This is usually intended as a reduction to absurdity: since citizens can't hope to resist contemporary military, the Second Amendment is more-or-less meaningless. Right? The debate then often drifts into a comparative statistical realm, where the anti-gun movement has a firm case, albeit a case pretty effectively countered with unsubstantiated contradiction. Here's Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:
After the Aurora killings, I did a few debates with advocates for the child-killing lobby—sorry, the gun lobby—and, without exception and with a mad vehemence, they told the same old lies: it doesn’t happen here more often than elsewhere (yes, it does); more people are protected by guns than killed by them (no, they aren’t—that’s a flat-out fabrication); guns don’t kill people, people do; and all the other perverted lies [...]If you want to get into the deets, the Harvard Injury Control Center is a great gateway. A gun-toting society is a more murderous one: that correlation is pretty clear across high-income nations. You can "guard with jealous attention the public liberty" (Patrick Henry, 1788) in the abstract, but people - children - are indeed dying today because of it.
So is the Second Amendment really irrelevant, except as a thorny anachronism, a relict legislative tangle that we have to just cut through somehow? Could there be some way of giving America the equivalent of a Black Hawk on the front porch?
In short, if Americans have the right to "keep and bear arms," what should "arms" look like today?
Well, we all also know that military strength is more than just weaponry. Your weaponry is useless if you don't know how to use it. It's pointless if you don't know where to point it. Military strength is also supplies and other materiel, intelligence, infrastructure, doctrine, training, ideology, culture, experience, loyalty, morale, oversight, adaptability, mobilisation, deployment, reputation, procurement capacity, capacity to militarize emergent technologies and technological conjunctures, and numerous other interconnected dimensions of organisational capability. It is true now more than ever that there is no purely military realm independent from its civilian substrate.
Military strength is also relational in the sense that it depends on the degree and type of threats to itself and/or its objectives. Consider the existence of a well-regulated militia equipped with javelins and cowhide shields, and trained in fighting against similar forces. Of course, such a militia is eliminated if it loses its javelins and cowhide shields or various crucial organisational capabilities. But it is also eliminated -- practically eliminated, that is -- if the threats it faces evolve sufficiently. Such a militia effectively ceases to exist when its enemies drive around in Strykers carrying combat assault rifles etc. It becomes immaterial, negligible.
America is armed. But is it bearing arms?
The chief concern of the Second Amendment is a deterrence to tyrannical government, and the intersection of positive law with the natural law right of revolt. So what kind of civilian military counterweight ("militia"?) could exist, even in principle, to a potential USAF-backed tyranny by the US government? I don't know, but I have two strong hunches:
(1) Its protection overlaps with protecting other civil and political liberties which are not typically considered in connection with the rights to arms, in particular law concerning privacy, due process, habeas corpus and freedom of speech. In other words: military operations have changed such that their outcomes increasingly depend on the way they are embedded in contexts traditionally considered non-military, and a corollary of these shifts is a possible Second Amendment rationale for protecting activities traditionally considered "non-militia." I'm thinking, of course, of developments such as Title II Enhanced Surveillance Procedures and indefinite detention under NDAA. (At the same time, I should be careful of defaulting to controversies as they have already been delineated in other debates, simply because that requires less imagination). In short: intelligence is the core of any military operation, so the Second Amendment cannot be separate from issues around privacy.
(2) It couldn't just be about what lies outside the USAF; it would have to be about US citizens' broad participation in, and influence upon, the governance and operations of the USAF itself. The vast resources of the USAF shouldn't ever be dominated by a partisan interest bloc. Nor should it (this in the spirit of the famous Federalist No. 10, against faction in government) be dominated by a broad but non-universal consensus which can afford to ignore minority perspectives. In other words, the Second Amendment requires the broad access (though in what sense "access," I'm not sure) of the nation's citizenry to that which comprises its military strength, even those ingredients which can't be conveniently stashed in a drawer or safe or slipped into a shoulder-holster. Bearing arms is about access to truly democratic institutions, and it's about the kinds of positive social rights that enable true broad and diverse participation in the democratic processes.
