The nation’s founders and constitutional authors were masterful in the art of crafting compromise and drafting constitutional principles. They were, however, prisoners of their time and limited by the facts existing and known to them. Case in point, the Constitution they fashioned made the president Commander in Chief of the “Army and Navy of the United States.” No mention of the Air Force. There were no airplanes. The only things that flew back then were birds, hot air balloons, and—with a nod to Benjamin Franklin—kites. Even so-called strict constructionists have had no apparent difficulty constitutionally recognizing the expanded US military to include the Air Force. That they get with no problem. The facts changed; military capabilities changed; the military needs of the nation changed; and no one with a brain worth two cents in change has suggested that a constitutional amendment is necessary to make the Constitution encompass those changes. Rational, contextual interpretation of the Constitution works quite satisfactorily there.
Enter the so-called debate over the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. It’s short and warrants quotation: “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.” [Emphasis added.] It was written in a time when guns were single-shot muskets. Mass murders by a lone gunman—like airplanes—did not exist. By its very terms the Amendment refers to a well regulated militia being necessary to the “security of a free State”—not the security of a free people. It was to protect the State (from someone or something—I’m coming to that), not to protect the people from the government. Whatever else you might say about the founders, they were not slouches when it came to drafting. They knew the difference between the United States and a “State,” and the difference between “State” and “people.”
Here some historical context might be helpful. When the Amendment was drafted, independence had already been won, the individual states were in place and functioning, and the founders were trying to find something to improve upon the Articles of Confederation. Now get this: there was slavery at that time, principally in southern states. Occasionally slaves would run away and, because of their living conditions and their sheer numbers, there was an abiding fear of a slave uprising. Individual states had “well regulated militias” in place for the purpose of hunting down runaways and protecting against a potential slave rebellion. That way individual slave owners didn’t have to trouble themselves with such pursuits. In short, those well regulated militias were necessary to protect the status quo. In short, the Second Amendment is a remnant of our shameful history of slavery. Happy Black History month.
Gun advocates would have us believe that the debate is about the right to go hunting or the right to self-defense from intruders. Everyone, themselves included, knows better. It’s not about either of those rights and no one has proposed anything that would compromise either of them. Gun advocates would have us believe it’s about hunting and repelling intruders not because it is, but because it expands their base of support and masks what their take on the Second Amendment is really all about.
Advocates for unrestricted access to assault weapons want the amendment to read: “Being necessary to maintain the freedom of the people from oppressive government, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” That is, of course, not what the Amendment says. Not even close.
The diehards are, in truth, anarchists. Fueled and funded by fear-mongering purveyors of guns and ammo, they are convinced that there’s a real threat of government oppression, and an armed citizenry is what will prevent it. The logical extension of that reasoning would support unfettered citizen access to weaponry equivalent to that used by the government. It is, after all, folly to take a mere knife to a gun fight, or a mere semi-automatic assault rifle to a fight against tanks, killer drones, chemicals, and tactical bombers. No wonder they argue so unapologetically for preserving unfettered access to those assault weapons. They see their position as a compromise!
It would be a baby step in the right direction if we could require background checks in 100% of lawful sales; bad guys (some of whom I’ve heard interviewed in the continuing debate) may still be able to get guns, but it will be more difficult and more expensive. If we could eliminate assault weapons and large ammo clips, I’d be willing for the government to issue a single-shot musket to every adult citizen.
The Constitution, like the Bible, should be read rationally and in context. If only gun advocates would read the Second Amendment and their Bibles with the degree of enlightenment they apply when considering the Air Force and the Constitution.
As said by James Russell Lowell: “Time makes ancient good uncouth; they would upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.”