Many people simultaneously claim to support the Second Amendment while insisting the federal government should be able to ban “military-style weapons.” These are actually mutually exclusive positions. In fact, the whole purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure the people would always have access to “weapons of war.”
On February 14, 2018, Nicholas Cruz shot and killed 17 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Cruz, 19, had been suspended from the school for disciplinary reasons. Despite a long history of bad behavior, as well as attention from law enforcement, Cruz was not treated as a legitimate threat. In an attempt to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, the district failed to report activities and generally kept him under the radar of local law enforcement agencies.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also admitted that the FBI failed to act on numerous reports of erratic and threatening behavior on the part of Cruz.
Despite government failures at both the local and federal level, the public debate predictably turned to the issue of gun control with specific focus on the ban of “military style” rifles, or “assault rifles,” as they are often called. In one school, students were instructed to write letters to representatives asking them to implement stricter gun control regulations.
A common refrain from both sides of the debate is, “No one is saying that military weapons should be in the hands of civilians.”
Former President Barack Obama said, “Weapons of war have no place on our streets,” and, “our law enforcement officers should never be outgunned.”
Many conservative media pundits agree. In the process, they concede a crucial point that was a central reason for the ratification of the Second Amendment: The People must have the means by which they can resist a tyrannical government – means rendered ineffective if we surrender the right to be on a level playing field when it comes to firearms.
As Ryan McMaken explained in a recent article, the origins of the militia trace back to 17th century England when Americans resisted the standing army sent by the king to crush dissent. McMaken shares the insight of British historian Marcus Canliffe regarding the origins of American military institutions and the compromises reached between a centralized military capable of suppressing dissent and a reasonable force needed to maintain order:
“A compromise was reached. First, a small regular force was to be maintained: this was the actual foundation of the British standing army. Second, there was to be a nationwide militia, composed of civilians who would — as in earlier days — be summoned in time of need. The militia, however, was to be under civil law, and to be organized locally by the lord lieutenant of each county. It was thus decentralized and divorced from royal control.”
In the colonies, standing armies were viewed with skepticism (hatred, actually), and this was especially so after the British Army was sent as an ultimate enforcement mechanism for the various taxes and other acts imposed on the colonies by the Crown. As the Constitution was being discussed and debated, one of the most hotly contested objects relating to the powers of the new Congress was its ability to raise armies.
During the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry famously observed that “A standing army we shall have, also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny; and how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?”
Henry went on to say that “the clause before you gives a power of direct taxation, unbounded and unlimited, exclusive power of legislation, in all cases whatsoever, for ten miles square, and over all places purchased for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, &c. What resistance could be made?”
Henry’s denunciation clearly and emphatically rejected the centralization of power. He feared to give what he called a “central government” the power over both the sword and the purse. He observed that any attempt to restrain government in such an instance “would be madness” and thundered “you will find all the strength of this country in the hands of your enemies; their garrisons will naturally be the strongest places in the country. Your militia is given up to Congress, also, in another part of this plan: they will therefore act as they think proper: all power will be in their own possession. You cannot force them to receive their punishment”. Henry concluded this opening barrage by asking “of what service would militia be to you, when, most probably, you will not have a single musket in the state? for, as arms are to be provided by Congress, they may or may not furnish them.”
This proclamation by Henry provides a succinct summation of the general beliefs of a large portion of Americans during the ratification period, a belief which led directly to the establishment and adoption of the Second Amendment.
Most States, Virginia included, ratified the Constitution on the basis that “further declaratory and restrictive clauses” upon the general government should be added. And among the specifics, Virginia asserted in her ratification instrument 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.” [Emphasis added]
Virginia declared as a condition of ratification 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.” [Emphasis added]
Likewise, New York, as a condition of ratification, insisted very similarly to Virginia that “That the People have a right to keep and bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, including the body of the People capable of bearing Arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free State; That the Militia should not be subject to Martial Law except in time of War, Rebellion or Insurrection. That standing Armies in time of Peace are dangerous to Liberty, and ought not to be kept up, except in Cases of necessity; and that at all times, the Military should be under strict Subordination to the civil Power.”
Clause XIII of the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights guarantees “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.” [Emphasis added]
Suffice to say that the founding generation had an immense and universal fear of standing armies. James Madison explained that “a standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.” St. George Tucker wrote the first systematic commentary on the Constitution. He provided further context to the right to bear arms and its role in preventing standing armies when he pointed out, “Wherever standing armies are kept up, and when the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.” A more thorough discussion of these concepts can be found HERE.
The Second Amendment thus came about as a means of preventing the need for standing armies by keeping “the militia,” or as George Mason asserted “every able bodied person,” under the auspices of the individual states – in other words, out of the immediate control of the general government.
In his book The Founders’ Second Amendment, Stephen P. Halbrook describes Pennsylvania Senator William McClay’s concerns as written during notes from debates that would result in the enactment of the 1792 federal Militia Act; namely, that Alexander Hamilton and his faction were instigating war with American Indians and foreign nations to justify raising an army that would “awe our Citizens into submission.”
Roger Sherman of Connecticut commented that man had an essential right “to resist every attack upon his liberty or property, by whomsoever made.” [Emphasis added.]
The intent of the Constitution and historical background are irrefutable: a civilian, decentralized force was viewed as the optimal means by which forces loyal to a king, or central government could be held in check, should they become tyrannical in nature. The government, the media and the education system have successfully indoctrinated the people into believing that their safety lies in their ability to defend themselves but only extends so far as to render us subservient to the capabilities of the government to defend itself from us.
In other words, the polar opposite of the purpose of the Second Amendment.
In 1794, George Washington marched troops into Pennsylvania, absent the required request from the governor, to quell a rebellion over a Whiskey Tax. The Whiskey Rebellion came about after the urban/Hamiltonian faction of government used its power to impose a tax on its opposition, the agrarian/Jeffersonians. When the rebellion occurred, the federal government used its might to suppress opposition in a manner in contravention to the law.
From Wounded Knee to Waco, we can see what happens when a civilian population is unable to defend itself from government. Worldwide, over two hundred million lives have been lost after governments disarmed their citizenry.
Yet we continue to buy into the insane notion that “We the People” are incapable of bearing arms equal in power and effectiveness of that of the military, the standing army. Even the definition of commonly-used firearms has been changed to fit the modern anti-gun narrative:
In his 1828 dictionary, Noah Webster described a musket, the weapon used by colonial militias, as “a species of firearms used in war.” In other words, it was once a given that civilians, i.e. the militia, would have the very same firearms as the military.