So two things popped up on my news feed today, and I don’t feel like I have enough time to really delve deep into either of them… so I think I’m going to write this blog in two parts if that’s ok. One of these things was President Obama’s pledge for Executive Action on gun control. The other was the armed occupation of a nature reserve in Oregon, and the media’s general lack of horror about this. As a result of both of these stories, people are once again talking about the US Constitution and/or generally trying to beat each other about the head with it. This has got me back in a mood for debate.
To provide a bit of background, I’m going to lay out a few facts about myself. Even though I now live in New Zealand, I grew up in Arizona. I also hold a Bachelors degree in English Lit, and a Masters degree in American History. I’ve read a lot of old and cryptic things, and I accept that context is everything when it comes to interpretation. I’ve read the US Constitution – the whole thing. I also have a multiplicity of reasons to believe that America is nowhere near as bad (or badly off) as the American people seem to think it is.
Laws, and even foundational documents like constitutions, are living and changing things. They get debated, overturned, expanded, and reduced as society evolves. This isn’t a bad thing. The US Constitution itself already has 27 amendments – that is 27 changes that either added clarification or repealed bits and pieces of what it says. The Second Amendment is, rather unsurprisingly, an early example of one of those changes.
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.
The US Constitution defined the structure and process of the country’s federal government. It’s worth noting that it came into being in 1787 – four years after the end of the American Revolution (and the Second Amendment came four years after that). The result of the war and the shape of government that followed were not self-evident at the time, so it took a while (and a bit of experimentation) for the leaders of the various states to figure out what was going to work. Not everyone agreed that a federal government was even necessary, and it’s important to remember that they’d just fought a war to overthrow the government they had. Put into context, this is one of the amendments that defines a very specific area of government power, but also speaks to the living memory of the people who wrote it.
Consider that the Third Amendment (which is so often glossed over) prohibits the government from lodging soldiers in private homes in peacetime without the owner’s consent. This seems fairly irrelevant in modern times, and nobody screams accusations that the US Army is planning to bivouac down in their living room, but it is something that actually happened in the lead-up to the American Revolution and it caused a lot of offense amongst ordinary citizens. So much so, that they needed to remind the new government that it shouldn’t happen again.
The Second Amendment has a very similar history. The pre-revolutionary (British) government confiscated weapons off citizens that it considered to be trouble-makers. In retrospect that actually seems pretty reasonable – most governments would do the same – but at the time many people still needed a firearm to provided themselves with dinner and protect their kids from being killed by the natives, so removing their weapons could sometimes be life-threatening – especially in the Western regions.
When the Second Amendment references a “well regulated militia”, it’s also important to understand that the US had virtually no standing army at the time. The army that fought in the Revolutionary War (the Continental Army) was not made up of professional soldiers, but largely civilians who joined for just a short period of time and who brought their own weapons and horses to use. When harvest season came along, the farmers had to go back to their fields, and the retention of soldiers was an ongoing problem throughout the war. That was how most armies worked. They couldn’t afford to pay thousands upon thousands of soldiers during peacetime, and they couldn’t keep outposts running in very isolated areas, so they needed the help of lots of ordinary citizens who were skilled enough with a firearm. You needed a gun because there was still a frontier, there were still massacres of both natives and settlers, and the government might need you to be a soldier every now and then. Keep in mind that the explicit purpose of the militia described here is not to protect personal interest from government interference but to protect the security of the state. For this reason, as the US Army professionalised throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Second and Third Amendments gradually became seen as anachronisms. Not worth trashing but just harmless reminders of the ways things were done before the Revolution.
– – End of Part One – –