For years I felt that it was pretty clear we had the right to bear arms but I never had an answer to those who insisted it needed to be a completely unfettered right because the Founding Fathers intended it to be a safety against tyranny from within. A conversation on another blog made me re-think things.
For instance, modern weaponry simply didn’t exist when the Constitution was drafted and what did they mean by “arms”? There is no way the the Founding Fathers could have envisioned rifled barrels being widespread, 100 round mags, infrared scopes, etc. Muskets, the individual weapon of choice for the Continental soldier had no rifling–the twisting grooves in modern gun barrels that turn the bullet and improve accuracy. Although it had been invented in the 1500’s, the ability to manufacture rifled barrels in mass didn’t occur until the 1800’s1, long after the Founding Fathers were dead.
When most people armed themselves during the 1700’s they would buy a musket. In fact, because people usually hunted in addition to farming, almost every family in America had a musket of some kind (not to mention for personal defense because we had nothing like modern law enforcement at the time). If they had a bit more money and anticipated the need to defend themselves in close quarters, then they might have purchased a flint-lock pistol and/or a sword. However, those weapons weren’t common because they were expensive and the average citizen/soldier was not expected to carry anything more than a musket and a hatchet. Other things that the average citizen was NOT expected to have were the Colonial equivalents to automatic weapons such as cannons, grenades, howitzers, etc.
Even if you don’t buy the argument that the Founding Fathers could not have conceived of things like the AR-15 assault rifle nor could have wanted the average citizen to have one, there are other things to think about. For example, what did they mean by a “well regulated militia”? The concept of a militia2, as we recognize it in the U.S., was created by the Anglo-Saxons (think back to England between the 5th Century until the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066). In Anglo-Saxon England a militia consisted of every able-bodied free male and its purpose was to protect the populace from outside invasions and to enforce the ruling feudal Lord’s laws, etc when the Lord’s standing Army was not around. These militias were called to duty by men called Sheriffs (the origin of our modern Sheriffs). In Colonial America, the militia was basically always “on duty” to defend colonists from hostile Native Americans. Thus it was that when the Founding Fathers decided they had no choice but to fight for independence, they turned to the standing militia as their army since it was the closest thing to a standing army.
So yes, armed citizens were a part of the militia and that militia ended up being the military force that fought against British tyranny. However, there was also a firm belief by many in the Colonies that we should never have a standing army as we do now and that a militia would have to be maintained as a result. One can see this in The Virginia Delcaration of Rights3 and its definition of a militia:
SEC. 13. That a well-regulated militia, or composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Note there, the consensus was that a militia was meant to exist if we had no standing army. In spite of the widespread cultural attitude of wariness of a standing army, the Founding Fathers felt it would be necessary. So as soon as the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1784 to end the War, the Founding Fathers disbanded the Continental Forces and then immediately re-formed them as the United States Army–this became our standing military4. As a result, the consensus was that no militia was needed at that time. The concept of a militia didn’t disappear, of course, because we have the National Guard and the Reserves. The modern National Guard was formed in 1903 as both a reserve force for the standing army but also as a “militia” in the traditional sense to keep the peace at home5, if necessary. That’s why we say a Governor “calls out” the National Guard. The Executive of each state has the right to “call” up that militia. The Reserves were formed early in the Cold War in order to act as a true strategic reserve in the case of a ground war between us and the very large Communist armies of China and Russia and can only be called up by the Federal Government.
So the concept of a militia remains an important part of our culture. However, what is new is the conservative veiwpoint that a militia consists of untrained, armed civilians. The National Guard is highly trained. Reservists are highly trained former active duty soldiers. Your fat La-Z-Boy surfing neighbor with his gun safe in the basement full of automatic weapons is not, nor should he ever be part of a militia UNLESS he signs an official piece of paper and verbalizes an oath, loses 50 lbs, gets some damn training, learns how to follow orders, etc. A “well regulated militia governed by civil power” also does not include the various indepdent groups formed by charismatic libertarians (or neo-Nazis as is sometimes the case in AZ) that build compounds out in the hinterlands. Sometimes these groups take it upon themselves to patrol our national borders with Canada and Mexico, but they are certainly not what the Founding Fathers defined in our Constitution. These self-same militias and conservatives sometimes encourage secession of a state and openly renounce the power of the Federal Government (especially since President Obama became the Democratic Party’s nominee for the President in 2008). For some reason they fail to note that the militia was supposed to be governed, like all military forces should be according to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, by civilian power. In the U.S. Constitution civil power is the people and the people wield their power through their elected representatives that are sent to State and National Legislative Bodies and Executive Offices. This is why we have never suffered from a “military coup” and it distinguishes us from many other countries in the world.
Okay, so you don’t agree with this historical interpretation of a “well regulated militia”. What about the fact that the Founding Fathers never wanted bloodshed during the Revolution? Yes, you heard that right. They tried, repeatedly, to find a diplomatic solution. A careful reading of the history shows that they only acquiesced to the idea of a bloody revolution when they felt they had no other choice.
Still don’t buy it? Then what about simple logic (which I am borrowing from a post on another blog by someone who regularly makes incredibly intelligent comments–GrafZeppelin127). Graf posits that it makes absolutely no sense for the Founding Fathers to create a new form of government that was supposed to be stabilized by the three separated powers of Executive, Legislative and Court branches and then allow for its violent, bloody overthrow by a bunch of angry armed citizens6. We absolutely, positively KNOW that the Founding Fathers, almost all of whom were patricians, feared the violence and capriciousness of the mob. They were not fans of ‘direct democracy’. So when the French Revolution devolved into various factions fighting for control and mob killings not only of the nobility but each other, their fears were justified. That fear is precisely why the Founding Fathers created the Legislative Branch, to create a filter and a process that would make the change of laws a more deliberative process. In fact, the entire concept on which our United States is built is the concept of a peaceful, bloodless change of power through election. Graf argues:
If any person can unilaterally and arbitrarily decide, on his own initiative and for any reason, that “the government” is by his own subjective definition “oppressive,” take his gun, go to Washington and shoot his, your, my, and others’ duly-elected representatives, then this is neither a free country nor a republic nor a democracy nor a nation of laws. The exercise is ultimately and entirely self-defeating.
I think Graf is absolutely right. The Founding Fathers feared instability as much as they did tyranny. That’s why they created our “experimental” form of government. Furthermore, the argument made by conservatives that our right to bear arms was meant to protect us from internal tyranny of our own government ignores the fact that the actual structure and process of governance (i.e., elections, the three branches, the states versus the federal, the separation of church and state, etc) are our protection against internal tyranny. No particular group–not the military, a church, the rich, the poor, the majority, the minority–could gain enough power, quickly enough to establish tyrannical control. To claim that the Founding Fathers meant to introduce the wildcard of armed yokels with itchy trigger fingers into that wonderfully stable and tyranny free system is absurd.
Strangely enough I have made this argument to libertarians before but I never realized it. I would always sputter something about, ‘well that’s what Congress is for….go vote…don’t take up arms”. The next time I encounter a conservative that wants to discuss why he can’t have an Uzi, I’ll be much better prepared. Thank you, Graf!