When I started this blog I noted in the About that I sometimes like to get on my soapbox and pontificate on subjects other than music. Hear that scraping noise? Yep, the soapbox is coming out of the closet.
(06/14/2013 – I’ve purposefully left this post up a bit longer because I feel this is an important subject our society needs to debate. Another is the recent violations of the Fourth Amendment by the NSA programs monitoring private phone call and internet data indiscriminately – and despite it being “automated” or dispassionately analyzed by software algorithms. However, a few outside of mainstream point to the revelations of these violations as affirming the current interpretation of the Second Amendment as necessary to potentially fight a dictatorial government.
Good luck with that idea of fighting the most sophisticated military in history and the world with handguns, rifles, and the occasional automatic weapons against tanks, bombs, drones, etc. History teaches us that the only true way to reverse authoritarianism is by mass protest and civil resistance.)
Time to Debate the Intent of the Second Amendment
Our country has been besieged by violent massacres by disturbed people committing terrorist acts against citizens – the latest, big, news circus being Sandy Hook/Newtown. This last one seems to finally be bringing the subject to public debate – and about time.
There seems to be a mass aversion to directly address the ownership of guns in the U.S. because of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Everyone in government – Congress, the judicial, and the executive branches – and the majority of citizens believe that the Second Amendment explicitly guarantees that citizens can own guns. The Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that the Second Amendment does just that in 2008.
Yet the Second Amendment is famously obtuse in the way it was written, and even the language adopted has caused confusion – the states ratified a slightly different version than Congress! In full, both versions read:
As passed by the Congress:
“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.”
As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:
“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.”
Much has been made of the obtuse English used by those that drafted it. But in order to understand the phrasing used, the background for the necessity of the Amendment needs to be better and more broadly understood.
Some Quick History
Settlers in America were refugees from religious, and then by extension, political repression in England. When it became clear that England intended to exert political authority over Colonial America and minimize representative rights, Americans revolted to create a democratically representative government.
Part of the persecution that Colonial Americans had fled was the religious tensions between Protestants and the Crown. At one point, King James II attempted to disarm the Protestants, forbidding them the right to be in the Crown’s militia, thereby de facto building a standing militia of Catholic loyalists. His removal resulted in the English Bill of Rights that specified that Parliament had the authority over the Crown and could protect the right of Protestants to bear arms – on behalf of country.
Our Supreme Court in 2008 rejected the premise that the English Bill of Rights’ intention was in defending the right of all English citizens to participate in the defense of their country, instead translating the language to literally invoke an individual’s right to own arms. However, an important distinction in the English Bill of Rights was the additional language finishing the text, “… and as allowed by Law.” This kept the regulation of arms in the hands of Parliament in England.
What does the English Bill of Rights have to do with our Second Amendment? It clearly formed the basis of the right that the founding authors intended to codify. Their historical context also certainly influenced their intentions; they were still trying to form a new type of government after a brutal and harrowing revolution against the then super-power of the world.
In England there was a common law that allowed for the ownership of guns, that was confirmed by the English Bill of Rights. But to step back into that time, it is important to realize that guns were no more special than farming tools – they were a necessity. Their specialness beyond being considered like a shovel or hoe, though, is that they do increase the ability of a person to exert life-or-death authority over another exponentially; compared to weapons such as a sword, guns were much more deadly. That people could organize into armed groups and threaten authority was, in turn, magnified by the power of guns.
But ownership of guns in Colonial America was a necessity for survival, and taken for a granted right, just as the ownership of skinning knives, shovels, etc., were necessary. The frontier was a dangerous place, and the arrival of settlers and displacement of Native Americans meant self-protection was a genuine concern. In Colonial America, guns in and of themselves weren’t a common focus of obsession, such as collector would have.
It is also important to note that guns were not that deadly, either. Certainly they could kill, but reloading was laborious and aiming and firing not perfect. Only cannon were more deadly; the Gatling Gun wasn’t created until the 1860’s.
What Might The Founders Have Been Thinking?
So were the framers of modern America really codifying the right to bear efficiently deadly arms without any oversight or regulation? Or were they trying to protect the right of citizens to serve their State and country in its defense?