The concept of the peace has been all but lost to modern Americans, who typically think about liberty almost exclusively in negative terms. It is relatively easy to conceptualize liberty as a limit on government overreach, but it is much harder for contemporary Americans to understand the importance of positive conceptions of liberty, including the right to enjoy the peace. Here is how one early American law book from the era of the Second Amendment described this concept: “the term peace, denotes the condition of the body politic in which no person suffers, or has just cause to fear any injury.” The primary enforcers and conservators of the peace in both England and early America were local justices of the peace. These individuals, typically prominent and respected men in the local community, had broad and far-reaching powers that included the ability to preemptively disarm anyone who posed a potential threat to the peace—a type of power that reformers are now trying to revive, in vastly diluted form, by adopting red-flag gun legislation.
So seen in the broader sweep of America’s social and legal history, today’s stilted gun debate reflects an impoverishment of our moral and political imagination. We have maintained and valorized the negative freedom at the core of the gun lobby’s version of the Second Amendment, but lost the countervailing positive vision of freedom and the related ideas of local and communal responsibility that were essential to the preservation of the peace. The world that gave us the Second Amendment was populated by people who lived in a largely rural society in small communities. For them, keeping the peace meant forms of policing anchored in their face-to-face local communities. Modern notions of privacy, including a right to acquire guns and stockpile weapons, free from government’s prying eyes, were nonexistent. In fact, the opposite was typically the case: government kept very close tabs on citizens who had guns and fined them if they were not kept properly stored and in good working order. The great irony that modern champions of the Second Amendment have never appreciated is that adhering to the Founders’ actual vision of the Second Amendment would mean much more extensive and intrusive regulation of guns, not less. If we wanted to honor the true understanding of the Second Amendment, we would begin by requiring gun registration and mandatory firearms training for all gun owners.