Reprinted from Consortium News
False history continues to kill Americans, as we saw once again last week at Umpqua Community College in Oregon where a disturbed young man whose mother had loaded the house with loaded handguns and rifles executed nine people and then committed suicide -- one more mind-numbing slaughter made possible, in part, by an erroneous understanding of the Second Amendment.
A key reason why the United States is frozen in political paralysis, unable to protect its citizens from the next deranged gunman and the next massacre, is that many on the American Right (and some on the Left) have sold much of the country on a false history regarding the Second Amendment. Gun-rights advocates insist that the carnage can't be stopped because it was part of what the Constitution's Framers designed.
But the Constitution's Framers in 1787 and the authors of the Bill of Rights in the First Congress in 1789 never intended the Second Amendment to be construed as the right for individuals to take up arms against the Republic. In fact, their intent was the opposite.
The actual goal of the Second Amendment was to promote state militias for the maintenance of order in a time of political uprisings, potential slave revolts and simmering hostilities with both European powers and Native Americans on the frontiers. Indeed, its defined purpose was to achieve "security" against disruptions to the country's 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, it's clear 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 and protect its citizens.
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.
Yet, one of the false themes peddled by some on the Right and the Left is that the Framers, having won a revolution against the British Crown, wanted to arm the population so the people could rebel against the Republic created by the U.S. Constitution. This vision of the Framers of the Constitution and members of the First Congress as some anarchists wanting an armed population to overthrow the government if the people weren't happy with something is completely opposite of what was intended.
Whatever one thinks about the Federalists, who were the principal constitutional Framers and the leaders of the First Congress, they constituted the early national establishment -- people like George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. They feared that their new creation, a constitutional republic in an age of monarchies, was threatened by the potential for violent chaos, which is what European aristocrats predicted.
According to the idea of a representative democracy, the Framers sought a system that reflected the will of the citizens but within a framework that constrained the passions of democracy. In other words, the Constitution sought to channel political disputes into non-violent competition among various interests. The Framers also recognized how fragile the nation's independence was and how domestic rebellions could be exploited by European powers.
Indeed, one of the crises that led to the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 was the inability of the old system under the Articles of Confederation to put down Shays's Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-87. So, the Federalists were seeking a system that would ensure "domestic Tranquility," as they explained in the Constitution's Preamble. They did not want endless civil strife.
The whole idea of the Constitution -- with its mix of voting, elected and appointed representatives, and checks and balances -- was to create a political structure that made violence unnecessary. In other words, 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 III, Section 3. They also committed the federal government to protect each state from "domestic Violence," in Article IV, Section 4.
One of the first uses of the new state militias formed under the Second Amendment and the Militia Acts, which required able-bodied men to report for duty with their own muskets, was for President Washington to lead a federalized force of militiamen against the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
In the South, one of the principal reasons for a militia was to rally armed whites to put down slave uprisings. Again, the Second Amendment was meant to maintain public order -- even an unjust order -- rather than to empower the oppressed to take up arms against the government. That latter idea was a modern reinterpretation -- or distortion -- of the history.
The Constitution's Framers were not some early version of Leon Trotsky favoring permanent revolution. The most radical-talking leader at the time, Thomas Jefferson, had little to do with either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights since he was serving as a diplomat in France at the time.