Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The 2nd Amendment, revisited….

Many gun advocates think the 2nd Amendment  is all about “my right to own a gun, that’s it, end of story.”

They’re forgetting about the whole colonial concept of a “well regulated militia,” as opposed to a standing army.

They’re forgetting the original emphasis on non-infringement of gun ownership was explicitly tied to the obligation to turn out for service in the militia wherever and whenever needed.

Here’s the thought:
Consider that the so-called “Founding Fathers” had a broader, historically informed view. Consider that some of them weren’t so much focused on the “keep and bear arms” part as they were focused on the “well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” part.

What they had in mind was universal standby military service.

Historian Clinton Rossiter peels the contemporary dogma away from the 2nd Amendment in The Political Thought of the American Revolution: Part  Three of Seedtime of the Republic (1963). He examines a powerful consensus among the revolutionary writers in support of a people’s militia (private soldiers) for defense of the community and country, in contrast to their fear and disdain of paid troops, in what they called “standing armies.”

Of course, men like Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy Jr. and James Lovell were thinking of British redcoats when they thought of “standing armies,” and they were thinking of their fellow rebellious Americans when they thought of citizen soldiers in “well regulated militias.”

The point is: political thinkers and popular writers in the Revolutionary era explicitly believed that the obligation to actually serve in a militia was the whole rationale for defending the right to keep and bear arms. 

A private right to have guns was well established in English constitutional history and practice, as notably embodied in the English Bill of Rights in 1689.

The political thinkers and leaders of the American Revolution thought of the 2nd Amendment as the enabling doctrine to support the well regulated militia, which would be the defense of the newly independent colonies.

In other words, the obligation to serve in a militia in a time of threat or war was the whole point of loudly proclaiming an Englishman’s and an American’s right to keep and bear arms.

Josiah Quincy Jr.:
“The sword should never be in the hands of any, but those who have an interest in the safety of the community . . . Such are a well regulated militia composed of the freeholders, citizen and husbandman, who take up arms to preserve their property as individuals, and their rights as freemen.” (Rossiter, The Political Thought of the American Revolution, 126-27).

In other words, today’s gun advocates would be true to the spirit of their Revolutionary forebears if they would practice shouting “I have a right to own a gun, and I’m ready to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever I’m needed to use it in defense of America and American interests.”

OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but not much….

In Revolutionary times, the point of owning a gun wasn’t just owning it, the point was being always ready to turn out with the militia and use it against the enemy. You had a right to own a gun because you had an obligation to be a soldier.

Rossiter, Clinton. The Political Thought of the American Revolution: Part  Three of Seedtime of the Republic. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.