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The Second Amendment Fantasy and How Americans Have Been Taken InDaniel Johnson Salem-News.com
People who advocate for concealed and assault weapons make up an anti-government segment of society.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - The Second Amendment has evolved into an emotional issue par excellence that has divided American society. But the underlying issues are not about guns but about fear—on two levels.
The first level, which goes back to the beginning, is a fear of government which was legitimate in the 18th century, but hasn’t been applicable since then. A lot of Americans may have missed the news, but King George is dead.
The second level is about fear of other people which can evolve into full blown paranoia, but at its basis is mildly paranoiac itself. Every person walking down the street towards you, may want to do you harm—so have a gun.
Or there is the possibility that someone may break into your home while you are sleeping—so have a gun.
The fear-based possibilities are endless—so have a gun.
I’ve taken the text and the argument below from Garry Wills’ 1999 book A Necessary Evil.
Origin of the NRA and the myth of the Frontier West
“In 1871, two Union army veterans, William Conant Church and George C. Wingate, set up the National Rifle Association, to encourage soldiers to improve their marksmanship with the latest expertise about guns. They held shooting contests between the army and the National Guard (established in 1879), awarding prizes and distributing educational material on weapons development. There was a close alliance between the NRA and the National Guard Association. That union was reflected in the declaration of principles enumerated by the National Guardsman of 1877: ‘We believe in rifle practice as an important element of National Guard education.’”1
It’s important to understand that the NRA did not have its origin in any public or citizen participation at all. At the beginning, it was clearly understood that the Second Amendment referred to a defensive militia and was totally unrelated to ordinary citizens having weapons.
The title of the NRA is also important—it was a rifle association. The rifle was the most effective, reliable and used weapon of the time.
“In general, the settlement of the West was not a matter of individuals going off into the wilds. The modern frontier was marked by the advance of a technologically more sophisticated culture into a backward one. The technology of the western settlers—in mining and drilling equipment and expertise, railroad expansion, cavalry intelligence and maneuver, coordination of market information by telegraph, and a steady influx of manufactured goods—was at the core of settlement.”2
“Although raw settlements did have unstable conditions at the outset, especially when in conflict with Indian, Mexican or renegade groups, there was a massive social effort to quell those conditions as rapidly as possible. That is why Prohibition, gun control and women’s suffrage were pioneered in the West. The most successful settlements were the most regimented (the Mormons were outstanding in this regard). Social institutions—churches, schools, newspapers, libraries, theaters, and ‘opera houses’—were introduced and supported by business interests and communal discipline. The federal government supported the whole enterprise with land grants, subsidies to the railroads, and maintenance of the army’s logistical trains. Fiction is full of violent struggles when tracts of territory were thrown open to settlers making a run to stake their claims. When fifteen thousand people made the run into Oklahoma Territory, on the day when it was declared open in 1889, newspaper stories told of shootings, claim jumping, and bloodshed around Guthrie, the ‘instant town’ where claims were recorded. But no one was killed or even wounded.”2
As W. Eugene Hollon wrote in Frontier Violence: Another Look (1974): “Within thirty-six hours after everyone had arrived at the ‘Magic City’ on the Prairie, this heterogeneous mob had elected a mayor and a council of five members, adopted a city charter, and authorized the collection of a head tax. Within a week, Baptists and Methodists, and Presbyterians were holding church service in tents and planning the construction of permanent church buildings….Six months passed before Oklahoma Territory recorded its first homicide.”3
“Much of the violent death rate in the West, as in the rest of the country was caused by the problem of all technologically advanced societies, the industrial accident, whether in mines or in railroad construction and operation. If one wanted to live a really dangerous life, the place to be was not on a cattle town street, facing a bad guy with a gun; it was in a mine, where slides, fires and explosions gave you a fifty-fifty chance of being killed on the job if you stayed at it.”3
“As for railroad safety at the time, 433 men died laboring at railroad couplings in 1893—143 more than died on both sides at Little Big Horn, the bloodiest by far of the cavalry's battles with Indians.
