Some Historical Perspective on the “Right to Bear Arms”

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The blog “Age of Revolutions” has published a very informative forum on the eighteenth-century meaning of the Second Amendment.  Check out essays by Bryan Banks, Robert Churchill, Andrew Fagal, and Eliga Gould.

Here is a taste of Gould’s wrap-up piece: “Bordering on the Frivolous?: The Right to Bear Arms Yesterday and Today.”

As I read the stimulating essays in this forum by Robert Churchill, Andrew Fagal, and Noah Shusterman, my thoughts kept turning to the late Antonin Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the landmark case in which five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices affirmed an individual right to bear arms.  In particular, one phrase stood out: “bordering on the frivolous.”  For anyone who hasn’t read the opinion, this is how the famously combative justice dealt with the proposition “that only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.” “We do not interpret constitutional rights that way,” explained Scalia.[1]  Case closed. 

But history is rarely so clear cut.  As this forum reminds us, the right to bear arms during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was quite different from what it is today.  The most obvious difference was technological, which is the subject of Andrew Fagal’s excellent contribution.  In 1791, the year that the Second Amendment was ratified — and a year before Joseph Gaston Chambers first pitched the idea of a repeating gun to the U.S. War Department — the typical firearm was a muzzle-loaded flintlock.  When the bore was smooth, muskets could be loaded and discharged up to three times a minute, but they were notoriously inaccurate.  Rifles had the opposite problem.  Although projectiles fired from grooved bores could kill and maim across great distances, friction from the rifling made reloading a laborious, time-consuming process.  No wonder that inventors and entrepreneurs saw such potential in guns like Chambers’ multi-barreled musket.  It is also unsurprising, though, that their schemes repeatedly failed.  For the Second Amendment’s framers, the idea of a firearm that could discharge twenty rounds a minute was just that:  an idea.

Because of these limitations, eighteenth-century guns were most effective when fired collectively in mass volleys, something only a regular army or well-regulated militia could consistently do.  Although John Locke did not have much to say about bearing arms, pro or con, this may be one reason why the English philosopher was so untroubled — as Robert Churchill perceptively observes — about the possibility that giving the people a right to change their government would allow malcontents to foment civil unrest.  Having lived through both of England’s seventeenth-century revolutions, Locke had seen how vulnerable the Stuarts were to armed resistance.  But in an era when guns were cumbersome to use, using them effectively required training and discipline that only a government body could provide.  Even in New England, where armed citizens took the lead in resisting the king’s soldiers in 1775, the Minutemen who fought at Concord’s North Bridge and Bunker Hill were organized, trained and, often, equipped by town governments.  The danger of a lone shooter making his own law was a danger that neither Locke nor the authors of the Second Amendment had to worry about.  Only with the perfection of multi-chambered rifles and pistols, most famously by Samuel Colt during the 1830s and 1840s, did firearms become a truly lethal form of personal empowerment.

Read the entire post here.

2 thoughts on “Some Historical Perspective on the “Right to Bear Arms”

  1. “An epidemic of gun violence”…yet gun homicides have declined roughly 50% and gun related violence roughly 75% over the last 20-25 years and the murder rate is about what it was in the early 1900s. I keep hearing about this “epidemic of gun violence”, but if the facts say violence is in decline, how can even “gun violence” be labeled an epidemic? Are we “Bartonizing” crime history to achieve a political goal? http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/07/gun-crime-drops-but-americans-think-its-worse/2139421/

    “the right to bear arms…was quite different from what it is today” – Okay, so we’ve got change over time. Free speech was quite different before the age of the internet or television or radio. If such changes mean someone can imply there is justification to restrict the 2nd Amendment due to those changes, does that mean “change over time” can be used to restrict/reduce Freedom of Speech?

    i find it interesting the attempts made to restrict one freedom in the bill of rights while most other rights are argued in a way to expand them.

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