Summary: The debate about the right to bear arms is a black comedy. It takes place amidst casualties like that of a war, the names of the annual crop of the dead endlessly scrolling by into the dustbin of history. The guns supposedly defending our liberty remain quiet while we throw away our rights. The arguments supporting an expansive interpretation are bolstered by an impressive array of fake quotes from our history. It’s a fine demonstration of American politics at the end of the Second Republic.
Assault deaths per 100k. Which line is the USA?
Graph by Kieran Healy; source in section 4. Click to enlarge.
- About the Second Amendment
- Alexander Hamilton speaks to us
- Fake advice from Jefferson
- More info about gun control
- The other side of the debate…
- For More Information
(1) About the Second Amendment
“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.”
— The Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
From the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School:
“The opposing theories, perhaps oversimplified, are an “individual rights” thesis whereby individuals are protected in ownership, possession, and transportation, and a “states’ rights” thesis whereby it is said the purpose of the clause is to protect the States in their authority to maintain formal, organized militia units.
“Whatever the Amendment may mean, it is a bar only to federal action, not extending to state or private restraints.”
(2) Alexander Hamilton speaks to us
Alexander Hamilton clearly sides with with “states’ rights” theory in Federalist Paper No. 29: “Concerning the Militia“, published in The Daily Advertiser, 10 January 1788 — Capitals in the original. Excerpt:
“The power of regulating the militia, and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defense, and of watching over the internal peace of the Confederacy.
“It requires no skill in the science of war to discern that uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia would be attended with the most beneficial effects, whenever they were called into service for the public defense. It would enable them to discharge the duties of the camp and of the field with mutual intelligence and concert an advantage of peculiar moment in the operations of an army; and it would fit them much sooner to acquire the degree of proficiency in military functions which would be essential to their usefulness.
“This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union:
‘to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, RESERVING TO THE STATES RESPECTIVELY THE APPOINTMENT OF THE OFFICERS, AND THE AUTHORITY OF TRAINING THE MILITIA ACCORDING TO THE DISCIPLINE PRESCRIBED BY CONGRESS.’
“… If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security.”
(3) Fake advice from Thomas Jefferson
Last week we looked at fakery by the Left to mold public opinion. But both Left and Right understand us, and lie. The fake quotes about gun rights could fill a book. Repeatedly debunked, still widely circulated — and believed. The frequency of lies in our public debates reveals us much about 21st century America — and the educational value of the Internet.
(a) This quote sounds definitive! Too bad Jefferson never said it.
“Laws that forbid the carrying of arms … disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one.”
It’s from Cesare Beccaria’s Essay on Crimes and Punishments. Jefferson’s note on this: “False ideas of utility”. See the details here.
(b) But I’ve heard this one a thousand times? How sad people lie to us so often.
“No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain their right to keep and bear arms is as a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
The actual quote is “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms within his own lands.” It’s from the Draft Constitution for Virginia of June 1776. See the details here.
(c) This is my favorite. A powerful quote, although not by one of the Founders. It’s also fake.
See Factcheck.org for details.
(d) No discussion of gun-rights propaganda should overlook the National Rifle Association.
That such crude propaganda has such effect indicates our vulnerability to tyranny. For examples see “NRA’s doomsaying sham“, Alan Berlow, Salon, 24 July 2012 — Opening:
If Americans wake up one day to find out that they’re living in a Stalinist police state and that government agents have confiscated all their guns leaving them utterly defenseless, it won’t be because Wayne LaPierre didn’t warn us. LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association, has been issuing warnings along these lines for most of his 20 years as the public face of what is regularly described as the nation’s most powerful lobbying organization.
LaPierre is, of course, a perennial doomsayer with a nearly unblemished record of wrongful predictions, a record so reliably unreliable that, were it possible to bet against it, one could easily amass a sizable fortune. During the Clinton administration he claimed that a document “secretly delivered” to him revealed that “the full-scale war [to] eliminate private firearms ownership completely and forever” was “well underway.” Yet a decade later Second Amendment rights are stronger than at any time in modern history, and law-abiding Americans are in about as much danger of having their 300 million guns seized by the federal government as by Lord Voldemort.
Four years ago LaPierre dusted off and embellished his Clinton-era prediction, arguing that if Barack Obama were elected, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity would be silenced, and “civil disarmament” would be implemented through a United Nations gun-ban treaty. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but LaPierre now says it’s only because Obama and his advisers decided prior to his election to forgo implementation of the dastardly plan and instead “hatched a conspiracy of public deception to guarantee his re-election in 2012.” According to LaPierre, Obama still plans to “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution” in a second term, when he will turn “American’s guns into international soup cans and park benches.”
