By Nancy Liebrecht
Liebrecht is a retired environmental scientist and registered landscape architect. She lives in Fries.
After the recent spate of school shootings, gun regulation is back as a topic of public discussion. Lately mass shootings have become so frequent, that this issue does not recede for very long.
There are now the usual calls for “common sense” gun laws, and the response from gun advocates that the recurrent shootings are not a gun issue, but a mental health problem.
Certainly some perpetrators are deeply disturbed, but it is time to face the fact that mass shootings have become an ordinary expression of rage in a society awash with guns. After the last three school shootings, there appears to be a nascent change in popular sentiment about gun regulation, some acceptance, even among gun owners, that the country needs to do something.
Both sides of the gun debate are passionate about their beliefs.
Consequently, it is a wise to revisit the history of the Second Amendment, which in popular mythology has granted unregulated ownership of guns since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.
We learn in grade school about musket carrying Continental soldiers and militiamen who defeated the British in the American Revolution with assistance from France, and we assume that the Second Amendment was written to preserve private ownership of arms which enabled the colonists to prevail against the British Army. This is a myth. The French alliance, not American muskets, ended British rule in the Colonies.
When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, his army was surrounded by a French army of over 25,000 men and only 11,000 American troops. Additionally, a French fleet had just previously defeated the British in a naval battle near Chesapeake Bay thereby preventing Cornwallis from receiving aid or escaping by sea.
In addition to the direct assistance provided by the French, the Americans also received indirect aid from Spain and the Netherlands. While having no alliance with the Continental Congress, both countries were allied with France and therefore declared war on Britain when France did. By 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered, Great Britain was fighting a costly and increasingly unpopular war on multiple fronts.
Shays Rebellion in 1786 and 1787 arguably had more to do with the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights than musket-toting volunteers in the Continental Army. This was an armed uprising that occurred primarily in Massachusetts although there were concurrent rebellious incidents in other states.
In a time when there was no army and no police forces, the governing authorities in Massachusetts had trouble putting together a militia to put down the rebellion, but they finally assembled a privately-funded militia that did just that.
The Philadelphia Convention to write the Constitution convened shortly after the rebellion was suppressed, and the danger of insurrection was certainly considered by the framers of the Constitution. This is why the Second Amendment states that the right to bear arms is required for a “well ordered militia.”
In the eighteenth century, a “well-ordered militia” was an arm of the state. It was not a posse. Adult males enrolled in the militia and trained under their officers to carry out their duties when called to do so by state and federal governments.
The idea that anybody who had a gun was in the militia is a modern construct derived from aggressive promotion by gun advocates in the last thirty-five years and reinforced by series of recent court decisions.
For most of our country’s history the Second Amendment was understood to be about militias and not about the individual right to own arms. Indeed, when the Second Amendment was written, there were a surprising number of gun regulations in various states. These determined who could own guns, where powder could be stored, and even whether loaded guns could be kept in a home.
As the debate about gun regulation continues, we should remember that the Second Amendment exists is because in 1787 the country needed an organized militia under government control to fight an insurrection. Personal protection or hunting had nothing to do with it. The Second Amendment was interpreted quite differently in 1791 than gun advocates interpret it today.
Gun advocates and the gun lobby have given the Second Amendment religious significance conferring the right of private individuals to own any kind of weapon, but when we examine the historic reasons for the amendment’s presence in the Bill of Rights, this belief does not hold up. It is time for the gun debate to be focused on what is right for our present-day society.