secure our free state, we need a well regulated militia. The militia is in a general sense the segment of the populace capable of bearing arms. "A well regulated militia" means one that is armed and well versed in the use of those arms (not one that is heavily encumbered with rules-- "regulated" did not mean that in the 18th century like it does today).

US v. Miller again: "[T]he common view was that adequate defense of country and laws could be secured through the Militia -- civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion."

To have a well regulated militia, one needs a populace that has access to arms and training with those arms. To secure the free state, the populace must be able to spring into action against invasion at a moment's notice-- hence the apocryphal quote attributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, that if Japan invaded the US, they would find "a rifle behind every blade of grass". If they are disarmed, they cannot do this.

US v. Miller again: "And further, that ordinarily, when called for service these men were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves and of the kind in common use at the time" (emphasis added). It goes on to quote a number of founding-era laws requiring all men to be armed. (N.B. the Miller decision ruled that a "sawed-off" shotgun was not necessarily protected by the 2nd Amendment because "it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.")

The populace may also be less fit for service in the regular army if disarmed. Soldiers who have extensive prior experience with riflery are more valuable than those that don't, so civilian disarmament harms military readiness.

To secure our free state, we must have a well regulated militia. To have a well regulated militia, the people must be free to keep and bear arms.

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    I believe your comment that those with "prior experience ... are more valuable..." to be highly subjective and likely incorrect. Being one with very little riflery experience allowed me to learn proper markmanship and be the company high shooter in USMC boot camp. Many of those with prior experience had poor habits that made them less able with a rifle than those who accepted proper instruction. So your conclusion that disarmament harms military readiness is actually backwards - without prior experience they learn properly and make military readiness better. – CramerTV Mar 1 '18 at 3:10
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    I've downvoted this answer because it doesn't address the question. There are likely other questions in this forum where the Importance and Details of the Second Amendment have been extrapolated. – Drunk Cynic Mar 1 '18 at 3:30
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    Downvoted this answer as it (1) doesn't answer the OP question and (2) appears to be your personal interpretation (because you provided no citations) – BobE Mar 1 '18 at 4:08
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    I upvoted this comment because it addresses the purpose of the 2nd admendment, for which understanding was lacking in the original question. Amendments give citizens freedoms and a legal standing to challenge the government's, at all levels, restriction of those freedoms. The freedoms (amendments) are used daily. Fortunately, government challenges to those freedoms are far less frequent. – Wes H Mar 1 '18 at 15:20
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    The Miller decision did not rule that a short shotgun was not protected by the 2nd Amendment; it ruled that the district court acted prematurely in dismissing the case without taking evidence on the gun's suitability for militia use. “Not within judicial notice” merely means that it's not so well known that the court may assume it true without hearing evidence. – Anton Sherwood Mar 4 '18 at 18:17
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Every day. The second amendment isn't exercised when someone pulls the trigger in an act of rebellion against the government; it's exercised whenever a civilian purchases a firearm. Actually using them is to be avoided as far as possible, but having them acts as a deterrent by creating the credible threat that strongarm tactics on the part of the government would be met with resistance. It's not necessary to be able to outgun the Army; it's only necessary to put the government in a position where, to put down dissent, it would have to shed an unpalatable amount of its own citizens' blood, thus eroding its legitimacy.

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    What prevents governments of other similarly developed democratic nations with more restrictive gun laws than the US (basically all of them) to enforce “strongarm tactics” on their citizens then? – lejonet Mar 2 '18 at 20:20
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    @lejonet: Not much. And you see the result when, say, a guy is arrested for teaching his girlfriend's dog the Nazi salute as a joke. :P Do you think the cops would be willing to risk a gunfight over his being an ass? – cHao Mar 3 '18 at 19:14
  • @cHao Why have there been US government actions then, that have been labeled as „government overreach“? – lejonet Mar 4 '18 at 11:11
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    Because labeling is by definition no more than name-calling, and we're more civilized than to shoot our way out of every disagreement. 😋 – cHao Mar 4 '18 at 18:50
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Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 - it's almost a classic example of the employing of the 2nd Amendment against federal government, mostly by veterans of the Revolutionary War few years earlier.