Closely connected questions are of course, how should "tyrannical government" be interpreted in the context of privatization and outsourcing on a vast scale? What does outsourced tyranny look like? What does unbundled tyranny look like? How should tyranny, or its threat, be interpreted in the context of Halliburton and other long-term, multi-administration contracting relationships? (Compare Hamilton, in Federalist No. 26, pondering how "Schemes to subvert the liberties of a great community require time to mature them for execution").
I don't have a lot of answers. But should the unlikely occur, and the recent horror in Connecticut, or the next few in-principle-foreseeable similar horrors, transform the pipe-dream of gun law reform into a serious political reality, then these questions need to be at the forefront of the debate.
I'll leave you with Jeremy Scahill's ever-so-slightly sensational account of the atmosphere in certain sections of American society the last time a Democrat president was elected for a second term, which gives one or two hints about the kind of revolutionary militia the USA might realistically be expected to produce, what might regulate such a militia, and the kind of freedom they might be prepared to defend:
In November 1996 - the month Clinton crushed Bob Dole and won reelection - the main organ of the theoconservative movement, Richard Neuhaus's journal First Things, published a "symposium" titled "The End of Democracy?" which bluntly questioned "whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." [...] A series of essays raised the prospect of a major confrontation between the church and the "regime," at times seeming to predict a civil-war scenario or Christian insurrection against the government, exploring possibilities "ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution." Erik Prince's close friend, political collaborator, and beneficiary Chuck Colson authored one of the five major essays of the issue, as did extremist Judge Robert Bork, whom Reagan had tried unsuccessfully to appoint to the Supreme Court in 1987. [...] "Americans are not accustomed to speaking of a regime. Regimes are what other nations have," asserted the symposium's unsigned introduction. "This symposium asks whether we may be deceiving ourselves and, if we are, what are the implications of that self-deception. By the word 'regime' we mean the actual, existing system of government. The question that is the title of this symposium is in no way hyperbolic. The subject before us is the end of democracy." It declared, "The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed. . . . What is happening now is the displacement of a constitutional order by a regime that does not have, will not obtain, and cannot command the consent of the people." The editorial quoted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia saying, "A Christian should not support a government that suppresses the faith or one that sanctions the taking of an innocent human life." [...] Colson's essay was titled "Kingdoms in Conflict": [...] "[E]vents in America may have reached the point where the only political action believers can take is some kind of direct, extra-political confrontation of the judicially controlled regime," Colson wrote, adding that a "showdown between church and state may be inevitable. This is not something for which Christians should hope. But it is something for which they need to prepare." He asserted, "[A] 'social contract' that included biblical believers and Enlightenment rationalists was the basis of the founding of the United States. . . . If the terms of our contract have in fact been broken, Christian citizens may be compelled to force the government to return to its original understanding. . . . The writings of Thomas Jefferson, who spoke openly of the necessity of revolution, could also be called upon for support." [...] Colson stopped short of calling for an open rebellion, but he clearly viewed that as a distinct possibility/necessity in the near future, saying, "with fear and trembling, I have begun to believe that, however Christians in America gather to reach their consensus, we are fast approaching this point."
PS: Of course, my two hunches up there are fairly Living Constitutionalist in spirit, with a dash of Originalism. "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," them's the rules. Hmm. You know, that could also be read as a conditional clause. "So long as a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, then the right of the people to keep and bear arms shouldn't be infringed" ...
UPDATE: They thought of that. The Supreme Court opinion in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller :
The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose. The Amendment could be re-phrased, “Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”PPS: There are Second Amendment concerns other than tyrannical government: to do with hunting, quelling insurrection, the relationships among states, guarding against foreign invasion, etc.
Here's part of the Supreme Court opinion in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller :
It is therefore entirely sensible that the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia. The prefatory clause does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting. But the threat that the new Federal Government would destroy the citizens’ militia by taking away their arms was the reason that right—unlike some other English rights—was codified in a written Constitution.The Framers were suspicious of a standing army, even those who broadly supported making provision for one. So the right to keep and bear arms wasn't just or even chiefly a counterweight to official military power, so much as a hopeful restraint upon its emergence: a provision to mitigate the need for a standing army - which for the Framers would probably have implied proto-PMFs like Blacke Death Water and Thrice Canopie, BTW - through reliance on, in George Washington's exasperated language, "Men just dragged from the tender Scenes of domestick life" (1776). But we are where we are.