(4) More information about guns in America
(a) Mass Shootings in the United States Since 2005, Brady Campaign website — It’s 62 pages long.
(b) Important information about America by Kieran Healy (Assoc Prof Sociology at Duke) about the death rate in the US due to assaults (all causes).
(c) Like so many things in America today, the gun culture is a fading love of old white guys. See “The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States“, Patrick Egan (Asst Prof Politics, NYU), the Monkey Cage, 21 July 2012.
But as pundits and politicians react, they would do well to keep in mind two fundamental trends about violence and guns in America that are going unmentioned in the reporting on Aurora.
First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years. In 2010, violent crime rates hit a low not seen since 1972; murder rates sunk to levels last experienced during the Kennedy Administration.
… Second, for all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows. Since 1973, the GSS has been asking Americans whether they keep a gun in their home. In the 1970s, about half of the nation said yes; today only about one-third do. Driving the decline: a dramatic drop in ownership of pistols and shotguns, the very weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes.
(d) Insightful note from James Fallows at The Atlantic:
Meanwhile, this sample of the insanity of today’s “security” thinking.
- The latest Colorado shooter … could not legally have walked onto an airplane carrying a water bottle, or without taking off his shoes.
- But he could walk down the street with a legally purchased assault rifle, body armor, and as much ammo as he could lift.
(e) “Under A Blood Red Sky“, Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, 21 July 2012 — Excerpt:
Since 9/11, U.S. officials have steered America’s vast law enforcement apparatus around to the idea that it is more important to prevent crimes from occurring than it is to punish criminals for committing those crimes; that the potential loss of life is too great a price to pay for a reactive approach to terror crime. That’s why we are dropping missiles on the heads of terror suspects abroad, why we tortured men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and why we can’t close Guantanamo Bay. This shift in focus– from punishment to prevention, from the reactive to the proactive– has sorely tested the Constitution. And it explains virtually every official act in the war on terror since the Twin Towers fell.
Yet, evidently, its a concept that has no bearing on the gun debate. Since 9/11, the Brady Campaign tells us, there have been an estimated 334,168 gun deaths* in the United States, a figure that includes homicides, suicides, and unintentional shooting deaths. The total is 100 times larger than the toll of September 11, 2001. Each year, since that day, approximately 30,000 people have been killed by firearms in America. Yet there has been no cry for state or federal policies of prevention over punishment, no loud call for a proactive rather than a reactive approach to gun violence. Imagine how different America would be today if those figures tolled for acts of terrorism instead of acts of gun violence.
Since September 11, 2001, we have had not one but two United States Supreme Court rulings recognizing an individual constitutional right to bear arms. Both of these rulings, crafted by the Court’s conservative majority, were nonetheless careful to contemplate the possibility of reasonable gun regulation. But that assumes the political will to enact and implement such regulation– and also to enforce existing gun regulations in an efficient and aggressive way. How many lives would be spared if law enforcement officials enforced existing gun laws as aggressively as they pursue the war on terror? We’ll never know the answer to that question, will we. Such enforcement will never happen.
(5) And for the other side of the debate…
(a) “The Price of Gun Control“, Dan Baum (author of author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip), Harper’s, 20 July 2012 — The price of gun control is very high, and we might not get much in return.
(b) The CDC is not known for its advocacy for the 2nd amendment, so this result deserves attention: “Firearms laws and the reduction of violence: A systematic review“, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, February 2005 — By the Centers for Disease Control’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services — Summary (red emphasis added):
This report presents findings about the effectiveness of firearms laws in preventing violence. Studies of the following firearms laws were included in the review: bans on specified firearms or ammunition; restrictions on firearms acquisition; waiting periods for firearms acquisition; firearms registration; licensing of firearms owners; “shall issue” carry laws that allow people who pass background checks to carry concealed weapons; child access prevention laws; zero tolerance laws for firearms in schools; and combinations of firearms laws.
The Task Force found the evidence available from identified studies was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed singly or in combination. A finding that evidence is insufficient to determine effectiveness means that we do not yet know what effect, if any, the law has on an outcome — not that the law has no effect on the outcome. This report describes how the reviews were conducted, gives detailed information about the Task Force’s findings, and provides information about research gaps and priority areas for future research.
