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    Understanding Guns in America: James Madison’s Angel Problem

    January 22, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    I mentioned natural rights at the end of last week. Natural rights are universal and inherent. They are not granted by any government — they are either respected or disregarded. Government has no right to take them away, and when it does so, it is in violation of the moral order. This is a basic philosophical understanding of natural rights, albeit in capsule form.

    I think it is appropriate to raise the question of why the right to own and use a weapon must underpin the basic trinity of natural rights, the rights of life, liberty, and property. The answer is theological: man is fallen.

    The Second Amendment is only one of many protections against tyranny found in the United States Constitution. It is, to some extent, a physical example of the balance of powers that is found all over the document.

    When I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I fell in love with Madison’s words in Federalist Paper #51:

    If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

    There is evil in the world. Scripture tells us that a day will come when it is appropriate to beat our swords and spears into farm equipment; a day when the nations shall no longer need to learn war. But as long as the current reality is — as long as there are bad men and bad governments — there is a need for the bearing of arms. I’m not saying I like it. Yes, I’ve enjoyed target practice with a bow and arrow. Yes, my children think learning to shoot is great fun. Yes, my husband loves skeet shooting. But do I get warm fuzzies from thinking about firearms?


    The world is what it is. Our Founders created a document that addresses the reality that men were fallen, and yet men run governments. It acknowledged human frailty and sin. All of the various balances of powers, including the right of men and governments to own weapons, take into account that this world is not perfect, nor at the men in it. Utopia is not something we can bring upon the earth, even if we ban every gun, bullet, and kitchen knife.

    If you recall, legal power is Constitutionally distributed over three branches. The Legislative Branch consists of the two houses of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. These have the power to make law (but not to enforce it) and declare war (but not to wage it). The Executive Branch consists of the President, Vice President, and the Cabinet. These have the power and responsibility to enforce law (not to make it–this is why the practice of making executive orders is so scandalous) and wage war (but not to declare it). The President can propose things to the Congress, and he can veto things the Congress proposes. The Judicial Branch consists of the Supreme Court and other Federal courts. These evaluate the law. They can declare a law unconstitutional.

    This same trinitarian separation of powers is seen (vaguely, I admit) in Plutarch’s Life of Brutus. Did you ever notice that?

    But I digress.

    Why did they bother to create something so elaborate? The Branches are, after all, only the beginning. For example, the President is chosen by Electoral College rather than direct vote, and until the passage of the 17th Amendment, Senators were not elected directly by the people of the individual States, but appointed by individual State officials to represent the State’s interests. (In fact, I would point to the 17th Amendment as the beginning of the decline of the Republic qua republic.)

    Power must be balanced, rather than concentrated in any one place. It is the political equivalent of not putting all our eggs in one basket. The power is distributed, and the hope is usually that if one portion is corrupted, the other parts can put it back in order by using their particular powers.

    Likewise, the Second Amendment prevents a monopoly on force, which is to say, a monopoly on whose rights can be defended, and who is able to defend rights. The government is not any more exempt from human failings than we are, for it is run by men, every bit like us. I think this is a good way to end today’s post:

    [A] belief in natural rights tends to result in pluralistic use of force, because people obviously have the right to defend their rights, whereas disbelief in natural rights tends to lead to an absolute monopoly of force to ensure that the state will have the necessary power to crush peoples rights and to sacrifice individuals, groups, and categories of people for the greater good. Conversely a monopoly of force leads to the denial of natural rights

    (from a now defunct website called

    Read the Understanding Guns in America Series:
    The Noise that Made the Redcoats Run
    Our Inherited Rights as Free Englishmen
    Natural Rights and Legal Rights 
    James Madison’s Angel Problem ⇦ you are here
    On Amendments and Ratification
    Res Publica, the Nature of a Republic

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