Washington Post book review
“A Biography of the 2ndAmendment”: Michael Waldman
Review: Garrett Epps…
I am Southern, but I read the amendment’s history much as Waldman does — as do most historians I respect. But he dismisses prominent scholars as idiots without examining their arguments; this simply will not do.
Waldman goes on to blame “originalist” constitutional interpretation forHeller. But the dispute is not really about history. If James Madison, the amendment’s sponsor, rose from the dead tomorrow and gave a sworn statement of his “original intent,” not one mind would change. Those who favor gun regulation would argue that in 1790 there were no semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines. The pro-gun side would dismiss Madison’s views (as Justice Clarence Thomas has in the church-state area) as “extreme.”
Whatever the Second Amendment meant in 1790, I have not seen a shred of evidence that the framers’ “right to keep and bear arms” was the “right” today’s gun radicals embrace. The Supreme Court, for now, has held that there is some individual right to gun ownership; but as Waldman correctly notes, in the wake ofHeller and McDonald, federal courts have refused to void most regulations. If history is our guide, for more than two centuries it was assumed that states could, within broad limits, regulate the guns “the people” could own, where they could “keep and bear” them and how they could use them. The contemporary claim that gun ownership (unlike other constitutional freedoms) cannot be limited at all is new, historically and legally untenable, and dangerous.
The real firearms argument is not a historical dispute about revolutionary America but a political one about 21st-century America. By one estimate, more than 15,000 Americans have died by gun violence since the Newtown massacre. As historian Jill Lepore recently wrote, in a heavily armed society there is no longer anything that can be called civilian life.
WHAT NRA FANATICS GET WRONG ABOUT THE 2NDAMENDMENT
Right-wing resistance to meaningful gun control is driven, in part, by a false notion that America’s Founders adopted the Second Amendment because they wanted an armed population that could battle the U.S. government. The opposite is the truth, but many Americans seem to have embraced this absurd, anti-historical narrative.
The reality was that the Framers wrote the Constitution and added the Second Amendment with the goal of creating a strong central government with a citizens-based military force capable of putting down insurrections, not to enable or encourage uprisings. The key Framers, after all, were mostly men of means with a huge stake in an orderly society, the likes of George Washington and James Madison.
The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 weren’t precursors to France’s Robespierre or Russia’s Leon Trotsky, believers in perpetual revolutions. In fact, their work on the Constitution was influenced by the experience of Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786, a populist uprising that the weak federal government, under the Articles of Confederation, lacked an army to defeat.
Daniel Shays, the leader of the revolt, was a former Continental Army captain who joined with other veterans and farmers to take up arms against the government for failing to address their economic grievances.
The rebellion alarmed retired General George Washington who received reports on the developments from old Revolutionary War associates in Massachusetts, such as Generals Henry Knox and Benjamin Lincoln. Washington was particularly concerned that the disorder might serve the interests of the British, who had only recently accepted the existence of the United States.
On October 22, 1786, in a letter seeking more information from a friend in Connecticut, Washington wrote: “I am mortified beyond expression that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”
In another letter on November 7, 1786, Washington questioned General Lincoln about the spreading unrest. “What is the cause of all these commotions? When and how will they end?” Lincoln responded: “Many of them appear to be absolutely so [mad] if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidence of insanity.”