The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia
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.
The graph is by Kieran Healy. Click to enlarge. The source is in section 4.
- About the Second Amendment
- Alexander Hamilton speaks to us
- Fake advice from Thomas Jefferson
- More information about guns in America – pro-gun control
- And for the other side of the debate …
- About our eroding rights. One by one we throw them away.
(1) About the Second Amendment
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.
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.
(d) Update: 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).
- America Is a Violent Country — Source of the graph at the top.
- Assault Deaths Within the United States
(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) Other posts about guns in America
- The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia,24 July 2012
- Yet another mass killing in America. Watch the reactions on the Right, and learn., 17 December 2012
- “The right to shoot tyrants, not deer”, 11 January 2013
- But Hitler confiscated guns, leaving Germans helpless!, 11 January 2013
- Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?, 14 January 2013
- Let’s look at the Second Amendment, cutting through the myths and spin, 15 January 2015
- Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West, 16 January 2013
- Second amendment scholarship (using money to reshape America), 19 January 2013
- Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research., 23 January 2013
- Guns in the wild west: regulated, with no fears about ripping the Constitution, 25 January 2013