With the Newtown shooting and the subsequent discussion of the changes in gun control laws there has been an inordinate amount of discussion, and much of this discussion is based on wrong premises. This is an attempt to clarify what some of those errors are.
I’ll be writing several entries here to set straight a number of bizarre notions floated by the right which characterize a series of strawmen, red herrings, and outright misrepresentations of both present day reality and history.
In the first entry I’d like to address the very foundation of most of their arguments, as it’s a fundamentally flawed and serious misrepresentation of the 2nd Amendment.
The modern interpretation by the right is now that the 2nd Amendment was written to protect the citizenry from a tyrannical government. Nothing could be further from the truth—in fact the polar opposite is closer to the truth than this.
This “Insurrection Theory” is the root of the present day arguments of the 2nd Amendment, and it goes against both logic and history.
Insurrection Theory states that the 2nd Amendment was included because the founders had learned through their own history that nothing could defeat a well-armed citizenry. They had learned from the Revolutionary War, and the so-called, “Minutemen” that an ardent and motivated citizenry, in desperation of defending their own rights, would defeat any standing army.
Because of this understanding, the gun advocates argue, the founders saw fit to install the second amendment as a safeguard to the other essential liberties. Should a tyrannical government step too far the citizenry could rise up and put down the over-stretching government.
There are several problems with the line of reasoning.
First among them, the founders had no such understanding. In fact what they’d learned from the Revolution was the exact opposite of what they claim. The Revolutionary fighters were composed of two groups, the Continental Armies, and the militia, composed of civilian, voluntary fighters.
The latter was an enormous failure. The militia had problems getting drunk, often even on the battle field. Some would even drink to the point of passing out. They would fire their guns in camp, often inuring or killing their own troops. They easily deserted and/or surrendered. They were far from a lethal fighting force.
Things got to the point that the only thing that could be done was to sandwich the militia between two divisions of Continental forces left with orders to shoot the first deserter. The only hope was to make the militia more fearful of their own forces than the opposing forces.
While some will argue that this is “revisionist history” the reality is that the current version of the heroic minuteman standing guard for nothing more than liberty and freedom is the revised version. Earlier history books tend towards a more negative view of the militias. It’s only in the last 50 years that the heroic version has been embraced.
It is little secret that George Washington despised them, their lack of training, and their even greater lack of discipline. Washington wrote,
“The militia . . . are dismayed, intractable and impatient to return home. Great numbers have gone off, in some instances by whole regiments."That’s hardly indicative of learning the effectiveness of militias.
The militia did help to win the Revolution, but it wasn’t as pretty or noble as some today want it to sound. The degree of impact they had, and lessons learned by the Founders from it, are greatly exaggerated.
It certainly didn’t provide for the “lesson” that militias work. It proved to the founders that the ideal of the militia as a replacement for a standing army was a foolish notion.
That’s why when the delegates gathered for the Philadelphia Convention, they determined in the original Constitution, in the first article, to give the federal government the right to establish and maintain a standing army.
Logically, if they felt that the best defense of the nation was left in the hands of an armed and motivated militia, then why would they not include that in the original document, rather than establish a standing army?
The very fact that the right to raise a standing army is in the original document, and the 2nd Amendment is only just that—an amendment—indicates that the founders felt the security of our nation was best left in the hands of a standing army, not in the hands of the militia.
Yes, there are all kinds of quotes which can be found on the Internet which indicate that the founders felt the militia were needed to overcome tyranny but there are three things to bear in mind.
First, not everything you read on the Internet is necessarily true. There are a number of bogus quotes which can’t be found in any historical writings.
Second, many of the quotes were prior to revolution, meaning the learning from the revolution wasn’t included.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, they were no more of a single mind then they are today.
There wasn’t a single-mindedness about the need of a militia. There were many different ideas and many different motivations behind why people wanted it. Some were more in favor of it than others, and some wanted it for very different reasons that purported to day.
Why we do have it will be the subject of the next entry. This is concerned with the fallacious and misguided arguments about why we have it.
The notion that somehow the 2nd Amendment was included to ensure that the government wouldn’t become tyrannical is a myth, which expressly contradicts the very intent of the new government.
This is clear both through the writings of the time and the immediate history of the times.
Prior to proving this though, let’s analyze the argument. In essence what people are arguing is that, should “the people” decide that a government has grown to large or domineering, i.e. “tyrannical,” they can rise up and overthrow it. (There's another discussion to be had here, but we'll leave that to another entry).
For example, in the first paragraph of Federalist Paper No. 29, Alexander Hamilton writes,
“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.”He concludes that same paper saying,
“In times of insurrection, or invasion, it would be natural and proper that the militia of a neighboring State should be marched into another, to resist a common enemy, or to guard the republic against the violence of faction or sedition. This was frequently the case, in respect to the first object, in the course of the late war; and this mutual succor is, indeed, a principal end of our political association. If the power of affording it be placed under the direction of the Union, there will be no danger of a supine and listless inattention to the dangers of a neighbor, till its near approach had superadded the incitements of self-preservation to the too feeble impulses of duty and sympathy.”In other words Hamilton is arguing the need for a militia for the exact opposite reason that the gun advocates would have you believe. The militia is a safeguard against invasion or insurrection or invasion, not a safeguard for it.
In fact he’s even arguing that if there is an insurrection in one state, the federal government can use its power to march a militia from one state to another to put it down.
Lest someone argue that this is mere liberal spin, then bear in mind in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, the militia was ordered by President George Washington to do precisely that. Burdened with what they felt were unfair taxes, farmers rebelled and rose up in arms in Pennsylvania.
Washington ordered the militias from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to put it down, and they did. When the 13,000 troops arrived, the 500 insurgents went home. (As an interesting aside, President Washington literally led the troops, riding at the front!)
This characterizes two points:
First it characterizes the intent of the amendment was clearly not to fight against some tyrannical, over-taxing government as the right would have you believe. If it were, those very same founders who included it wouldn’t have utilized it in a manner the precise opposite of how they intended it.
Second, it illustrates the foolishness of the argument. When push comes to shove, how is a ragtag group of angry farmers going to suddenly overthrow a standing army? And a quick reminder, it was the standing army which defeated Britain’s standing army, not the ragtag group of farmers.
Another point worth making here is that it insults the intelligence of the founders. They built in many safeguards into the Constitution to prevent the Federal government form becoming tyrannical. It built in a separation of powers, a balance of powers, a chambered Congress and a means for the Constitution to be amended.
In fact the 2nd Amendment is an amendment. The very existence of it is proof that the Constitution works.
But this whole notion also suggests an idiocy on the part of the framers, arguing on the one hand providing for a power of the Federal government to put down insurgencies, and on the other providing the states with the rights to raise militia to fight against the Federal government’s standing army.
Why we do have a 2nd Amendment and how it came about will be the subject of the next entry.
1:07 PM PT: Guns