Critics of the Second Amendment often highlight the state of technology in which it was written insofar as firearms were concerned. At the time, one-shot muskets and rifles were cutting edge military weaponry for the typical soldier. The argument goes that if the founders would have been able to look into the future, they wouldn’t have wanted private citizens to own “weapons of war.”
Unless one of them happens to have a crystal ball that allows them to communicate with the dead or they have some statement from a founding father, the claim is clearly speculation that goes against all existing evidence.
However, it highlights an interesting point that’s worth examination – the historical context.
Often when we discussed things written centuries ago, we need to appreciate the historical context. Although it’s not explicitly stated in any of the amendments, it offers us further understanding of the founders’ intent they wrote what they wrote and said what they said.
For example, the Third Amendment clearly was in response to a policy that required American civilians quarter British soldiers. However, since then the issue has rarely, if ever, been brought up, so for us in the 21st century it helps to study the differences between then and now.
Here are some points to consider about the Second Amendment.
In Colonial America, everyone was in the militia
Aside from Pennsylvania (founded by pacifist Quaker William Penn) if you were a free man between certain ages, you were required to be part of your colony’s militia. That is why the “father” of the Bill of Rights, George Mason, referred to the militia as “everyone, except for a few public officials.” Membership also required you to have a working firearm and show up to musters. In certain places, if you didn’t show up to a muster with a functioning weapon, you were fined.
The situation was utterly reverse from the debate we have today about whether people can keep and bear arms, i.e. “weapons of war.” In 1775 America, outside of one colony, you didn’t have a choice about even owning a firearm. You were required by law to keep “weapons of war” and train on how to use them.
The adjective well-regulated” in the Second Amendment meant “well-trained.”
Anyone who claims that “well-regulated” in the Second Amendment is declaring government regulations are needed on guns hasn’t read the text, is a halfwit illiterate, or simply disingenuous. The prepositional phrase in the sentence is the justification for why the right to keep and bear arms “shall not be infringed.”
The historical context explains why.
For militia (which included everyone) to be effective, it had to drill continually. The militia had to be disciplined enough to obey orders under the pressure and strain of gunfire and bombardment. The high level of preparation is what alarmed the British commanders in America to the point that they risked armed confrontation to seize the guns and munitions belonging to the militia.
It should be noted that unlike the British regular equipped with a Bess musket, Americans had Kentucky rifles, with rifled barrels that made their bullets more accurate. Whereas British tactics relied on massed volleys, Americans could target and shoot as individuals. Private citizens in the colonies had better firearms than the infantry opposing them.
The line between citizen and law enforcement officer was thin
Because everyone was in the militia, there was a sense of collective responsibility – and therefore authority – over law enforcement. There were no police departments as we think of them today with strong ties to the central government.
A civilian could be called any minute to take up arms to defend his colony or community. The kind of division we see today between citizen and law enforcement agent was similar to the relationship between British soldiers and American colonialists, who detested the presence of military troops on their streets and rightfully saw it as a sign of occupation.
America’s victory in the War of Independence was highly unlikely
Some gun rights activists argue that we need arms in the event that American citizens feel compelled to resist federal tyranny. A common response is that there is no way this can happen, because the federal government is too powerful.
Whatever the merits of this claim, it should be noted that the outcome of the American War of Independence was anything but certain. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Throughout various times in the war, it looked as though the Americans were hanging on by a thread. Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day was in part a desperate move to strike a blow against the British and boost morale among his troops after several major defeats. Thomas Paine’s famous line “these are the times that try men’s soul” was written in a pamphlet appropriately titled The Crisis during the war when prospects were grim.
Few today appreciate the success of the American War of Independence because they aren’t aware of the many failed rebellions that occurred either before or after. In 1798 the Irish tried to overthrow British authority in their country, but they were effectively crushed (in part because they were inadequately armed). A similar revolution in the 1840s failed, as well. it wouldn’t be until 1921 that the Irish would win independence for the southern part of the island, and even then the Irish rebels were weeks away from defeat when the truce was declared.
To say there is no way successful resistance could happen again is to ignore our own history.
The Second Amendment was birthed out of fears over the tyranny of a standing army, not slave revolts
Recent articles have tried to make the absurd claim that the Second Amendment was inspired by the existence of slave patrols and the need for firearms to suppress slave insurrections. If this was the case, you would think it would be highlighted in the Second Amendment itself, but instead, it turns to “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state….” to justify the people’s right to keep and bear arms.
And then we have the record of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, perhaps the most important of all state conventions. Nowhere is the issue of that “peculiar institution” mentioned as to why private citizens need firearms. Well-versed in Roman history, the delegates articulated again and again fears of a standing army destroying their liberties.
Neither is slavery included in their proposed amendment to the Constitution protecting the right to keep and bear arms.
That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power. (bold emphasis added).
If slavery had been the reason, they would have said so. Unlike today, they did not live in an era where they had to keep such opinions discreet.
America was not a diverse “nation of immigrants,” but highly homogeneous
It has to be said that many of the apprehensions held by gun grabbers is grounded in the anxieties that come from a heavily diverse country. They don’t know who lives among them and have no idea what they believe.
Uncertainty breeds fear of the unknown and a desire to control it.
Notwithstanding that the American colonies bickered relentlessly and this was very much responsible for their hatred of a central government, they were nevertheless very homogeneous. Immigration to America did not grow until the 1800s.
As Tom Woods explains in his book The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, American colonies were composed of people that originated from the same part of Europe, spoke the same language, adhered to the same basic cultural norms, and worshiped the same God. Those who shared the same views tended to congregate into certain colonies to be among like-minded individuals.
