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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 7/27/12

What the Majority of Founders Really Meant by the Outdated Amendment #2

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Message Gregory Paul

As I explain in part in a new article (click here) the gun industry/lobby that has been behind the perversely successful effort to convince a large portion of Americans to back packing weaponry originally crafted to slaughter enemy armies is trying to pull some fast ones.


One gun rights myth is that gun regulations don't do any good, or are outright bad for lawful citizens. The argument is that cities and states that have lax laws and lots of guns at worst do not suffer more homicides, and at best have fewer murders because armed ne'er-do-wells are deterred when law abiding citizens are packing heat too. It is an opinion so pernicious that David Brooks reiterates it in his New York Times column and on the PBS Newshour as sociological truth. Which it absolutely is not. The USA has the highest rate of gun ownership on the planet, we are ahead of Yemen and Somalia. And the USA has by far the highest homicide rates in the first world. All western nations where guns are much less common enjoy remarkably low levels of murder. Check out the graphic plot in click here Even in the USA the data indicates that more guns and less regulations tends to result in more deaths (click here). Nor is it likely to entirely be a coincidence that homicides have declined in this nation at the same time as has gun ownership (despite the efforts of the gun promoters).


Another trick the gun people are playing is to say that gun laws can't stop determined mass shooters. Yes, but laws against murder don't stop murder. Laws and regulations are not intended to put a total stop to the target activity in a democracy, they are meant to tamp down crimes as much as possible while not impairing personal liberty more than necessary.   


That brings us to the gun rights myth that this essay will address in detail, the proposition that the sacred Constitution of these United States enshrines gun ownership as an individual right for purposes of personal protection and the defense of liberty. Why is this not so? Because there is something distinctive and important about the 2nd Amendment that suggests the intent of the founders was more complicated. It is the only right in the Bill of Rights that is predicated. By a governmental need. Think about it. The other rights are just given, without qualifications. Such as "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects" shall not be violated-- And "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial--


But that's not how Amendment II begins. It starts with "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." Because pro-gun people tend to be anti-government people they're prone to drop that awkward-for-them beginning from their most precious amendment (lots of gun folks say the heater amendment is the most important in the Bill of Rights -- never mind that it is number two behind those trifles about freedom of speech and a/theism). The preface is absent from the NRA headquarters that sports a truncated, government free alternative reality for public view.


That amendment number two is the only one predicated by a government need means that it is the only one that is as much about the government as it is about the individual. Here's what happened. As you may recall, in 1775 the British Crown decided it was a good idea to seize the arms stored by colonial militias in the greater Boston area. They were not going around knocking on folks' doors to take their personal muskets and pistols. Later, when the founders were writing the Constitution, they did not want the want the democratic federal regime they were setting up to stage future Concords and Lexingtons. So they banned the feds from going around seizing the arms of militias that were properly regulated by their states. That's why the Massachusetts state constitution declared in 1780 that "The people have a right to keep and bear arms for the common defence-- (see for a listing of state's gun rights). Same for the 1776 North Carolina provision "That the people have a right to bear arms, for the defense of the state-- How about Virginia that in 1776 laid the foundations of the federal version with "That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and defense of a free state, therefore, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed-- Far from being endorsing a right to self-protection, they are centered on collective security. That is what the 2nd amendment is about.


Had the amendment been designed give citizens a right to own and bear guns for their own purposes, then it would have read something like Pennsylvania's 1776 constitutional provision "That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state"". Vermont said the same thing next year. So why isn't the 2nd Amendment a blanket individual right to tote guns?


Fact is that some of the founders were kind of nervous about an armed citizenry. One of the fears was that the democracy could slip into chaos if angry and armed mobs decided to try to rule by the gun rather than the ballot -- just look at how things soon went south in France. This disquiet about what the masses might try to pull off was all the more acute because most of the founders were from the economic elites. So they punted on this constitutional right, so much so that they went to the trouble to mention a "well regulated militia," as governmental a line as you can get. With a number of the founders wanting an across the board right to possess weaponry, and with others leery of going that far, the 2nd amendment ended up being exactly the kind of political compromise that many on the right loath as denying individuals their full liberty to do what they please aside from murder, assault, rape and theft. But the gun industry and its lobby cannot admit that, so they drop the government predicate of the amendment when they can get away with it, and do intellectual loop the loops when they have to try to explain it away.

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Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work (more...)
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