What Did the Founders Mean By “Bear Arms?”

Reenactment

Here is J.L. Bell at Boston 1775:

Last month Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post on the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare—they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

Lawyer Neal Goldfarb checked more variations of the phrase in the same databases and came to the same basic conclusion.

In the 2008 Heller case, as everyone involved in this discussion knows, the U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia treated “bear ams” not as an idiom with a military meaning but as a general phrase about carrying weapons.

The data shows otherwise—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century used it as Scalia did. As with the Reynolds case I wrote about here, the court’s finding is simply at odds with historical facts. The Heller ruling overturned legal understandings that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and changed the law going forward, but such rulings can’t change the actual past.

Read the rest here.

Saul Cornell on the “Mythic Second Amendment”

CornellFordham University’s Saul Cornell, the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control, explains the myth that the Second Amendment relates to the history of the American frontier.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Bearing Arms vs. Hunting Bears: The Persistence of a Mythic Second Amendment in Contemporary Constitutional Culture“:

The myth of the frontier is one of the most enduring in American history; it has been commodified and used to market everything from cigarettes to cars, and has been central to firearms sales for more than a century. It is a little shocking that the same myths used to sell cigarettes played a pivotal role in two federal appeals court decisions: Moore v. Madigan and Peruta v. San Diego. Both cases evoked “the familiar image” of an armed “eighteenth-century frontiersman . . . ‘obtain[ing] supplies from the nearest trading post.” Contrary to this mythic view of the American past, the bulk of the nation’s population in the eighteenth century was clustered along the coast, not the frontier. Nor is there any evidence that members of the Founding era such as George Mason or James Madison were thinking about the plight of the tiny percentage of the American people who lived on the frontier when they discussed the right to keep and bear arms in the Virginia Ratification Convention. The debates in the First Congress certainly do not afford much evidence that this was a major concern. Given the realities of American society at this point in the nation’s history, such concerns would have been odd. In 1790, the mean population center of the United States, a standard measure of population distribution, was situated somewhere between Baltimore and Philadelphia, not western Kentucky, northern Maine, or the Ohio valley.

Frontier mythology has shaped another aspect of the current debate over firearms policy and the law. In response to the horrorific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre warned that the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”Setting aside the policy debates and statistics about the utility of armed self-defense, particularly in active-shooter scenarios such as schools, the suggestion that giving a guy a gun turns him into an effective agent of law enforcment, it itself part of a set of myths about regenerative violence dating back to colonial America. The leading historian of this mythology, Richard Slotkin, has charted how this motif has been constantly re-invented in American popular culture over the long arc of American history. David Crockett has morphed into Jason Bourne, and most recently the iconic image of a gun-toting hero is more likely to fight off alien invaders or the hordes of the zombie apocolypse than the marginalized others of earlier mythic tales of violence and redemption.

Read the entire piece at The Panorama.

When a School Shooting Shifted the National Debate on Guns

Louisville_1846

Saul Cornell, the best historian on guns and the Second Amendment working today, tells us about an 1853 school shooting in Louisville, Kentucky.  Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Though little remembered now, the first high-profile school shooting in the U.S. was more than 150 years ago, in Louisville, Kentucky. The 1853 murder of William Butler by Matthews F. Ward was a news sensation, prompting national outrage over the slave South’s libertarian gun rights vision and its deadly consequences. At a time when there wasn’t yet a national media, this case prompted a legal conversation that might be worth resurrecting today.

And Cornell’s conclusion:

The Ward shooting, and the popular outcry it generated, reminds us that there’s another possible way to view the hierarchy of American rights—one in which the right not to get shot is on par with, and may even outweigh, the right to freely carry a gun and use it. The notion that the Second Amendment overrides these rights and prohibits sensible gun laws has never been the dominant position in American law. Most Americans in the 18th century and many in the 19th recognized this basic fact as fundamental to our Constitutional tradition. It is surely time to restore those other esteemed American rights to their rightful place in our contemporary constitutional debates over the role of guns in America.

Read the entire piece here.

The Founding Fathers and Gun Laws

CornellI have been waiting for Fordham University historian Saul Cornell to weigh-in on guns and the Second Amendment in the wake of the Parkland shooting.  In this piece at “The Conversation” he suggests “five types of gun laws the Founding Fathers loved.”