Somehow the Second Amendment was not called to question by Founding Fathers after that...

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To answer the question as asked, as far as I know, the answer is "never".

The question itself, though, is based on a common misunderstanding of the intent of the 2nd amendment. Here's the text of the amendment, 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.

The people who claim the 2nd amendment is there to protect the people from the government tend to ignore the first half of that sentence. Or, they'll claim that "well regulated" simply means "well supplied" or "well provisioned", which is belied by this bit from Article I, Section 8 (describing the powers of Congress):

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

Clearly, "well regulated" means quite a bit more than just well provisioned.

In short, the 2nd amendment granted citizens the right to keep and bear arms in service of the state, not as protection from the state. At the time the Bill of Rights was drafted, the United States did not have a standing army of professional soldiers, and absolutely relied on state militias for defense and security. And while the US established a standing army rather quickly, the basic rationale for allowing citizens to own guns remained the same - to provide security for the state.

Of course that all went out the window with the Heller decision, which established gun ownership as an individual right unconnected to membership in a militia.

Frankly, the 2nd amendment could use some clarification, you just need to convince two-thirds of Congress to propose the amendment and get at least 38 state legislatures to approve it.

  • "Frankly, the 2nd amendment could use some clarification" = that, alone, would be a fine answer to nearly all 2nd amendment questions that get posted. :) – user1530 Apr 18 '18 at 19:50
  • The interpretations of the second amendment herein are historically inaccurate and rhetorically flawed. – Drunk Cynic Apr 20 '18 at 23:35
  • While one could agree that it "could use some clarification", simple parsing the text for logic proves your reply wrong. There are no qualifiers to either people or right to keep and bear arms and they're there for a reason. Also, you need a XVIIIth century dictionary to translate constitutional english into modern, because, to use Inigo Montoya's words: I do not think it means what you think it means." Also, perusing the on-the-topic of writings of the people who actually wrote it proves you wrong... For further reading: madisonbrigade.com/library_bor.htm – user10424 Apr 23 '18 at 14:41
  • As further proof: Madison authorized ships to be armed with cannons (true, as a privateer, normal for time, but then again ship is clearly not militia) - 1812privateers.org/United%20States/PRINCE/usmarq.html, and Marcellus Cassius Clay (a noted abolitionist and son of a slave-owner) also owned cannons for self defense: books.google.co.uk/… – user10424 Apr 23 '18 at 14:55
  • And last - we now know about no less than 10 draft versions of 2nd Am. The reading of them is very, very informative. I would love to see your defense of your refusal to Clay to protect himself by any means he felt were adequate (and even at level he chose to employ he felt they weren't). Clay is classic example of how to employ 2nd Am to protect one's own 1st Am. Again: love to see your argument to the contrary... – user10424 Apr 23 '18 at 14:57
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Effectively, the Civil War was a fight by the confederate states to protect what they considered their constitutional rights against the federal government, although they did not claim the 2nd amendment.

  • This doesn't address the question, and also ignores the plain fact that the only "states right" that the confederacy actually cared about was the right to keep slaves. – Paul Johnson Mar 24 at 15:46
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Today. Just as the Legislative doesn't have to pass a law in order to b doing its job, and the Judicial doesn't have to rule on a case to be doing its, the rights of the people do their job simply by existing. You wouldn't say we could do without the first ammendment just because no one criticized the government today, because the right of the people to criticized the government is in part what limits the powers of the goverment. It's existence, regardless of any particular exercise, impacts and limits the government.

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    This makes no sense – BobE Mar 5 '18 at 5:23
  • @BobE I think it's intended to mean the same as this answer – user253751 Apr 7 '18 at 7:06

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