(6) For More Information
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- The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia.
- “The right to shoot tyrants, not deer”.
- Let’s look at the Second Amendment, cutting through the myths and spin.
- Second amendment scholarship (using money to reshape America).
- Guns in the wild west: regulated, with no fears about ripping the Constitution.
A common claim of the anti-gun lobby is that the Founding Fathers never meant that individuals should be armed; they only intended for the Second Amendment to apply to a militia, such as the National Guard.
These self-proclaimed interpreters of the Constitution also ignore the Second Amendment's specific reference to "the right of the people." The fact that the "rights of the people" appears in the Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments as well--and that the courts have ruled repeatedly thatthese rights belong to individuals--matters little to them. They retreat totheir standard charge that the Founding Fathers never intendedfor the people to have the right to keep and bear arms.
Even a casual reading of our Founding Father's works would prove these foes of the Second Amendment wrong. Volumes upon volumes of articles, pamphlets, speeches, anddocuments that laid the foundation for the Bill of Rights clearly define the founders' purpose, including what they intended with the Second Amendment.
In pre-revolution America, the threats posed by a standing British army loomed large in the minds of the colonists. Resistance was widespread. In response to the dissent, the British increased their military presence. Two years later, in 1770, unarmed citizens were gunned down in the streets of Boston, in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
The Boston Massacre was the fuse that lit the powder keg of debate over the right of the people tobe armed. ironically enough, the colonists did in fact have the right to be armed under English common law. John Adams, then serving as a defense counselfor one of the British soldiers who participated in the shooting, acknowledged this in his opening argument:
Here, everyprivate person is authorized to arm himself, and on the strength of this authority, I do not deny the inhabitants had a right to arm themselves atthat time, for their defense, not for offense ....
With the courts of the time affirming the colonists' right to keep and bear arms, the British oppressors were placed between the proverbial "rock and a hard place." From that point on, quelling dissent would involve the denial of a basic right afforded all British citizens.
Nonetheless, theBritish proceeded down a path that could only lead to revolution. Not only did the British strengthen their military chokehold on Boston, they instituted a program of arms confiscation. Citizens could leave the city only upon "depositing their arms with their own magistrates."
British confiscation of arms focused the attention of our Founding Fathers on the threats posed by a standing army quartered among the people, and the necessity of having an armed citizenry to prevent the tyranny of such an occupying force.
No doubt inspired by the Boston arms confiscations, George Mason, the subsequent co-author of the Second Amendment, wrote in his Fairfax County Militia Plan:
... A well-regulated Militia, composed of the Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other Freemen was necessary to protect our ancient laws and liberty from the standing army ... And we do each of us, for ourselves respectively, promise and engage to keep a good Fire-lock in proper order & to furnish Ourselves as soon as possible with, & always keep by us, one Pound of Gunpowder, four Pounds of Lead, one Dozen Gun Flints, and a pair of Bullet Moulds, with a Cartouch Box, or powder horn, and Bag for Balls.
The anti-gun lobby devotes considerable intellectual energy to the definition of "militia" as it appears in Mason's writings. Mason, however, made a very clear distinction between a "standing army," such as a guard unit, and a "militia," composed of private citizens. The anti-gunners nevertheless claim that the militia refers to a national guard, not to the citizenry at large. To eliminate any doubt, however, Mason made his point clear in other writings as, for example, when he said, "To disarm the people [is] the best and most effectual way to enslave them."
Mason's sentiments were echoed by Samuel Adams who admonished the uneasy colonists that:
... It is always dangerous to the liberties of the people to have an army stationed among them, over which they have no control ... The Militia is composed of free Citizens. There is therefore no Danger of their making use of their power to the destruction of their own Rights, or suffering others to invade them.
In this passage, Samuel Adams further clarified Mason's thinking on the power of government in respect to the armed citizen: rights are sacred when thebeneficiaries of those rights are entrusted with their safekeeping, and have the means to do so.
Our Founding Fathers clearly understood that, once armed, Americans would defend their freedoms tothe last breath. Nowhere was this notion more evident than in Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech. The context of that oration the importance of an armed population has unfortunately been lost in today's "politically correct" anti-gun climate. Yet, Henry's words are there todefend the embattled Second Amendment. When speaking of revolution, Henry proclaimed:
They tell us that we are weak--unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? ... Willit be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? ... Three million people, armed in the holy cause of liberty ... are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against US.