They are:

  1. Registration
  2. Public Carry
  3. Stand-your-ground laws
  4. Safe storage laws
  5. Loyalty oaths

See how Cornell develops these thoughts here.

And then go read his A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  Cornell is the National Rifle Association’s worst nightmare.

 

Should We Repeal the Second Amendment?

Guns

Flickr photo via Creative Commons

I would support an effort to repeal.  Historian Michael Oberg makes a case at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  Here is a taste:

No matter what arguments the advocates of gun control deploy — that the phrase “well regulated” implies some ability on the part of government to limit gun rights; that the verb construction to “bear arms” has been used almost always to describe a military use for weapons; that the Constitution is a “living” document that ought to be interpreted in the light of changing circumstances; and that the Founding Fathers could never have considered that the sort of violence acted out in Las Vegas or Orlando or Newtown a justifiable example of  bearing arms — the advocates of “gun rights” will always have their tendentious reading of the Second Amendment to defend their position.            So let’s repeal the Second Amendment. It is dated, lethal, and morally abhorrent. The Constitution is not a sacred text. It is a framework for government, the product of dozens of compromises. The men who framed the document envisioned that it would be changed. They made the process difficult and time-consuming, but it has happened.

The Second Amendment emerged out of a context unique to a new nation. When it was ratified, America’s leaders relied upon the militia for local defense, to punish Indians, and control slaves, and in a nation separated from its imperial rivals by the Atlantic, the militias were barely adequate to that task. But the conditions from which the Second Amendment emerged obviously no longer apply.

Repealing the Second Amendment would deprive no one of their guns, but it would empower the Congress and state legislatures to do something effectively to end the slaughter….

Read the rest here.

The Real History of the Second Amendment

CornellIn an earlier post I recommended Fordham University historian Saul Cornell‘s book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  It is the best historical account of the Second Amendment that I have read.  I was again reminded of why I admire Cornell’s book when I read his recent piece at The Baffler titled “Gun Anarchy and the Unfree State.”

Here is a taste:

To begin reckoning with this challenge, it’s worth pausing to consider the entire wording of the Second Amendment. Contrary to what the NRA would have us believe, the amendment does not even mention guns, but instead proclaims, “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.” Thus, the Second Amendment, in contrast to the First Amendment, contains a preamble; an introductory clause affirming the necessity of a well-regulated militia. This arcane Latinate construction so dear to the Founding generation was an ablative absolute. Translated into modern parlance, the amendment would read something like this: “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Also, note what the aim of a citizen’s militia is: achieving the security of a free state. In other words, the Second Amendment not only ties the right to keep and bear arms to a particular means, but it states a clear purpose. What, then, is entailed in promoting the security of said “free state”? To begin with, we should clearly stipulate that the individual right of self defense—the one closest to the heart of modern Americans—denoted something very different from a free state’s maintenance. Americans esteemed this right, but did not have much to worry about when it came to safeguarding it. Indeed, the right was such a fixture of Anglo-American law that John Adams used it as the basis for his defense of the British troops charged with murdering civilians in the Boston Massacre. An American jury empaneled to hear that case found Adams’s argument entirely persuasive and exonerated six of the eight soldiers.

So a free state’s security was something other than procuring the self-defense of a society’s individual members. It was, rather, a collective enterprise: In the eighteenth century, the security of a free state was accomplished by a well-regulated militia—a local institution, composed of citizen soldiers. And as the wording of the amendment makes plain, that militia was subject to extensive regulation by government. Indeed, militia statutes were typically the longest laws on the books in early America. So the logical question that one ought to ask—one that seldom gets raised in the contentious modern debate over the role of guns in contemporary American society—is this: How do we maintain and promote the security of a free state when we no longer live in small rural communities and depend on well-regulated militias? How can one enjoy liberty in a society awash in guns?

This is, at bottom, a historical question—one that’s largely anathema to the NRA and other advocates of expansive gun rights. Many gun-rights advocates fail to understand the actual historical background of the Second Amendment because our debates over gun ownership typically revolve instead around a potent set of myths that cloud our historical understanding. Chief among these myths is the iconic image of the “good guy with a gun,” eagerly manufactured and marketed by American popular culture. From the dime novels of the nineteenth century to Hollywood westerns and more recent figures such as Jason Bourne, a powerful entertainment folklore has infused the gun-rights narrative.  

