It comes as no surprise that following the tragic mass shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school last month that some gun advocates would rather fight than switch, or at least mollify their position on perceived absolutes about the 2nd amendment. Following the lead of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre I read this response to a letter-to-the-editor post I submitted last month
It looks like some people are having trouble with reading comprehension. The words, “shall not be infringed,” mean not messed with ever, to infinity and beyond. – John Harazda
The absurdity that man-made laws are unalterable “to infinity and beyond” appears lost on Mr. Harazda. Also lost in this concept is the belief that new technology and future societal conditions were incorporated into the original statement. And lastly, can an infringement occur if you’re allowed one form of firearm that essentially meets the standard of the amendment while being denied ownership of other types of guns?
I understand how hard it is for some people to really study the history they claim to know so much about but a cursory review of events around the time the Constitution was being contemplated reveals that such a rigid notion of the 2nd amendment is hardly credible.
Like many others in 18th century America, William Rawe an American lawyer in Philadelphia, who in 1791 was appointed as United States district attorney in Pennsylvania, supported the right for people other than the aristocracy to own guns and viewed the second clause of the Second Amendment as a general prohibition preventing governments to “disarm the people.”
However, Rawe’s did warn that “this right [to bear arms] ought not…be abused to the disturbance of the public peace” and observed, paraphrasing British jurist Sir Edward Coke, that “[a]n assemblage of persons with arms, for unlawful purpose, is an indictable offence, …” This clearly sets the stage for allowing conditions by which the government can “infringe” on who shall possess guns.
Alleging it’s the people’s right, as Jefferson remarked, to refresh “the tree of liberty … from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants” may sound good to disgruntled fanatics who failed to remove President Obama through our legal processes, but it is not something that can be historically justified as Rawe’s comments attest to and as George Washington’s successful attempt in August of 1794 to put down the Whiskey Rebellion substantiated.
It should be duly noted too that the Jefferson quote about the “tree of liberty” referenced Shay’s Rebellion, which occurred while the Articles of Confederation were still the law of the land. Jefferson was safely ensconced in Paris at the time, serving as our ambassador to France, away from any threat of violence at home. His sense of rebellion was likely more enamored than his fellow citizens as he reflected on the huge victory such actions had for the American colonists several years earlier over the great British empire.
This rebellion was not the result of government tyrants but instead was aimed at civil authorities pressured by the merchant class to cut off credit to poorer farmers and demand instead hard currency for debts owed them. This form of crony capitalism is still with us today in ever larger contexts yet there are those who would mislead the public as they strive to reduce our representative government to a size that could be drowned in a bath tub, making room for a plutocracy that some wealthy types vigorously support.
People who like to avail themselves of the “original intent” view of what the Constitution means often cite those sources that lend credibility to their claims of private ownership. But in forming the wording to the 2nd amendment it might be note worthy from an original intent mind-set that some of our earliest political leaders viewed arming its citizens as part of a “well-regulated militia” – not separately and privately as noted in the Journal of the Senate, p. 63 in 1789
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person. SOURCE
In just these brief historical insights we can see that there are strong indications that the words “shall not be infringed” meant something other than what we are led to believe by the anti-government crowd today. Those people who would have us provide more deadly weapons to all citizens rather than imposing a few sane restrictions regarding types of firearms and who is eligible and qualified to possess such destructive fire power.
If we are to presume that the words in the 2nd amendment “shall not be infringed” are to be taken without qualification, then one could legitimately argue that anyone shall not be denied the right to possess such firearms, including children, mentally ill people and of course criminals. Yet even back then it was clear that some infringements on who was to own a weapon and of what nature were spelled out.
On May 8, 1792, Congress passed “[a]n act more effectually to provide for the National Defence, by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States” requiring:
[E]ach and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia…[and] every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear, so armed, accoutred [sic] and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. SOURCE
Notice in the parts of this statement that I emphasized how only white male citizens were eligible to be a part of a “well-regulated militia” – not women, slaves or non-citizens – and that the weapon and types of ammunition were specific. This of course made sense back then because though the words of the 2nd amendment about their right to bear arms shall not be infringed, they were cognizant of the fact that not any and everyone qualified under this definition and that there were limitations to what was expected under this right. This also should put to rest the silly notion by some defenders of “original intent” that simply because the Constitution doesn’t say it doesn’t mean it’s exempt.
So it seems to me that if these sensible men could infringe on certain people’s right back then as they saw fit, we ought to be allowed to do the same today. The right to own a weapon to feel secure in your home today is not at risk of being taken away as some of the fringe element would have us believe. Nor is the right to own a suitable firearm for such security purposes or the right to own a hunting rifle.
Beyond this however is the manufactured belief, fostered by the for-profit gun industry and their handmaidens at the National Rifle Association (NRA), that an infringement of the 2nd amendment means more than the essential components spelled out by the founding fathers. The notion that each individual could have their own destructive arsenal lacks any credibility in the historical record.
By allowing easy access to such weapons through loop holes in the existing gun laws and tying the hands of law enforcement with a hyperbolic version of what the original intent of the 2nd amendment represented, our civilized society has been falsely led to believe that if our representative government restricts some guns and their enhanced capabilities to kill more people quicker, that we are somehow canceling out, en toto, the 2nd amendment of the Constitution. A scare tactic that has persisted too long and as a result has led to the innocent deaths of men, women and children whose own sense of freedom was cut short by those obsessed with gun ownership in this country.
Strident 2nd amendment advocates should also take note of ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice Anton Scalia’s words in the landmark court ruling of District of Columbia v Heller where he reminded people that where the “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”, neither is it unlimited. “It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The 2nd amendment and the current issues surrounding it, in light of the explosion in assault weapons ownership and mass shootings around the country, can hardly be dispensed with such simple-minded retorts like Mr. Harazda’s above. Such shallow and self-serving perceptions are humorously played out in this Chris Rock video.
And for the record, those gun advocates who like to give Jefferson’s “blood of patriots and tyrants” quote primacy, here’s another thought of his that has equal credibility and could well prove to be a lot less violent.
Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. - Thomas Jefferson in a letter to E.I. DuPont (24 April 1816).