Patrick Henry not only issued this warning, he acted upon it. Following the British attempt to seize armsand ammunition in Boston, and the subsequent historic skirmish at Lexington, the British seized gunpowderat Williamsburg, Virginia. The Hanover Independent Militia, led by Patrick Henry, was unable to retake thepowder, but they forced the British to pay restitution. At this point, the British denial of the colonists' right to keep and bear arms became the driving force behind the armed resistance.
This fundamental right--the importance of an American's ability to defend his liberties--became the principal argument of our Founding Fathers for independence. Following the "shot heard round the world" at Lexington, Thomas Jefferson penned these words in the Virginia Constitution of 1776: "... No free man shall be debarred the use of arms within his own land."
Nowhere are Jefferson's thoughts about the rights and powers of the citizenry more explicit than in the Declaration of Independence, which he had such a hand in writing: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it."
Certainly Jefferson, and his co-authors of the Declaration, preferred peaceful changes in government. But those four words "the Right of the People" state in plain language that the people have the right, must have the right, to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.
Jefferson was not alone in sounding the call to arms. Henry, Adams, Washington all called upon the colonists to arm themselves. And the call was issued to all Americans, not only landowners and freemen. Thomas Paine, renowned for his treatise, Common Sense, urged religious pacifists to take up arms in his pamphlet Thoughts onDefensive War:
... The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world not destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside ... Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them ... the weak will become a prey to the strong.
In the case of the American Revolution, however, it was the strong that became the prey of the weak. Indeed, seasoned British troops were beleaguered by the armed and resolute citizens of the colonies.
Our Founding Fathers wasted no time in attributing this victory to the right of the people to keep and bear arms. James Madison, the father of the Second Amendment, congratulated his countrymen:
Americans [have] the right and advantage of being armed unlike citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
Indeed, it was President George Washington who urged the first Congress to pass an act enrolling the entire adult male citizenry in a general militia. The father of our country further urged that "A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined."
Washington's sentiments about the militia, and who should be included in the militia in the infant United States, were echoed by George Mason in the debate on the ratification of the Constitution before the Virginia Assembly: "I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials."
"Except for a few public officials." With these six words, George Mason made explicit his deep-set belief that the individual armed citizen was the key to protection against government excesses and in defense of freedom.
James Madison expanded on this point in The Federalist Papers, number 46, where he downplayed the threat of seizure of authority by a federal army, because such a move would be opposed by "a militia amounting to half a million men."
In 1790, since the population of the United States was about 800,000, Madison wasn't referring to state reserves. By militia, Madison obviously meant every able-bodied man capable of bearing arms. This, undoubtedly, was also the meaning of "militia" when the Second Amendment was written.
Across the nation, Federalists echoed our Founding Fathers' insistence that the right to keep and bear arms become part of the Constitution. In a pamphlet advocating Pennsylvania's ratification of the Constitution, patriot and statesman Noah Webster declared:
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword, because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.
Not only did our Founding Fathers focus their debate on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, they devoted considerable energy to issuing a warning to future generations that the battle to defend these freedoms will take precedence over all other work.
It was Patrick Henry at the Virginia convention on the ratification of the Constitution who articulated the necessity of guarding the rights of an armed citizenry.
Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect every one who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are mined.
And James Madison, in the National Gazette, January 19, 1792:
Liberty and order will never be perfectly safe until a trespass on the Constitutional provisions for either, shall be felt with the same keenness that resents an invasion of the dearest rights.
Unfortunately, the invasion of our dearest rights is taking place today. As this book goes to press, there are sixteen gun-ban bills before the United States Congress, and hundreds more before the state legislatures and city councils. The politicians, in the name of fighting crime, are attacking the sacred constitutional rights of law-abiding American citizens. Today, it is politically correct to ignore the Founding Fathers and their clear intent. For the sake of political expediency, the anti-gun lobby, the anti-gun media, and the anti-gun politicians, including the [former] president [Clinton], have twisted, tangled, and reinterpreted their words. The anti-gunners would do well to pay heed to the words of Benjamin Franklin:
They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neitherliberty not safety.
Unfortunately, a large part of this tragedy-the wanton disregard of our essential liberties-can be laid at the feet of Americans who have not taken action to protect their freedoms. To quote C.S. Lewis: "We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst."
Every American must leap to the defense of his or her liberties. We must answer, word for word, the vicious attacks that pour out from the TV screen and newspaper pages around the country. We must attend town meetings in protest and we must hold our elected officials accountable. We must not allow them to misinterpret our Founding Fathers directives. Then, and only then, will freedom be safe for future generations.