Read the entire piece here.

“One Nation, Under the Gun”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The good folks at the Duke Divinity School blog Faith & Leadership reminded me of this 2012 New Yorker piece by historian Jill Lepore.  Here is a taste of “Battleground America“:

The Second Amendment reads, “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.” Arms are military weapons. A firearm is a cannon that you can carry, as opposed to artillery so big and heavy that you need wheels to move it, or people to help you. Cannons that you can carry around didn’t exist until the Middle Ages. The first European firearms—essentially, tubes mounted on a pole—date to the end of the fourteenth century and are known as “hand cannons.” Then came shoulder arms (that is, guns you can shoulder): muskets, rifles, and shotguns. A pistol is a gun that can be held in one hand. A revolver holds a number of bullets in a revolving chamber, but didn’t become common until Samuel Colt patented his model in 1836. The firearms used by a well-regulated militia, at the time the Second Amendment was written, were mostly long arms that, like a smaller stockpile of pistols, could discharge only once before they had to be reloaded. In size, speed, efficiency, capacity, and sleekness, the difference between an eighteenth-century musket and the gun that George Zimmerman was carrying is roughly the difference between the first laptop computer—which, not counting the external modem and the battery pack, weighed twenty-four pounds—and an iPhone.

A gun is a machine made to fire a missile that can bore through flesh. It can be used to hunt an animal or to commit or prevent a crime. Enough people carrying enough guns, and with the will and the training to use them, can defend a government, or topple one. For centuries before the first English colonists travelled to the New World, Parliament had been regulating the private ownership of firearms. (Generally, ownership was restricted to the wealthy; the principle was that anyone below the rank of gentleman found with a gun was a poacher.) England’s 1689 Declaration of Rights made a provision that “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their condition and as allowed by law”; the Declaration was an attempt to resolve a struggle between Parliament and the Crown, in which Parliament wrested control of the militia from the Crown.

In the United States, Article VI of the Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1776 and ratified in 1781, required that “every state shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutred, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.” In early America, firearms and ammunition were often kept in public arsenals. In 1775, the British Army marched to Concord with the idea of seizing the arsenal where the Colonial militia stored its weapons. In January of 1787, a Massachusetts resident named Daniel Shays led eleven hundred men, many of them disaffected Revolutionary War veterans, in an attempt to capture an arsenal in Springfield; they had been protesting taxes, but they needed guns and ammunition. Springfield had been an arsenal since 1774. In 1777, George Washington, at the urging of Henry Knox, made it his chief northern arsenal. By 1786, Springfield housed the largest collection of weapons in the United States. In the winter of 1787, the governor of Massachusetts sent the militia to suppress the rebellion; the Springfield arsenal was defended. That spring, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia. Among the matters the delegates were to take up was granting to the federal government the power to suppress insurgencies like Shays’ Rebellion. From Boston, Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane wrote to him with some advice for “such a Number of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention”: no more weapons, no more war. “I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, and the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

Read the entire piece here.

Some Good Books on the Second Amendment and Guns in America

CornellSaul Cornell,  A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America

Saul Cornell, Who’s Right to Bear Arms Did the Second Amendment Protect?

Akhil Reed Amar, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction

Adam Winkler, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

Michael Waldman, The Second Amendment: A Biography

Carol Berkin, The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties

 

Cedarville University Proposes Concealed Carry Policy

Founders_Hall,_Cedarville_University

If you go to Cedarville University you will not be permitted to read certain texts or watch certain movies as part of your educational experience, but next Fall you may be able to carry a gun to class.

Here is a press release from the university:

CEDARVILLE, OHIO – For the past several months, Cedarville University faculty, staff, and administration have been considering whether to propose a concealed carry policy for the campus as provided by Ohio Senate Bill 199. After consultation with outside experts, review of other universities’ concealed carry policies, and extensive input by the campus community, a draft policy is now ready for Board of Trustees review at its May meeting.

In developing the draft policy, the University conducted surveys of faculty, staff, and students. Those survey results showed strong support for a concealed carry policy that would align with Ohio’s new legislation, allowing citizens the opportunity to utilize their 2nd amendment rights on University property. A town hall meeting with faculty and staff took place April 12, and Cedars, the student-run newspaper, also printed a story on the topic.

