You hear it all the time, from Democrats as well as Republicans: “The most important responsibility of our government is to keep us safe.” It is so axiomatic that no one ever really questions it, regardless of whether it is posited in a discussion about COVID restrictions, national security policy or law enforcement. But it is not an accurate statement.
The primary responsibility of the federal government is not to keep us safe; it is to protect and guarantee our liberty and our individual rights as guaranteed by (not given by) our Constitution. This principle is clearly described in the Federalist Papers, and is every bit as relevant today as when those essays were drafted 233 years ago, regardless of the context in which it is applied.
In the context of the Second Amendment, for example, debating the pros and cons of gun control, if we start with the premise that the “primary responsibility of the government is to keep us safe,” then we have ceded to the Left the basic “playing field” on which the extent to which the right to keep and bear arms is to be decided. Flowing directly from this premise is the next building block of the gun control movement — that only those gun “rights” that can be shown by their advocates to be “needed” for self-defense are to be permitted. If the government and its advocates then show that a particular firearm or firearm accessory is not “needed,” it properly can be outlawed without violating the “right to keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
Furthermore, if it is conceded that it is the responsibility of law enforcement officers employed by government to “keep us safe,” then the fundamental need for individual possession of a firearm is easily brushed aside as not “needed,” as indeed some 21st century law enforcement officials have asserted.
To the contrary, however, those who framed the construct of our government, as codified in the Constitution of the United States, understood it is the responsibility of the individual to protect themself, not the government’s. Were it otherwise, there would have been no need whatsoever for the inclusion of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the individual right to keep and bear arms in self-defense.
In furtherance of that foundational principle, the Supreme Court of the United States has explicitly recognized that the police, as agents of the government, are not legally responsible for protecting each of us as citizens, insofar as this is a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of each individual citizen.
Still, Republicans and Democrats alike continue to mouth the false premise that it is the government that enjoys this fundamental responsibility; a power from which flows all manner of restrictions not only on Second Amendment rights, but others as otherwise protected by the Bill of Rights, such as the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Democrats always have embraced the false premise that is the primary function of government to “keep us safe,” for the simple reason they want government to be able to exercise such powers. Republicans buy into it largely out of ignorance or fear.
The notion that certain firearms rights are not “needed” by individual citizens and therefore can be limited by government laws, regulations, and exercise of “police powers,” is reflected in the array of restrictions on the type and number of firearms already enforced by many states and municipalities. But gun control advocates do not rest on only those restrictions now in effect.
For example, if the Left asserts (as it does) that an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle — the most popular rifle in the country — is not “needed” for any legitimate purpose as they so define, then it becomes simple to declare such a firearm illegal. The same holds for so-called “high capacity” magazines, arm braces, bump stocks and sound suppressors, among other guns and accessories.
The fact that Republicans, traditionally considered to be of the party that supports the Second Amendment against being infringed by the government, so easily and often fail to push back against this line of reasoning, is indeed cause for concern if not alarm for the future of gun rights in America, especially with a president who openly advocates broad restrictions on the fundamental right to keep and bear arms.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.