posted by avenger in In The News

All Guns Are Not Created Equal

January 30, 2013

Few debates in the recent past have been as contentious as the one surrounding the history of gun ownership. Once again, as the nation considers gun violence, gun rights, and gun regulation, we return to early America to shed light on the meaning of the Second Amendment.

When more than a decade ago the historian Michael A. Bellesiles wrote a controversial book claiming that Americans at the time of the Second Amendment's ratification owned few guns and were not particularly skilled at using them, he triggered a firestorm of controversy. That revisionist thesis was soon discredited for its dishonest use of historical evidence, leaving largely unchallenged the suspect counternarrative put forth by some legal scholars and the National Rifle Association.

The latter mythical history, which the U.S. Supreme Court majority swallowed whole in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) when it ruled that the "Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm," goes something like this: In early America, all adult males owned firearms; those privately owned guns armed the militia; the Second Amendment was meant to ensure an individual's right to own firearms for self-defense and as protection against tyranny. But the actual historical record is much more complicated—and more interesting.

...the Second Amendment really was about the militia. The need for it grew out of the Constitution's grant of power to the federal government for "organizing, arming, and disciplining" the state militias and the continuing need to equip them with military-style muskets.

The Second Amendment sought to reassure anti-Federalists rhetorically, but not substantively. Critics and concerned state officials feared that actions or, more likely, inactions by the federal government would frustrate efforts to supply the nation's 13 state militias—the equivalent of today's National Guard—with the period's equivalent of the M-16. Self-defense was not the issue; national defense was.

Those who crafted and ratified the Second Amendment were dealing with very different issues from those we face today. We need to move our discussions about guns beyond claims rooted in a debate over securing military muskets to arm the militia. At the same time, it is useful to be aware that even in the 18th century, citizens and lawmakers made distinctions concerning the appropriate uses of different types of firearms.

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