Gun control is the issue of the moment. The talking points are being presented within the usual left versus right matrix to which we’re accustomed in this country. The Fox News crowd screams about how the 2nd Amendment is a right given to us by the Founding Fathers to protect against tyrannical government. The MSNBC lot points out that less gun control means more guns, and more guns means more gun violence.
As usual, the two camps are not budging an inch. What is particularly remarkable in this debate, especially as it has played out in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, is how both sides are completely wrong. The networks have muddled the issue so much that one wonders if any of the talking heads they place in front of the cameras have ever placed their noses in a history book.
Only a sane minority have the right stance on gun control, a stance I will explain to you free of charge. With this knowledge you will be able to bludgeon your coworkers with cold logic and historical fact.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution were added by the first ever Congress. They were included to safeguard some of our rights, both as individuals and as states, lest the federal government get out of control. Collectively, these ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights.
So far we agree, no? So stay with me as we get to the meat and potatoes of this argument.
The Founding Fathers were profoundly shaped by their experiences as subjects of the British Empire in both good and bad ways. One of the good ways was their inheritance of British Whig sensibilities, which carried with it a belief that the individual was entitled to certain rights.
The Founding Fathers experienced first hand all of the methods a monarchy employed to subvert the rights of individuals. One of those ways was by employing a standing army. Standing armies were dangerous because they were loyal only to the crown, were totally unaccountable to the people and were always at the ready to enforce the arbitrary will of the king (or Parliament) when softer methods of coercion were exhausted.
If the new federal government of the Americans had control of a standing army, it would have been just a matter of time until it used that army in dangerous ways. At least this was the article of faith held by the Founding Fathers. All of them knew, including the general George Washington, that standing armies had no place in free republics. It is a well-known fact that one of Washington’s heroes was Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat who led an army that saved the Roman republic, then relinquished all of his power to return to the life of a simple Roman patrician. On at least two occasions Washington relinquished power when he could have easily continued to wield it absolutely: first when he relinquished command of the Continental Army and then when he stepped down after his second term as President.
The Founders would be damned if a standing army became part of any republic they created.
Yet, there was no ignoring geopolitical realities. The British, still hot at losing the War for Independence, dominated both the seas with their navy and the land immediately west of the Appalachians by continuing to garrison troops there. (Despite the fact that it was American land by the terms of the Treaty of Paris.)
Spain still held sizable colonies on the American continent, including control of the Mississippi River. The Father of Waters was a valuable artery of commerce for the fledgling American republic. At any point they wished, the Spanish could cut off America’s access to it. Indeed, Spain did do this from time to time as a way to entice the western American states to join them. The prospect of unlimited access to the Mississippi did lead to serious talk of secession in states like Ohio and Kentucky.
And then there were the Native Americans. The tribes west of the Appalachians were readying themselves to defend their hunting grounds against the inevitable flood of American settlers to come. They were armed and trained by the British in this endeavor, making tribes like the Shawnee formidable, dangerous and determined opponents of the new American republic.
America was beset with enemies on all sides. There had to be a way to defend America from external enemies without falling into the trap of creating a standing army. It was a circle that was easily squared by the Founding Fathers.
The answer was a well-regulated militia. Many Founders deeply admired the Roman republic and Athenian democracy of antiquity. Athens, a tiny city-state beset with menacing neighbors like Sparta and Persia, kicked some serious butt with their version of a”well-regulated militia.” Athens’ military consisted of citizen-soldiers, men who farmed for a living but had arms at the ready in case their city-state needed to be defended. These citizen-soldiers were called hoplites and they came together to form the phalanx, the most fearsome fighting force of the ancient Mediterranean. Their tight-knit formations, the way they compensated for their lack of training by sticking together and fighting hard to defend their farms, wives, children and temples, were able to defeat the biggest, most well-supplied and professionally trained army of the era: the mighty Persians.
America, in the minds of the Founders, was in a similar boat to ancient Athens. They were a free people surrounded by tyrants who commanded massive standing armies. The answer to this was to allow the people of the free nation to keep their own arms at the ready in the event they needed to defend their homeland against attack. What they lacked in training they would make up for in motivation. What’s more, an armed populace would obviate the need for a standing army that was a hallmark of tyranny.
Hence, the first words of the 2nd Amendment are: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…” It was self-evident to the Founders that the militia would fight America’s wars. They believed that any war in which America found itself would be defensive since offensive wars were the pursuit of tyrants who wished to build empires. Defensive wars as a rule are easier to fight. Quite simply, there was absolutely no reason in the minds of any of the Founding Fathers for America to have a highly-trained professional military ready to strike any moment. There was absolutely every reason for America to avoid such an institution at all costs.
The 2nd Amendment was a no-brainer for the Founders. It was designed to provide for the 18th century version of the ancient Athenian hoplite: the free farmer with musket in hand.
