On Tuesday this week we all should have been jubilantly celebrating the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the original 10 amendments to the United States’ federal constitution. Remarkably, it slipped by relatively unremarked. Yet our Bill of Rights may actually be the most significant of our republic’s founding documents.
The Declaration of Independence announced our nationhood. The Constitution defined our government. The Bill of Rights confirms our liberty as free people who are not subservient to our government.
There is a lot wrong today that the authors of the Bill of Rights anticipated and meant to preclude. But the Framers knew that natural and civil rights, including these broad and individual ones that were defined so early on, are actually not worth the parchment they’re inked on. They’re worth what each generation holds they mean regardless of original intent. That’s how they’ve often become too loosely interpreted.
There was strong agreement among the Founders about the importance of these principles to a civil, democratic society and in their belief that they were codifying rights that were mostly pre-existent and inherent to the dignity of human beings. The conflict between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over whether to formalize these was about the impact of leaving unstated other rights “retained by the people” or “reserved to the states”. There was no disagreement about the importance of any of the rights for which the colonists had fought and died for.
Federalists worried that documenting any rights implied disregard for those not enumerated. Anti-Federalists feared that not including these in the Constitution would eventually make it easier to ignore them. Over 200 years later, it appears the Anti-Federalists showed the greater foresight on this question.
The Second Amendment (in James Madison’s original draft, beginning with “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”) is our particular concern here at Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership. Not just to protect the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, but also because this individual right is so basic to all other rights of Americans. It is, in St. George Tucker’s words, our “palladium of liberty”. Just having this enumerated right for individuals to own and use weapons makes us unique among nations.
One reason Americans have always seen ourselves as exceptional is because of the individual obligation for self-responsibility that is required by minimizing dependence on government. We’ve been realists since the first boots trod the Atlantic coast, taught by the frontier experience that we have to take care of ourselves.
We discovered that people have the right “to the pursuit of Happiness”, not to be made happy. We learned that we have the right, and therefore the duty, to protect ourselves because there is no right to be free from harm. If we do not comprehend these core truths, we become dependent on government for happiness and protection— according to others’ standards, not our own.
As Americans moved westward, they outpaced the advance of existing government, an unusual pattern throughout the hemisphere. Sometimes alone, often in scattered clusters of neighboring settlers, they had to meet their own needs. They were guided in establishing their own local authorities by the same traditions we look to today to understand our relationship to government that now envelops us.
That historical ethic of self-reliance without a safety net is a recent enough phenomenon to continue influencing our psyches. That’s good because this world, and too often our own part of it, is an unpredictable and dangerous place.
Accepting the responsibility to care for oneself, one’s families and fellow citizens must be at the heart of any successful society. A hard-nosed, far-sighted understanding of that reality is central to American history, coupled with our optimism and generosity.
This is why DRGO speaks out on behalf of our fellow citizens. We oppose professional and cultural group-think that would have us ask more what our country can do for us, than what we can do for ourselves and our country.
DRGO vouches for the capacity of people to do the right things for themselves and each other, even with powerful tools like firearms. If we don’t, we’ll lose our history, our liberty, and each other.
— DRGO editor Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Pittsford, NY, an associate clinical professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.