PPPS: My spellcheck suggests "hallucination" for "Halliburton"! Bliss!
PPPPS: Just for the heck of it, here's a TLDR copy-paste of Hamilton's Federalist No. 29, concerning militias. I haven't checked it out properly yet, he probably thinks Occupy Oakland was one or something. Personally I never trust these pseudonymy types. What are they, zany?
To the People of the State of New York: THE power of regulating the militia, and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defense, and of watching over the internal peace of the Confederacy. It requires no skill in the science of war to discern that uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia would be attended with the most beneficial effects, whenever they were called into service for the public defense. It would enable them to discharge the duties of the camp and of the field with mutual intelligence and concert an advantage of peculiar moment in the operations of an army; and it would fit them much sooner to acquire the degree of proficiency in military functions which would be essential to their usefulness. This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union "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." Of the different grounds which have been taken in opposition to the plan of the convention, there is none that was so little to have been expected, or is so untenable in itself, as the one from which this particular provision has been attacked. If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security. If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions. If the federal government can command the aid of the militia in those emergencies which call for the military arm in support of the civil magistrate, it can the better dispense with the employment of a different kind of force. If it cannot avail itself of the former, it will be obliged to recur to the latter. To render an army unnecessary, will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions upon paper. In order to cast an odium upon the power of calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, it has been remarked that there is nowhere any provision in the proposed Constitution for calling out the POSSE COMITATUS, to assist the magistrate in the execution of his duty, whence it has been inferred, that military force was intended to be his only auxiliary. There is a striking incoherence in the objections which have appeared, and sometimes even from the same quarter, not much calculated to inspire a very favorable opinion of the sincerity or fair dealing of their authors. The same persons who tell us in one breath, that the powers of the federal government will be despotic and unlimited, inform us in the next, that it has not authority sufficient even to call out the POSSE COMITATUS. The latter, fortunately, is as much short of the truth as the former exceeds it. It would be as absurd to doubt, that a right to pass all laws NECESSARY AND PROPER to execute its declared powers, would include that of requiring the assistance of the citizens to the officers who may be intrusted with the execution of those laws, as it would be to believe, that a right to enact laws necessary and proper for the imposition and collection of taxes would involve that of varying the rules of descent and of the alienation of landed property, or of abolishing the trial by jury in cases relating to it. It being therefore evident that the supposition of a want of power to require the aid of the POSSE COMITATUS is entirely destitute of color, it will follow, that the conclusion which has been drawn from it, in its application to the authority of the federal government over the militia, is as uncandid as it is illogical. What reason could there be to infer, that force was intended to be the sole instrument of authority, merely because there is a power to make use of it when necessary? What shall we think of the motives which could induce men of sense to reason in this manner? How shall we prevent a conflict between charity and judgment? By a curious refinement upon the spirit of republican jealousy, we are even taught to apprehend danger from the militia itself, in the hands of the federal government. It is observed that select corps may be formed, composed of the young and ardent, who may be rendered subservient to the views of arbitrary power. What plan for the regulation of the militia may be pursued by the national government, is impossible to be foreseen. But so far from viewing the matter in the same light with those who object to select corps as dangerous, were the Constitution ratified, and were I to deliver my sentiments to a member of the federal legislature from this State on the subject of a militia establishment, I should hold to him, in substance, the following discourse: "The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be injurious, if it were capable of being carried into execution. A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, or even a week, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia, would be a real grievance to the people, and a serious public inconvenience and loss. It would form an annual deduction from the productive labor of the country, to an amount which, calculating upon the present numbers of the people, would not fall far short of the whole expense of the civil establishments of all the States. To attempt a thing which would abridge the mass of labor and industry to so considerable an extent, would be unwise: and the experiment, if made, could not succeed, because it would not long be endured. Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year. "But though the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned as mischievous or impracticable; yet it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should, as soon as possible, be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia. The attention of the government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of moderate extent, upon such principles as will really fit them for service in case of need. By thus circumscribing the plan, it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defense of the State shall require it. This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist." Thus differently from the adversaries of the proposed Constitution should I reason on the same subject, deducing arguments of safety from the very sources which they represent as fraught with danger and perdition. But how the national legislature may reason on the point, is a thing which neither they nor I can foresee. There is something so far-fetched and so extravagant in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia, that one is at a loss whether to treat it with gravity or with raillery; whether to consider it as a mere trial of skill, like the paradoxes of rhetoricians; as a disingenuous artifice to instil prejudices at any price; or as the serious offspring of political fanaticism. Where in the name of common-sense, are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens? What shadow of danger can there be from men who are daily mingling with the rest of their countrymen and who participate with them in the same feelings, sentiments, habits and interests? What reasonable cause of apprehension can be inferred from a power in the Union to prescribe regulations for the militia, and to command its services when necessary, while the particular States are to have the SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE APPOINTMENT OF THE OFFICERS? If it were possible seriously to indulge a jealousy of the militia upon any conceivable establishment under the federal government, the circumstance of the officers being in the appointment of the States ought at once to extinguish it. There can be no doubt that this circumstance will always secure to them a preponderating influence over the militia. In reading many of the publications against the Constitution, a man is apt to imagine that he is perusing some ill-written tale or romance, which instead of natural and agreeable images, exhibits to the mind nothing but frightful and distorted shapes "Gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire"; discoloring and disfiguring whatever it represents, and transforming everything it touches into a monster. A sample of this is to be observed in the exaggerated and improbable suggestions which have taken place respecting the power of calling for the services of the militia. That of New Hampshire is to be marched to Georgia, of Georgia to New Hampshire, of New York to Kentucky, and of Kentucky to Lake Champlain. Nay, the debts due to the French and Dutch are to be paid in militiamen instead of louis d'ors and ducats. At one moment there is to be a large army to lay prostrate the liberties of the people; at another moment the militia of Virginia are to be dragged from their homes five or six hundred miles, to tame the republican contumacy of Massachusetts; and that of Massachusetts is to be transported an equal distance to subdue the refractory haughtiness of the aristocratic Virginians. Do the persons who rave at this rate imagine that their art or their eloquence can impose any conceits or absurdities upon the people of America for infallible truths? If there should be an army to be made use of as the engine of despotism, what need of the militia? If there should be no army, whither would the militia, irritated by being called upon to undertake a distant and hopeless expedition, for the purpose of riveting the chains of slavery upon a part of their countrymen, direct their course, but to the seat of the tyrants, who had meditated so foolish as well as so wicked a project, to crush them in their imagined intrenchments of power, and to make them an example of the just vengeance of an abused and incensed people? Is this the way in which usurpers stride to dominion over a numerous and enlightened nation? Do they begin by exciting the detestation of the very instruments of their intended usurpations? Do they usually commence their career by wanton and disgustful acts of power, calculated to answer no end, but to draw upon themselves universal hatred and execration? Are suppositions of this sort the sober admonitions of discerning patriots to a discerning people? Or are they the inflammatory ravings of incendiaries or distempered enthusiasts? If we were even to suppose the national rulers actuated by the most ungovernable ambition, it is impossible to believe that they would employ such preposterous means to accomplish their designs. In times of insurrection, or invasion, it would be natural and proper that the militia of a neighboring State should be marched into another, to resist a common enemy, or to guard the republic against the violence of faction or sedition. This was frequently the case, in respect to the first object, in the course of the late war; and this mutual succor is, indeed, a principal end of our political association. If the power of affording it be placed under the direction of the Union, there will be no danger of a supine and listless inattention to the dangers of a neighbor, till its near approach had superadded the incitements of selfpreservation to the too feeble impulses of duty and sympathy. PUBLIUS.PPPPPS: See Charlie Brooker on coverage of the school massacre in Winnenden in 2009.