This is where the meat of the argument ends. In all of the palaver coming over the airwaves in recent weeks about gun control, does any of this ever get mentioned? Has there been any effort by either the right or the left to truly educate the country on the meaning of the 2nd Amendment?
In many ways, the story of 19th century America is the story of the slow demise of the militia. General William Henry Harrison’s militia was unable to score a decisive defeat over the Native American force led by Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe. America lost many key land battles to the British during the War of 1812, culminating in the burning down of the President’s Mansion (later called the “White House” after the burns were painted over with the cheapest color paint available at the time). Instead, most of America’s biggest victories during the War of 1812 were won by the navy, the most professional branch of the military. Even the Battle of New Orleans, where General Andrew Jackson decimated a force of redcoats a few weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was officially signed, was won with a hybrid force of militia and professional military. Jackson had complained throughout the war that his militia men were ill-trained cowards and lobbied vigorously to get more professionally trained men into his ranks, which is what he had at New Orleans.
But the culmination of all of these 19th century conflicts, from Tippecanoe in 1811 until the Spanish-American War in 1898, was the creation of the American standing army. The Spanish-American War was truly our first offensive intercontinental war in the name of empire. After acquiring Spain’s colonies in the Caribbean and Asia we fully instituted a standing army to keep guard over them. There was no outcry that this development effectively rendered the 2nd Amendment irrelevant. There was no outcry that it totally went against everything the Founding Fathers stood for. It was self-evident that the 20th century for America was the age of empire. Empire requires a standing army. The 2nd Amendment remained in the quaint 18th-century where it belonged.
The 2nd Amendment was buried the moment America attained an intercontinental empire. Nobody mentioned the 2nd Amendment. Nobody thought about it. Time had passed it by and nobody batted an eyelash. It was not until very recently, maybe within the past 30 to 40 years or so, that certain interests attempted to resurrect the ghosts of the 2nd Amendment for their own myopic agendas. Namely, gun manufacturers and their lickspittles on the right
The Cold War ensured that the production of weapons, or what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, became a major fact of everyday American life, a healthy chunk of the GDP and the lion’s share of the federal budget. It was only natural that guns designed to kill Commies, built in American factories, would somehow spill onto Main Street, USA. These guns were not the Colt .45s that made every man equal on the frontier. These guns were weapons of mass destruction, implements of modern-age warfare.
And thanks to the slick propaganda of the gun lobby, people began to honestly believe that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wanted Americans (preferably all Americans), to handle these pieces of machinery as a civic duty. I mean, it’s right there in the 2nd Amendment: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Of course, the propaganda never mentioned the responsibility of those who owned these arms to fight for their country when duty called. Of course not. According to the gun lobby, the only responsibility gun owners had was to clean their instruments of mass death and lock them away in a safe place so grandma doesn’t accidentally get her head blown off. Is this not what the Founding Fathers had in mind?
It is also not a little bit ironic that many of the same people who see the 2nd Amendment in this way vote for political candidates who send the boys and girls of the actual standing army overseas to die in imperialist war. They don yellow ribbons and have bumper stickers telling the world they “support the troops”, yet they have no problems sending those troops off to meet mechanized death.
They support only the part of the 2nd Amendment that says they can have a gun. They ignore the other part that says that having the gun requires them to fight for their country. They fully support our troops by allowing them to fulfill that responsibility for them. “I own the gun. Let someone else do the dying.” This is the real motto of most gun enthusiasts today.
This is the gun debate in America today. It is gun nuts wrapping themselves in the 2nd Amendment without understanding one bit what it means. They quote the Founding Fathers without one iota of appreciation for the context in which they were writing and the intellectual universe they inhabited. It is liberals who are afraid of calling them out on their ignorance, lest they be accused of opposing the Bill of Rights and being “un-American”. Instead, the liberals relegate themselves to spouting sterile statistics about gun violence in other countries to justify “gun control” laws here in America, laws that merely aim to reduce gun ownership instead of eliminating it.
What is the point of citing the examples of nations that allow absolutely no gun ownership if you’re not going to call for absolutely no gun ownership?
I support your right to bear arms under one condition: the next time America is in a war, you’re the first one in line with your cache of weapons to defend the country. Only then will you be coming close to the spirit of the 2nd Amendment.
But if you want to totally fulfill the spirit of the 2nd Amendment, then you must call for the elimination of the standing army. You must call for the shuttering of every single American army, navy and air base both here and abroad. You must pull all American troops out of every foreign country: Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Japan and South Korea. You must then fire all of the men and women of the armed forced. You must want to convert the Pentagon into something else, maybe a museum or low-rent housing for the poor. You must call for the elimination of the entire defense budget.
You must then raise your hand and say “I am here with my gun ready to defend the flag I so fondly wave around and the Bill of Rights in which I so firmly believe.
Then, and only then, will I support your right to bear arms.
Yes, I am a true believer in the 2nd Amendment.