On Thursday (2/7), WBCR‘s Sex and Politics played host to two advocates of full gun rights (aka the status quo) in the aftermath of the attacks at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Aurora, Colorado, and any number of similar storied recent slaughters of Americans by firearms. I’m not going to re-hash the arguments and counter-arguments made that night (you can listen to the Podcast here).
The Gun Lobby keeps rewriting American History in support of their point of view. There’s this idea that people were given rights to own firearms because the Founders feared tyranny and wanted to give the citizenry a right to defend themselves from future tyranny. And ‘well regulated militia’ somehow gets left out of the equation. I’ve also heard the back-and-forth that the Founders didn’t visualize the kind of weaponry used at Sandy Hook–that the arms of 1791 were orders of magnitude less lethal than what Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy Lanza was able to legally purchase. There are some pro-gun advocates who are arguing for citizens to have the right to purchase full military grade weapons.
Some history as I understand it: The post-American Revolution period was hardly some halcyon age of relief and joy. The founding Fathers who’d written the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were shaken up by the rebellions that had taken place after the Revolution. Funny thing, but when you have a revolution around taxation, the people who are on your side may think that winning means they don’t have to pay up. Shay’s Rebellion, a widespread insurrection in 1786-1787 lead by Daniel Shays on behalf of Massachusetts farmers over being bankrupted in order to pay off war debts, was the most famous of these rebellions, but there were also numerous smaller acts of resistance, including the Newburgh Conspiracy, and an insurrection in 1783 after the Revolution where unpaid soldiers marched on Congress, forcing the delegates to flee Philadelphia across the river to Princeton. The South was also in deep trouble–slave rebellions were widespread, and there was a shrinking militia available to deal with them. The population of some parts of the South was almost 50% black slaves. And many Southerns who had supported the Revolution saw all the advantages post-war going to the already well-off. Howard Zinn, author of A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, has written:
General Henry Knox warned his former commander, George Washington, about the rebels: “They see the weakness of government; they feel at once their own poverty, compared to the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter in order to remedy the former. Their creed is that the property of the U.S. has been protected from the confiscations of Britain by the joint exertions of all, and therefore should be the common property of all.”
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia for 1787 was called to deal with this problem, to set up “big government,” to protect the interests of merchants, slave-holders, land speculators, establish law and order, and avert future rebellions like that of Shays.
When the debate took place in the various states over ratification of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers appeared in the New York press to support ratification. Federalist Paper 10, written by James Madison, made clear why a strong central government was needed: to curb the potential demand of a “majority faction” for “an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked object.
Visions of the founders protecting the people’s right to firearms in order to fight tyrannical government aside, the Second Amendment enshrined the idea of the states drafting white men into semi-permanent militias to battle insurrections like the Shays rebellion and put down slave uprisings. In fact, there’s more than a little bit of evidence that the Second Amendment was instituted to preserve slavery.
Sorry for the long history lesson here. But the Second Amendment needs to be framed in the context in which it was written. And the words that everyone on the pro-gun side keeps leaving off the words A WELL REGULATED MILITIA BEING NECESSARY TO THE SECURITY OF A FREE STATE. Some see the Amendment as a way to put white male adult citizens (who at the time of the writing of the Constitution didn’t even have the right to vote unless they owned property, a state of affairs that didn’t change nationwide until 1850) on the hook as the state’s tool for repressing other people’s idea of rebellion. They even had to provide their own musket when they helped the State repress their neighbors.
To me, this history all falls into my rubric about what version of history Americans know. Like many of the other history posts I’ve put up here (look up my ‘Don’t Know Much about History’ series), part of the vitriol in our national debate over gun ownership in the aftermath of Sandy Hook has to do with differing views of the history that gave us a Second Amendment. Many of the pro-gun ownership proponents have a very different view of the Founding Fathers than what is laid out here.
More on the specifics of the current fight over gun control in a few days.