A Note for 2nd Amendment Absolutists

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Michael Adelberg is an historian and a great writer (aka The Adelblogger). Since we have been having a TDWI dialog about guns, injuries, and injury prevention, it seems important to address the Second Amendment, its historical context and relevance to contemporary discussions about guns and limitation on gun and/or ammunition availability.  Thanks Michael, for providing historical context.    This post is from Michael’s blog, Michael’s Adel-blog, definitely a good read.  You can find Michael’s posts on Michael Adelberg’s blog. Pat

By Michael Adelberg

I don’t know much about gun control as a public policy issue, so I will avoid stepping into that bucket. But it drives me crazy, especially in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, to hear gun-advocates portray the Founders of the Republic as fans of unrestricted gun ownership. Such statements are not well grounded in historical fact.

When charged with governing, the Founders showed showed no sanctity to gun ownership . From its first days as a proto-national government, the 2nd Continental Congress advised States to disarm individuals suspected (but not convicted) of disloyalty and to impress the arms of those living in areas where arms might fall into British hands. George Washington’s first action of 1776 was a campaign to confiscate the private arms of the citizens in Queens Co., New York. Different local militias in New Jersey confiscated arms from African-Americans and inhabitants of the vulnerable shoreline.  These were not actions taken against a handful of traitors, but against large groups of people. The public’s need to wage a war repeatedly trumped an individual’s private property right to own a gun.

A decade later, as the Federalists attempted to make the Constitution more attractive to a skeptical public, they added a Bill of Rights (ten amendments to the Constitution) to lessen fears that the Constitution would become “an engine of tyranny”. The Founders wrote the 2nd Amendment so that “a well regulated militia” (the key phrase in the 2nd Amendment), properly armed and governed by officers, would exist to resist potential federal encroachment. The 2nd Amendment spoke to the Colonial experience of British soldiers forcing tax collection on localities that had no voice in the creation of the tax.

The Federalist Papers, written by the Founders to explain the benefits of the Constitution, discuss basic rights of American citizens: fair treatment before the law, the right to vote, freedom of religion and the press, etc. To the degree firearms are addressed, the Federalists speak to the right of Americans to organize into militias to resist federal encroachment. Federalist #29 declares “it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia” and Federalist #46 discusses the strength of a militia ”with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties.” However, The Federalist Papers—85 essays and 200,000 words long—never speak to an individual’s right to own firearms.

Based on actions taken during their presidencies, Washington and Adams had no qualms with seizing private property for a perceived public good. Washington’s confiscations of arms and property from the “Whiskey rebels” of Pennsylvania and Adams’s impressments under the Alien and Sedition Acts demonstrate this. Even Jefferson, who counseled “the government is best that governs least,” opted to limit the 1st Amendment when he championed “salutary coercion” of a press he believed overly partisan and irresponsible.

Though deeply suspicious of Federal over-reach, the Founders were not libertarians in any modern sense of the term, certainly not when governing. They supported a well regulated militia, but were ambivalent to private gun ownership when gun ownership ran up against a reasonable “public good” argument. Individual families often owned a rifle or two (the muzzle-loaded rifles of the day fired only one bullet and took two minutes to re-load) but it was the responsibility of local government to keep the really dangerous stuff—casks of gun powder, artillery, etc.—under guard in public magazines.

Even the most powerful men of the day did not keep private stores of dangerous weapons (with the exception of privateers battling foreign enemies at sea). Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon, for example, had nothing more dangerous than a small number hunting rifles. People like John Hancock and Robert Morris purchased huge quantities of war materials, and then immediately turned them over to state and local governments.

When it comes to gun control, argue whatever position you want, but it is inconsistent with the historical record to believe that the Founders supported the private ownership of firearms capable of killing dozens of people.

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