Cedarville’s student newspaper, The Cedars, quotes Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, a member of the Cedarville Board of Trustees:

Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Cedarville trustee, stated he requires his vice presidents, deans and at least three people in every building to carry at Southwestern in Fort Worth, Texas.

“I think it is incumbent upon the school in this kind of a day when you can have a shooter — even as unlikely as it is as they would find Cedarville, Ohio,” he said. “It could even happen here, and you must have protection.”

I wonder if the guy holding a gun in this picture is one of Patterson’s gun-carriers:

Tweet SWBTS

Recently a friend of mine wrote in an e-mail: “I can’t help but see a link between this weird brand of culture-war fundamentalism and the Trumpist gun culture.”  I would add Liberty University to the mix as well.

Some Historical Perspective on the “Right to Bear Arms”

battle_of_lexington_detail

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.

A Comical Look at the Original Intent of the Second Amendment

Madison and JeffersonJohn Quaintance of The New Yorker offers a fictional exchange of letters between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson on the original intent of the Second Amendment.  Very funny.

A taste:

December 5, 1791
James Madison
House of Representatives

Dear James,

How is it almost 1792?! Quick question on the right to bear arms thing in your “Bill of Rights”—the wording and punctuation are slightly confusing. Did you mean that the right of the people serving in the militia to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, or people in general? I’m assuming the former, but don’t want to make an ass of you and me! (Franklin made that up, but I’m using it everywhere!) Could you please send me a quick note whenever to clarify?

TJ

P.S. To be honest, I’m still meh about “Bill of Rights” as a name.

* * *
December 7, 1791
Thomas Jefferson
Office of the Secretary of State

Dear Tom,

I know, it’s so crazy how fast this year has gone—I just got used to writing 1791 on my deeds of purchase (of slaves)!

As far as the amendment, of course it’s the former. If every private citizen had the right to carry a musket, a thousand people would’ve shot Patrick Henry by now, am I right? Don’t worry about it. Everyone will know what it means.

JM

P.S. You’re not back on “The Ten Amendments” are you? It’s trying way too hard to sound Biblical.

* * *
December 9, 1791
James Madison
House of Representatives

Dear James,

Hahaha re: Patrick Henry. And I agree it should be obvious. It’s just, why not make it so clear that even the biggest Anti-Federalist looney tune can’t misinterpret the meaning? I’d add “while serving in the militia” to line three. Also, not to be a grammar redcoat here, but the use and placement of the comma isn’t helping. Can we change it? It will take two seconds.

I know I’m being annoying!

TJ

P.S. How about “Constitution, Part Two?” (Not a serious pitch, unless you like it!)

* * *
December 11, 1791
Thomas Jefferson
Office of the Secretary of State

Dear Tom,

There is literally zero chance that anyone will misconstrue this, and the great news is that if someone actually does, the Supreme Court will set them straight. I don’t want to change it. It won’t take two seconds, because the addition would push a page and I’d have to do the whole rest of it over again and W. is breathing down my neck about it. Plus, I like the way my signature looks on the version I sent you, and you know I always hate the way it looks on important stuff.

Not trying to be snippy, but you’re worrying about nothing.

JM

Read the rest here.

The Origins of Modern Gun Rights and the Antebellum South

Over at The Atlantic, Saul Cornell and Eric Ruben argue: “the idea that citizens have an unfettered constitutional right to carry weapons in public originates in the antebellum South, and its culture of violence and horror.”  Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University and the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.  Eric Ruben is a jurisprudence fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Here is a taste of their piece:

Gun-rights advocates have waged a relentless battle to gut what remains of America’s lax and inadequate gun regulations. In the name of the Second Amendment, they are challenging the constitutionality of state and municipal “may issue” regulations that restrict the right to carry weapons in public to persons who can show a compelling need to be armed. A few courts are starting to take these challenges seriously. But what the advocates do not acknowledge—and some courts seem not to understand—is that their arguments are grounded in precedent unique to the violent world of the slaveholding South.

Gun-rights advocates have waged a relentless battle to gut what remains of America’s lax and inadequate gun regulations. In the name of the Second Amendment, they are challenging the constitutionality of state and municipal “may issue” regulations that restrict the right to carry weapons in public to persons who can show a compelling need to be armed. A few courts are starting to take these challenges seriously. But what the advocates do not acknowledge—and some courts seem not to understand—is that their arguments are grounded in precedent unique to the violent world of the slaveholding South.

