Friday, December 18, 2009

On the history of gun ownership in the U.S. has produced an analysis debunking the assertion in a recent chain email claiming that "Obama Finds Legal Way Around The 2nd. Amendment and Uses It." You can read the full text of this chain email on numerous sites, including The Right Movement.

This topic opens a large rabbit hole into which we could all dive and spend much time swimming around; this rabbit hole is called "the controversy over gun ownership in the U.S." I only want to dip my toes in this hole right now . . .

There is, of course, widespread contemporary socio-political controversy on the topic of gun ownership. This controversy is characterized by the chain email cited above, and is also graphically represented by clips of attendees at presidential events over summer 2009 who came equipped with sidearms (laughable, silly actions that are also quite frightening).

Historians have weighed-in on the issue. Dr. Michael A. Bellesiles wrote a book back in 2000 that purported to undermine present-day arguments about the inviolate Second Amendment by showing that gun ownership in the U.S. during the late Colonial and early Republic period was much less important than gun advocates claim. However, once other scholars had the opportunity to investigate Bellesiles' claims, they found that his research contained an extraordinary amount of factual and interpretive errors, seemingly constructed to put forward a particular ideological agenda.(Here's an article on the History News Network about this case, and here's a Wikipedia synopsis.)

In 2003, H. Richard Uviller and William G. Merkel published a book on the topic, The Militia and the Right to Bear Arms, Or, How the Second Amendment Fell Silent. I haven't read this book yet but I have read some reviews. Daniel Smith's review of this book finds the following:

Smith calls this book "the definitive description of the militia in American history, culture and political theory. . . This book is top-notch constitutional history and masterful in its melding of history and legal argument. The authors go well beyond discussion of the founding documents into the republican roots of the citizen militia and the meaning of the right to 'keep and bear arms' in seventeenth century England. They meticulously avoid superimposing contemporary understandings of these terms in their analysis."

Smith identifies the book's thesis as composed of two parts. First, "although the 2nd Amendment did create a personal right to 'keep and bear arms,' it did so only insofar as private arms were needed to maintain a citizen militia. The basis for the right is the collective, republican concept of the citizen militia, and the primary objective of enshrining the militia in the Bill of Rights was to guard against the dangers of a standing professional army. Moreover, the phrase 'keep and bear arms' had distinctly military connotations leading up to and including the founding era, and there is remarkably little evidence of an individualist right to possess guns, even in the anti-federalist literature. However, the authors do not entirely eschew the individualist interpretation of the Amendment; the 'right of the people' was, they believe, intended to vest the ownership and possession of arms in the potential militia members—(white male) citizens.

Second, Smith writes that "because the citizen militia withered away as an institution long ago and has no contemporary successor, the conditions for the right to keep and bear arms, even as an individualist right, no longer exists. The local militia was already giving way to the . . . professional army at the time of the Revolution. . . . Today, the National Guard is equipped by the government and in virtually all respects serves as an adjunct to the professional army. Nor are there any other plausible substitutes for the extinct citizen militia that would serve to animate the 2nd Amendment. . . . Private citizen militias, according to the authors, are a threat to the founding era collectivist notion of the militia rather than a legacy of that tradition. Therefore, as a matter of constitutional law, the 2nd Amendment is irrelevant today. To the individualists, who read the Amendment as a personal right to possess firearms, rather than merely a collective right to organize into militias, the authors’ message is not quite the typical 'you are wrong,' but rather 'you were right, sort of, a long time ago, but today you’re wrong.'"

In an email that went around back in April regarding the Blair Holt Firearm Licensing & Record of Sales Act of 2009, I replied:

"I don't oppose all aspects of this bill, actually. I think it would be a positive thing if this country were to have an open conversation on these kinds of issues related to firearms, rather than continuing to have polarized reactions."

"I don't see it as a _flagrant_ violation of the constitution, either. When considered in the context of the times, the second amendment is not as clear-cut as some firearms advocates like to portray. Also, I don't buy the "strict constructionist" view of the Constitution that some firearms advocates like to use, because under such interpretations women don't get to vote at all, African Americans are only considered 3/5 of a person for voting purposes, voters don't get to vote for Senators, etc. etc."

"BUT, I don't think anything like this will ever pass. I think there are two subjects that a certain section of the population will always push and another segment always oppose, and these are sweeping gun control and restricting a woman's freedom to choose an abortion. Such measures will continue to serve to rile these segments of the population, but they'll never pass, because to do so would cause a shitfirestorm of activism from the other side that would significantly reconfigure the political balance in this country."

What are your thoughts & interpretations on this issue?

Here's a review of Robert Churchill's article "Gun Ownership in Early America" from the William and Mary Quarterly (2003), written by William G. Merkel.



  1. You said: "and these are sweeping gun control and restricting a woman's freedom to choose an abortion. Such measures will continue to serve to rile these segments of the population, but they'll never pass, because to do so would cause a shitfirestorm of activism from the other side that would significantly reconfigure the political balance in this country."

    James, As an historian you should recall that not only CAN the US government, without notice, deprive a designated segment of the populace from owning guns (read about Native American reservations), or confine them to camps for the good of the country (read about WWII Japanese-American internments) but for several centuries it was completely illegal for a woman to have an abortion. In fact, as you have written, women's rights were pretty much non-existent. In my short life as a newspaper reporter, I had to fight for the right of Lincoln County working women to wear pantsuits merely because 'corporate men" found it less attractive than short skirts and high heels. It doesn't take anything more in this country than for a man, or a severely misguided woman in power, to decide that something is important enough to bypass our "Constitutional Rights" for that right to be abolished, secretly and instantly. Activists are enamored of our ability to make changes, or to stop changes, but if we were really that successful, the marching in the streets would have stopped the bloodshed in Iraq when W was president!

  2. Good point, Grace. In my original post, my logic was that the contemporary political balance seems to be that the Dems won't push to pass sweeping gun ownership changes as long as the Repubs won't push to outlaw abortions officially. I heard this bit of logic somewhere and it seemed feasible to me -- probably on NPR.

    I wrote the thought in the context of things that those on the right & left talk about to get their respective bases riled up for one cause or another on election day. I was thinking of it in terms of the classic European balance of power in that the groups will rattle their swords and puff out their chests, but when it really comes down to it neither will make the final move because that would really open up a can of worms.

    So, in this instance, I was stepping outside of my area of expertise by talking about current political affairs as if I was a pundit and actually knew what I was talking about.

    Regarding your examples of the U.S. Gov't taking away Americans' civil rights, those are definitely clear examples. Not quite apropos to the point I was making, however, in this regard: I was trying to make a broad statement about the mass bases of both left and right that will be riled by these threats, and the examples you cite are -- largely & quite lamentably -- not fully understood or even perceived by most Americans because they happened to a relatively small segment of society and/or they happened way, way, way long ago (like the last century, dude).

    Here's a fitting commentary on the state of our civil rights by the Right Honorable Reverend George Carlin.