Much of our current debate about gun violence centers around the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It states, “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.” It was debated and argued from September of 1774 until ratification by 11 states on September 13, 1788. North Carolina jumped on board in 1789 and Rhode Island joined in on May 29, 1790, making it a baker’s dozen.
As one examines the Second Amendment, it’s important to recognize that our Constitution has been amended 27 times, establishing such things as a woman’s right to vote and what happens when the President is incapacitated or found otherwise unfit to serve. Remember that for later.
The Constitution wasn’t the work of one man. Our founders, the Continental Congress, went through protracted debate to decide what this fragile framework of our fledgling democracy would look like. Upon ratification, someone asked Ben Franklin, “What do we have here, sir? A monarchy or republic?” He responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin was saying that much like it took a great deal of work to create America, it would take a great deal to maintain it.
The debate over our Constitution took the form of oral debate, letters and correspondence, and think pieces by such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in such works as the Federalist Papers. One such working document was the Articles of Confederation – the guiding principles that would establish and hopefully maintain the independence and sovereignty of the newly united States.
Article VI of this document served as a precursor to the later Second Amendment. “…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 store, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.”
When this was drafted, you see, we were fighting the professional army of the British. America had no standing army, and used private citizen militias to supplement the soldiers of France, Spain, Netherlands, and mercenary and Native American fighters. A large bone of contention was whether or not our collection of states should field a standing army or it should be up to the individual states.
Arguing right here in Richmond with such luminaries as Madison, John Marshall, George Mason and James Monroe, Patrick Henry said, “It has been repeatedly said here, that the great object of a national government was national defence. That power which is said to be intended for security and safety may be rendered detestable and oppressive.”
His argument also brought into the open the role of blacks in the terms of the Second Amendment, but that’s for another time…
Given the evolution of the role of guns in early American society, and examining the various iterations of the Second Amendment, an argument could be made today that the clear intent of the Founders was protection of the State. The Articles of Confederation clearly point to a public armory – not the wholesale possession of weapons. While the eventual Constitution eliminated the need for tents and ‘equipage,’ it did preserve “…a well regulated militia…” It didn’t say any weapon, anywhere, any time.
While still Governor of California, Ronald Reagan talked of both the protection of the Second Amendment and the responsibility of maintaining it when he said, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense, but I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.”
For what it’s worth, Reagan is still today held up as an icon of the right, and revered by many in the NRA and those who support complete freedom for gun owners.
In 1994, Reagan added his signature to those of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in supporting a ban on assault weapons. “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.”
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was an ardent supporter of Second Amendment rights. He was a Reagan-appointee, and strict originalist, meaning he wanted to literally interpret the words of the Founders. It was not his role, he believed, to try and figure out what they may have meant. He was also an avid sportsman, and died while on a trip to hunt quail.
He offered the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that the individual right to own a firearm was ironclad under the Second Amendment. He found that the District’s ban on handguns placed an unreasonable burden to protecting one’s home. He did, however, state in his published opinion that there were also unreasonable examples of gun ownership.
“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”
Like the Federalist Papers and the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was and remains a working document. And like Franklin said over two centuries ago, it’s ours “if you can keep it.”