In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed-else like a flower cut from its lifegiving roots, it will wither and die."
The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms
Columnist Don Shoemaker dismisses as "idiocy" the belief that the Second Amendment prevents government from banning guns.
Leonard Larsen of Scripps-Howard News Service says "only gun nut simpletons [and] NRA propagandists ... defend against gun controls on constitutional grounds."
Such rhetoric, including the suggestion that the constitutional right to keep and bear arms applies only to the state militia and National Guard, is commonly heard in the media's anti-gun campaign.
Some columnists, however, are willing to concede that their views on the Second Amendment don't square with scholarship on the issue. In a column in the Washington Post, March 21,1991, George Will wrote concerning Sanford Levinson's Yale Law Journal article, "The Embarrassing Second Amendment":
The National Rifle Association is perhaps correct and certainly is plausible in its "strong" reading of the Second Amendment protection of private gun ownership. Therefore gun control advocates who want to square their policy preferences Constitution should squarely face the need to deconstitutionalize the subject by repealing the embarrassing amendment.
Anti-gun lawyer-activist Michael Kinsley, co-host on CNN's "Crossfire" and formerly editor-in-chief of the New Republic, regularly calls for gun control and proudly holds membership in Handgun Control, Inc. But in an op-ed article in the Washington Post, January 8, 1990, Kinsley wrote:
Unfortunately, there is the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
The purpose of the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee was pretty clearly to protect political discourse. But liberals reject the notion that free speech is therefore limited to political topics, even broadly defined. True, that purpose is not inscribed in the amendment itself. But why leap to the conclusion that a broadly worded constitutional freedom ("the right of the people to keep and bear arms") is narrowly limited by its stated purpose, unless you're trying to explain it away? My New Republic colleague Mickey Kaus says that if liberals interpreted the Second Amendment the way they interpret the rest of the Bill of Rights, there would be law professors arguing that gun ownership is mandatory. [Emphasis added.]
Despite an occasional admission that the Second Amendment means what it says, many columnists, with little or no understanding of the roots of the Constitution, rush to embrace a view that finds virtually no support among high-ranking constitutional scholars.
According to an article in the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution summarizing Second Amendment literature in 1986, of the thirty-six law review articlespublished since 1980, only four support the anti-gun position, while thirty-two articles support the individual right position advocated by the National Rifle Association.
The individual rights authors include leading constitutional scholars who dont own guns and who "never expected or desired the evidence tocrush the anti-gun position."
Professor Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas Law School, co-author of the standard law school text on the Constitution, Processes of Constitutional Decision Making, is a ACLU stalwart. In his 1989 Yale Law Journal article, cited by George Will, Professor Levinson admits his own embarrassment at having to conclude from his research thatprivate gun ownership cannot be prohibited he must have hoped to find the opposite.
Like Levinson, Yale Law Professor Akhil Amar, a visiting professor of constitutional law at Columbia University, is held in high repute byliberal constitutional scholars. Yet Amar trounces the anti-gun states right theory, emphasizing again and again that the Second Amendment guaranteestheright to arms to "the people," not"the states":
[W]hen the Constitution means "states" it says so. The ultimate right to keep and bear arms belongs to "the people," not the "states,".... Thus the "people" at the core of the Second Amendment [a]re [the] Citizens the same "We the People"who "ordain and establish" the Constitution and whose right to assemble...[is] at the core of the First Amendment.... Nowadays, it is quite common to speak loosely of the National Guard as "the state militia," but [when the Second Amendment was written] "the militia" referred to all Citizens capable of bearing arms. [Thus] "the militia" is identical to "the people".
Are these eminent constitutional scholars "gun nut simpletons, [and] NRA propagandists"? Activist Michael Kinsley doesn't think so.
After reviewing a Michigan LawReview article by Professor Don Kates, Kinsley wrote in an op-ed piece, February 8,1990, in the Washington Post:
If there is a reply, the [gun] controllers haven't made it.... Establishing that a flat ban on handguns would be [unconstitutional,] Kates builds a distressingly good case.
Kinsley is distressed because "a flat ban on handguns," preferably all guns, is precisely what he wants. His article concludes:
Gun rants are unconvincing (at least to me) in their attempts to argue that the individual right to bear arms is still as vital to freedom as it was in 1792. But the right is still there. [Emphasis added.]