Public-carry advocates like to cite historical court opinions to support their constitutional vision, but those opinions are, to put it mildly, highly problematic. The supportive precedent they rely on comes from the antebellum South and represented less a national consensus than a regional exception rooted in the unique culture of slavery and honor. By focusing only on sympathetic precedent, and ignoring the national picture, gun-rights advocates find themselves venerating a moment at which slavery, honor, violence, and the public carrying of weapons were intertwined.

The opinion most enthusiastically embraced by public-carry advocates is Nunn v. State, a state-court decision written by Georgia Chief Justice Joseph Henry Lumpkin in 1846. As a jurist, Lumpkin was a champion both of slavery and of the Southern code of honor. Perhaps, not by coincidence, Nunn was the first case in which a court struck down a gun law on the basis of the Second Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court cited Nunn in District of Columbia v. Heller, its landmark 2008 decision holding, for the first time in over 200 years, that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense. Why courts or gun-rights advocates think Lumpkin’s view of the right to bear arms provides a solid foundation for modern firearms jurisprudence is puzzling. Slavery, “honor,” and their associated violence spawned a unique weapons culture. One of its defining features was a permissive view of white citizens’ right to carry weapons in public.  

Read the rest here.

America Magazine: Repeal the Second Amendment

The Catholics who publish America magazine have had enough.  In a February 25th editorial they call for the repeal of the Second Amendment as the only way to stop gun violence in the United States.  Here is part of their argument:

True, stricter gun laws would not have prevented all these tragedies. But it is very likely that stricter measures could have prevented at least some of these incidents and could have minimized the number of casualties involved. Two facts should be kept in mind. First, the easier it is to get a gun, the easier it is to make use of one. Second, a violent act involving a gun is far more likely to result in fatalities or multiple casualties than a violent act involving some other type of weapon. The notion, therefore, that there is no meaningful correlation between the nation’s relatively lenient gun control laws and the extent of the nation’s gun violence simply defies common sense. It also contradicts the empirical evidence. Experts at the Harvard School of Public Health found that when gun availability increases, so do gun homicides. In the United States, there are approximately 300 million guns in civilian hands, the highest per capita rate in the world (88.8 guns per 100 residents, well ahead of Yemen, No. 2 with 54.8). Though the United States represents less than 5 percent of the global population, Americans own 40 percent of the world’s civilian-owned firearms. 

Each year in the United States, approximately 30,000 people, or 80 per day, die from gun violence. True, guns do not kill people; people kill people. In the United States, however, people kill people by using guns. The murder rate in America is 15 times higher than in other first-world countries; the majority of these murders are committed with guns. As for the notion that guns are necessary in order to defend oneself from an intruder with a gun: One study of three U.S. cities revealed that injuries involving guns kept at home almost always resulted from accidental firings, criminal assaults, homicides and suicides by the residents, not self-defense scenarios. In October the American Academy of Pediatrics reminded us, “The safest home for children and teens is one without guns.”

The facts, however, do not appear to shake a deeply held American belief in the near-unconditional use of force as a means to an end. The culture of violence in America has spawned a deadly syllogism: Guns solve problems; we have problems; therefore, we need guns. Yet consider the tragedy in Aurora. Imagine if just 10 other people in that movie theater had been carrying guns. In the confusion of the onslaught, would fewer people or more people have died when those 10 other people opened fire in the dark? More important, is this really the kind of world we want to live in, a world in which lethal power can be unleashed at any moment at any corner, in any home, in any school?

And in conclusion:

Repealing the Second Amendment will not create a culture of life in one stroke. Stricter gun laws will not create a world free of violence, in which gun tragedies never occur. We cannot repeal original sin. Though we cannot create an absolutely safe world, we can create a safer world. This does not require an absolute ban on firearms. In the post-repeal world that we envision, some people will possess guns: hunters and sportsmen, law enforcement officers, the military, those who require firearms for morally reasonable purposes. Make no mistake, however: The world we envision is a world with far fewer guns, a world in which no one has a right to own one. Some people, though far fewer, will still die from gun violence. The disturbing feeling that we have failed to do everything in our power to remove the material cause of their deaths, however, will no longer compound our grief.