This is why the idea of requiring everyone be part of militia made sense then, but would strike Americans today as odd. However, this doesn’t mean the Second Amendment is no longer applicable. It merely explains the true source of anxiety among many who favor gun control.
America was a confederation of independent states, not an empire with military bases around the world
The country’s political situation today is utterly unlike what the founders had in mind, and this isn’t about its geographical size. The states were intended to be mostly autonomous with the central government confined to a few, limited powers necessary for their overall security. There was no vision of a perpetual military force occupying dozens of nations around the world.
America was supposed to be different, with no entangling alliances and no military adventures overseas offering pretext to destroy civil liberties on American soil as a direct consequence.
The discussion about whether the founders would have wanted civilians to possess “military weapons” ignores the fact that the founders never intended for America to have a large standing army.
The central government was meant to be heavily limited in scope and scale
Federalist #45 makes this as clear as a cloudless day. The powers of the feds were “few and defined.” The countless “ABC” federal agencies are unconstitutional and obviously did not exist when the Second Amendment was written, and shouldn’t exist today.
That includes the ATF and all federal gun control laws they enforce. Their dissolution cannot come soon enough.
There was no “public education” system
This issue cannot be overlooked, because the push to raise the age to purchase certain firearms to 21 is grounded in the failure modern American society to teach children via state-run education how to accept adult responsibilities when they become adults.
In Colonial America, education was as carried out locally in a decentralized manner. This meant no overarching public education policy and curriculum was imposed by a central government onto tens of millions of children as decreed by a handful of bureaucrats. This meant children were taught what they needed to do know as determined by their parents and community, not unknown figure thousands of miles away with no accountability or responsibility.
Parents were the ultimate authority, not children protective services, the welfare state, or D.C. overlords. Therefore, parents were ultimately responsible and taught their children accordingly; that education included the use of firearms. Parents taught their children to shoot at an early age and how to safely handle firearms.
That is why despite firearms existing in this country since the day English settles arrived on its shores, school shootings are a recent phenomenon. Kids in 1790 didn’t show up to their one-room schoolhouse and shoot other students.
The federal government has as little moral authority on the matter as it does legal authority
In the 1990s after the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. government imposed economic sanctions on Iraq that resulted in the deaths of half a million children. That statement is not hyperbole. When that fact was brought up to then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright on 60 Minutes, she said the deaths were “worth it,” because the U.S, didn’t like the dictator ruling that nation.
There are countless other reasons for why the feds have no moral authority to regulate firearms, even if they had the legal authority.
But this single event is sufficient to say they can go to hell when it comes to gun restrictions. They have more innocent blood on their hands for that act than all murders committed by all private citizens in America since its inception. It’d be more appropriate to let a prostitute decide what skirt length is “decent” for private high school girls to wear than the U.S. government decide what kind of firearms are “appropriate” for a citizen to purchase and own.
The right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental part of the American identity, but that right is not confined just to America
A common misconception is that the Second Amendment gives us our gun rights, hence the rhetorical acrobatics to twist the meaning of a very clear sentence. But it only acknowledges that right, which exists regardless of what a document says. Although gun culture is deeply embedded into the American identity, everyone everywhere has that same right.
The difference is that our government is legally constrained to some extent in ways other governments are not. The Second Amendment’s purpose is so there can be no debate whether the feds have the power, but that does not mean peoples outside of America lack this right, too. They can and should push for that right.
The “safety argument” for gun control is laughable
If everyone participating in a debate over gun control first had to take a truth serum, the discussion would never mention “safety” or reducing “gun violence,” because the effort to limit guns has nothing to do with either objective. School shootings are rare, and in almost every case we find government incompetence and gross dereliction of duty at every level. Urban areas suffering from high gun violence are gun control zones, while many regions with strong gun rights have some of the lowest crime rates in the world.
A year after Congress passed an “assault weapons” ban, Timothy McVeigh used fertilizer to kill hundreds of people in Oklahoma City. The 9/11 attacks were carried out with knives and hijacked airliners. In gun-control happy Europe, shootings still occur, while some terrorists have resorted to trucks and other vehicles to kill people.
If people want to kill, they won’t be finicky about the tool they use.
The “gun safety” crowd is about ensuring that government is safe to do whatever it wants, because it controls all the guns. At best, the laws are intended to make people “feel good” and give them emotional satisfaction that they “did something,” whether it is effective or not. Regardless, they ultimately want citizens utterly reliant on their government for safety and protection.
People who talk about “gun safety” believe people shouldn’t own guns for ideological reasons. They don’t want private citizens to possess them, because they can’t control them the way they could a disarmed populace. There are also many who can’t speak honestly about their vision for the country as long as people have guns.
The Second Amendment wasn’t meant to pit American citizens against their governments as it is now. That has come about as a direct result of the states and the federal government straying from the U.S. Constitution. If properly adhered to, the people would not only handle national defense but the enforcement of local law and order.
The discussion of what individual citizens should and shouldn’t be allowed to own is rooted in the profound atomization and compartmentalization of American culture, society, and politics. We fear what individuals next door to us own because we don’t know our neighbors anymore, because the ties that would have otherwise bound us together have been destroyed.
If anything, the Second Amendment is far from outdated. It is a testament to how far America has strayed from the context in which it was written. Love it or hate it, the reality is that the Founders would have likely not allowed things to go as far as they have before exercising their rights articulated in that amendment, against whomever was responsible for the degradation and erosion of liberty.
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Latest posts by TJ Martinell (see all)
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