A painting of President George Washington leading a force of federalized state militias against the Whiskey rebels in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
False history can kill, as the American people have seen again in the slaughter of 12 people working at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. on Monday, when an emotionally disturbed gunman gained access to the military facility and opened fire, adding the site to a long list of mass-murder scenes across the United States.
Though the focus after the latest rampage has been on the need for better mental health detection and for better security at bases, the underlying story is again how easy it is for people in the United States, like the troubled Aaron Alexis, to obtain lethal weaponry -- and how hard it is to keep guns away from dangerous individuals.
But a key reason why the nation is frozen in a shocking paralysis, unable to protect even little children, is that the American Right has sold much of the country on a false history regarding the Second Amendment. Right-wingers and other gun-rights advocates insist that the carnage can't be stopped because it is part of what the Framers designed. In that sense, the Navy Yard narrative is just one more bloody patch in the grim tapestry that stretches from Virginia Tech to Aurora to Newtown to hundreds of other locations where thousands upon thousands of innocent lives have been taken by gun violence in America.
Yet that is not and never was the actual history. When the First Congress passed the Second Amendment in 1789, the goal was to promote state militias for the maintenance of order in a time of political violence, potential slave revolts and simmering hostilities with both European powers and Native Americans on the frontiers.
The amendment was never intended as a blank check for some unstable person to massacre fellow Americans. Indeed, it defined its purpose as achieving "security" against disruptions to the country's new republican form of government. The Second Amendment read:
"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." In other words, if read in context, you would see that the Second Amendment was enacted so each state would have the specific right to form "a well-regulated militia" to maintain "security," i.e. to put down armed disorder.
In the late Eighteenth Century, the meaning of "bearing" arms also referred to a citizen being part of a militia or army. It didn't mean that an individual had the right to possess whatever number of high-capacity killing machines that he or she might want. Indeed, the most lethal weapon that early Americans owned was a slow-loading, single-fired musket or rifle.
And, the Framers of the Constitution were not some anarchists who wanted an armed population so people could overthrow the government if they weren't happy with something. Indeed, one of the crises that led to the Constitution was the inability of the old system under the Articles of Confederation to put down the Shays's Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-87.
The Framers -- people like George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris -- were the Establishment of the day. They also recognized how fragile the nation's independence was and how novel was the idea of a constitutional republic with democratic elections. They were seeking a system that took political action that reflected the will of the people, yet within a framework that constrained the passions of democracy.
The whole idea of the Constitution -- with its mix of voting, elected representatives and checks and balances -- was to create a political structure that made violence unnecessary. As the Preamble states, two key goals were to "promote the general Welfare" and to "insure domestic Tranquility." So, the Framers weren't encouraging violent uprisings against the republic that they were founding. To the contrary, they characterized violence against the constitutional system as "treason" in Article IV, Section 4.
And one of the first uses of the new state militias formed under the Second Amendment and the Militia Acts was for President Washington to lead a federalized force of militiamen against the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt, in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
Though it's true that many Americans owned a musket or rifle in those early years especially on the frontier, regulations on munitions were still common in cities where storing of gunpowder, for instance, represented a threat to the public safety. As the nation spread westward, so did common-sense restrictions on gun violence. Sheriffs in some of the wildest of Wild West towns enforced gun bans that today would prompt a recall election financed by the National Rifle Association.
This history was well understood both by citizens and courts. For generations, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as a collective right, allowing Americans to participate in a "well-regulated Militia," not as an individual right to buy the latest weaponry at a gun show or stockpile a military-style arsenal in the basement.
However, in recent decades -- understanding the power of narrative on the human imagination -- a resurgent American Right rewrote the history of the Founding era, dispatching "researchers" to cherry-pick or fabricate quotes from Revolutionary War leaders to create politically convenient illusions. [See, for instance, Steven Krulik's compilation of apocryphal gun quotes.]
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