Sorry David Barton, Ronald Reagan Did Favor Gun Control and the Brady Bill

I will just let Warren Throckmorton explain it:

With the national conversation on the 2nd Amendment, David Barton is out talking about the Second Amendment and his version of history. In this clip with Glenn Beck, he links the formation of the National Rifle Association to KKK busting activity — something not even the NRA does. But for the purpose of this post, I want to note how he misleads viewers about Ronald Reagan’s position on gun control. First watch (transcript of section from 3:53 to 4:11)…

Barton is off here. In the past couple of days, conservatives have been writing about Reagan’s views on gun control. As they point out, Reagan favored the Brady Bill and in 1991 wrote an op-ed for the New York Times advocating passage of the bill. Brady was for modest gun control and Reagan did not say no, no, no. 

Writing in the Hartford Courant, Brett Joshpe reminds us that Reagan favored some gun control proposals. Joshpe notes that Reagan might be considered a traitor in his own party by today’s standards. Reagan’s op-ed in the NYT left no doubt where he stood:

This level of violence must be stopped. Sarah and Jim Brady are working hard to do that, and I say more power to them. If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.

In the op-ed, Reagan noted that he had signed a gun control law while Governor of CA. Furthermore, Reagan opposed the availability of assault guns. In 1994, Reagan joined former presidents Carter and Ford to favor a ban on the manufacture of assault weapons (also see these remarks on AK-47s). They wrote:

“This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety. . . . Although assault weapons account for less than 1% of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10% of the guns traced to crime. . . .
“While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.
“We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”

Clearly, Reagan’s views were misrepresented on the Glenn Beck show. Reagan did not oppose James Brady and did not say no, no, no.

Saul Cornell on the Second Amendment

Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University and the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.

In Wednesday’s New York Daily News he published an op-ed entitled “The Second Amendment You Don’t Know.”  He argues that the founders’ original intent in passing the second amendment was “as much about regulating firearm possession as enabling it.”  Here is a taste:

In 2008, a closely divided Supreme Court abandoned more than 70 years of precedent and for the first time in American history affirmed that the Second Amendment is about a right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense. Lost in most of the commentary then and now is that this is almost the exactly opposite of what James Madison, the primary architect of the amendment, intended, and is hard to reconcile with the way most ordinary Americans would have read it in 1791. 

In 1776, most of the original state constitutions did not even include an arms-bearing provision. The few states that did usually also included a clause protecting the right not to bear arms. Why? Because, in contrast to other cherished rights such as freedom of speech or religion, the state could not compel you to speak or pray. It could force you to bear arms. 

The founders had a simple reason for curbing this right: Quakers and other religious pacifists were opposed to bearing arms, and wished to be exempt from an obligation that could be made incumbent on all male citizens at the time. 

Saul Cornell

When the Second Amendment is discussed today, we tend to think of those “militias” as just a bunch of ordinary guys with guns, empowering themselves to resist authority when and if necessary. Nothing could be further from the founders’ vision. 

Militias were tightly controlled organizations legally defined and regulated by the individual colonies before the Revolution and, after independence, by the individual states. Militia laws ran on for pages and were some of the lengthiest pieces of legislation in the statute books. States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster. 

These laws also defined what type of guns you had to buy — a form of taxation levied on individual households. Yes, long before Obamacare, the state made you buy something, even if you did not want to purchase it. (The guns required by law were muskets, not pistols. The only exceptions to this general rule were the horsemen’s pistols that dragoons and other mounted units needed.) 

The founders had a word for a bunch of farmers marching with guns without government sanction: a mob. One of the reasons we have a Constitution is the founders were worried about the danger posed by individuals acting like a militia without legal authority. This was precisely what happened during Shays’ Rebellion, an insurrection in western Massachusetts that persuaded many Americans that we needed a stronger central government to avert anarchy.

Many people think that we have the Second Amendment so that we can take up arms against the government if it overreaches its authority. If that interpretation were correct, it would mean that the Second Amendment had repealed the Constitution’s treason clause, which defines this crime as taking up arms against the government. In reality, in the first decade after the Constitution, the government put down several rebellions similar to Shays – and nobody claimed that they were merely asserting their Second Amendment rights.

Cornell also discusses the Second Amendment in this article in Dissent.