“The myth of frontier individualism—of the man whose gun made him his own master, free and untrammelled—dies hard. What is excitement for the movies is ideology for the National Rifle Association, which thinks gun control would destroy the spirit that made America great. But the gun did not tame the West. The West had to tame the gun.” 4
The NRA and Second Amendment
“Until recently the Second Amendment was a little-visited area of the Constitution. A two thousand-page commentary on the Constitution put out by the Library of Congress in 1973 has copious annotation for most clauses, but less than a page and a half for the Second Amendment. There has been only one significant Second Amendment case decided by the Supreme Court—United States v. Miller in 1939, where the National Firearms Act was upheld against a man who claimed that the amendment allowed him to keep and bear a sawed-off shotgun. The Court declared that a sawed-off shotgun is not a militia weapon.
“We have seen that there has been a recent spurt of academic interest in the amendment as guaranteeing a right of military revolution. But even before that, the National Rifle Association had launched an ardent campaign to argue that the amendment applies to private ownership of guns. This involved a historic reversal of the NRA’s purpose. The NRA was launched in conjunction with the National Guard, and was devoted to military marksmanship. Now the NRA denounces the National Guard, as not in any case a real militia, and says that the real purpose of the Second Amendment was to guarantee citizens the right to own and use guns. Chronologically, the fearful assertion of a need for self-protection came out of the Cold War, which academic insurrectionism came out of the radical 1960's. The two have latterly joined forces, however, since the idea of a revolutionary purpose appealed to the anti-governmental instincts of those already defending the personal ownership of guns.
“The case for Madison’s sponsorship of an amendment devoted to private gun ownership is based on very slim historical materials, which have been spread and distorted in a wondrous way. We saw in Chapter 7 that there was a flood of argument about the militia as the object of a bill of rights—argument to be found in the ratification debates, in the recommendations for a bill of rights sent on to the Congress after ratification, and in the record of the amendment’s passage. Since the amendment did not get rid of the standing army, people to whom the NRA likes to quote, like Patrick Henry, lost interest in the amendment. (If Henry had all along been calling for individual possession, and if that is in fact what the amendment guarantees, then he should have been very happy with it and supportive.)
“Against all this material from the debates over militias, the new NRA can muster only one clear reference to private ownership from the ratification debates and only one argument from the drafting of the amendment. Not much there, in either quantity or quality, since each of the two items is questionable.
“Take the reference from the ratification debates. At the last minute, before the Pennsylvania convention voted to ratify the Constitution, a delegate named Robert Whitehill filed a list of fifteen changes to be made to the document, reducing it to even less authority than as granted in the Articles of Confederation.
[The Dictionary of American Biography says] In the convention he resorted to every device to delay and defeat ratification. He insisted that there were inadequate safeguards against a tyranny and on the day of ratification attempted, without avail, to have fifteen articles incorporated as a bill of rights.
“The items on the list were never discussed in the convention, which went on to approve the Constitution. Five days after that vote, Samuel Bryan, who had not been a delegate in the convention, assembled some quickly obtained and miscellaneous objections to the Constitution—including Whitehill’s list, along with some things that contradicted it—and published them under the misleading title The Dissent of the Minority of the Convention, under which title the NRA defenders cite it. Whitehill deals with guns in three of his fifteen headings. Article 8 begins: ‘The inhabitants of the several states shall have liberty to fowl and hunt in seasonable times….’ But the passage the NRA people like best is from article 7: ‘That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purposes of killing game…’ (emphasis added). From this we are to conclude that this one man, who could not even get a discussion of his points started in the convention, is explaining to us the meaning of the Second Amendment, drafted by Madison who was in total disagreement with every other thing in Whitehill’s list (which returned total sovereignty to the states and reduced the federal jurisdiction to extra-state relations). This violates the Jeffersonian maxim that we should expound a document’s meaning from those who approve it, not those who disapproved.”5
Yet the NRA “continue[s] to dignify Whitehill’s odd document as the controlling authority over what the Second Amendment means”.
“They have even less call to call on the debates in the framing of the Second Amendment. Here they must rely on an argument from omission. While the Senate discussed the phrasing of the proposed amendment, ‘It was moved to insert the words “for the common defense” [after ‘bear arms’], but the motion was not successful’. The record does not say why the motion was rejected, but Stephen Halbrook (often cited by the NRA people) is certain that he knows. For him, ‘common defense’ means ‘for military purposes’, showing that the amendment was meant to include non-military matters (i.e., private use). That is a very circuitous argument from what was not said, and it falls before the simple fact that ‘for the common defense’ had a fixed legal meaning for the drafters. It was used in the Articles of Confederation to mean ‘for the joint action of the states,’ not (as Halbrook would maintain) ‘for any military use at all’. Including the phrase would have given the state militias the power to bear arms only in conjunction with other states—which was clearly not the aim. Again, the little evidence at hand had to be drastically misread to give the NRA folk any pretense that private ownership came up in the drafting process.
“There, in all its nakedness, is the historical argument for taking the Second Amendment to refer to private gun possession and use. To supplement its obvious inadequacies, NRA proponents turn to philology, examining the language of the Second Amendment. But if they are inadequate as historians, they are ludicrous as philologists, as one can see from the way they treat the term ‘bear arms’.”6
“Desperate for examples of ‘bear arms’ in a non-military sense, the NRA’s representatives resort to metaphorical or extended meanings. They bring up Whitehill’s ‘right to bear arms for the defense of themselves’, downplaying the fact that the sentence continues ‘and their own state and the United States.’ The word ‘bear’ goes with all these objects, by the rhetorical figure called zeugma, even though it may not be proper to each one individually. The same is true of the Pennsylvania constitution’s Declaration, Article XIII: ‘The people have the right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state. Or they mention Tench Coxe’s ‘bear their private arms,’ though we saw in Chapter 17 that he meant ‘private arms’ only used in militia service.
(Zeugma is rhetorical term where the use of a word to modify or govern two or more other words, when it is appropriate to only one of them or is appropriate to each but in a different way, as in: to wage war and peace or: On his fishing trip, he caught three trout and a cold.)
“The tactic of the private ownership interpreters is to ransack any document, no matter how distant from the ratification debates, in the hope that someone, somewhere, ever used ‘bear arms’ in a non-military way, as if that would change the overwhelming body of military usage. That body of usage is enough to show that Madison must have meant the term in its normal sense unless he gave an explicit statement otherwise, or put the term in a clearly unmilitary context. Did he do that? Far from it. The context of the amendment as he drafted it is clearly military:
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”7
“History, philology, and logic furnish no solid basis for thinking the Second Amendment has anything to do with the private ownership of guns. Those who believe there is a natural right to own guns can argue their case on many grounds—natural right, for a start—and the arguments might be sound or strong. It is just not a constitutional right (many of our rights are not constitutional ones). Why, then, does the NRA search so feverishly for a constitutional argument that eludes them? After all, many of the people who are devoted to the Second Amendment (as they construe it) are not such great lovers of other parts of the Constitution (like the Article I guarantees of the right to raise and renew armies or to federalize militias). Some even say, with Charlton Heston, that this one short text is worth all the rest of the document. These are people who generally distrust government. Then why do they need a governmental basis for their activities?
“Sanford Levinson gives away the reason when he says that flooding our society with guns is more difficult to defend on other grounds—of prudence, say, or safety, or social amity. But just as the First Amendment forces us to put up with speech that might otherwise be considered destructive or obnoxious, we have to put up with our gun culture because the Constitution tells us to. But it doesn’t.”7
People who advocate for the right to carry weapons—including concealed and assault—make up an anti-government segment of society. As Wills writes:
“Some withdrawers from the government think of themselves as forming an alternative society, a one-person or one-sect government in exile—the internal exile of those too good for the gamey doings of power. This kind of purist usually puts great emphasis on individualism. The extreme position would lead to anarchism, but most advocates of purism settle for some form of libertarianism.”8
The contradiction within libertarianism is that it is an anti-social philosophy intent on making it difficult for the majority of Americans to live quietly in a social setting—“in pursuit of happiness". Libertarians and their ilk want to destroy all social meaning that the society at large wants. The spiritual leader of the libertarians should be Henry David Thoreau, who hated not only government, but society at large and withdrew to Walden Pond. He wrote:
“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”9
If gun people and libertarians want to reject the benefits of American society and live freely, independently and unfettered on their own, they should look for caves in Montana and, if they’re full up, Afghanistan probably has vacancies. They’ll definitely need their guns there.
Articles for January 19, 2010 | Articles for January 20, 2010 | Articles for January 21, 2010