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January 17, 2013 • Editorials

Interesting History Lesson on the 2nd Amendment and Slavery

2nd amendment

There is something about the mental image of 20 six and seven year old kids shot to death, some as many as 14 times, by an American citizen using perfectly legal and licensed weapons, that causes people to demand that SOMETHING must be done about the level of gun violence in our country. Others say that ANY restriction of guns is an attack on the 2nd Amendment.

This isn’t meant to be a diatribe on gun violence or ultra-powerful lobbyists or what I think we need to do or anything else. It is more about the history of the second amendment.

There is a pretty decent synopsis here, which details and summarizes things rather well and saves you from doing too much exhaustive research of your own. One thing, I think the title “The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery ” is misleading, and would be more accurate to say that because slavery was so important to southern states, which also feared abolitionists from the north, the second amendment was crafted to ensure that the state militias of the south couldn’t be disbanded or absorbed into Federal service, and also that Federal laws would not deprive local militias of weapons.

What does the Second Amendment actually SAY?

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.

There are some important things behind this amazingly short statement:

  • Right to Bear Arms: The amendment is crafted in a way that makes it perfectly clear that citizens are allowed to own guns, and the government may not take away that right. This has been reaffirmed several times including the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller overturning of the Washington D.C. handgun ban.
  • ‘Well regulated militia’: in the 18th century militias were widespread in the south used as ‘slave patrols’. The article notes “slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias.” More on the ‘militia’ concept in a bit.
  • The word ‘State’: when we think of the word ‘state’ we use it fairly interchangeably with ‘country’. Hillary Clinton is ‘Secretary of State’, for example. But the framers of the Constitution was keenly aware of the difference – delineation of power between federal and state control was a key point of contention during the drafting and ratification process. In fact, Madison originally used ‘country’, but “(Patrick) Henry, (George) Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form”

The idea of a militia is very different now than it was in 1776, when all weaponry was handmade and a group of citizens would be more or less identically outfitted as the ‘army’ or ‘militia’ of the city or state. In another blog, the author looks at a modern interpretation of gun ownership in the context of a potential modern militia, with Supreme Court Justice Scalia saying:

“the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.” But in that same opinion, Scalia brushed aside claims that the Second Amendment guarantees citizens the means to armed revolution. He concluded that technology has rendered that part of the amendment an archaic artifact, because “a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large” and that “no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks.”

If you look at what I said earlier, it might seem a bit paranoid that the southern states were so worried about their militia … but given that abolition was desired by many northern politicians and slaves serving in Washington’s army were granted freedom – perhaps they were not far off base.

Does the fundamentals of HOW the amendment came about change anything? No … it is just interesting.

One of the hardest things for me to understand is that in an age where reliable information is readily available, misinformation abounds. We hear every day in the gun debate how ‘Hitler took the guns’ (untrue), ‘Stalin took the guns’ (also untrue), ‘Reagan supported assault weapons ban’ (true), and also how the constitution is either immutable or outdated. It only takes a little time and effort to realize that the Supreme Court has pretty solidly said that personal gun ownership is a right granted by the Bill of Rights – but also that it is NOT an absolute right and may be restricted so that ownership reflects reasonable standards.

A little (accurate) knowledge can be a powerful thing.

2 Responses to " Interesting History Lesson on the 2nd Amendment and Slavery "

  1. Micheal says:

    Michael, Interesting write up. I saw it as a bit of a leap as the two events, adoption of the Second Amendment and Civil War era slavery issues were between 50 and 80 years apart. The Jewish population may have a different view about guns being taken away by Hitler and Stalin. It was true in both cases. As for Reagan (loved him) and Scalia (respected him) both have the right to be wrong. As for Scalia’s logic, he must have forgotten Viet Nam where a bunch of dedicated people in their pajamas sound defeated the vastly superior weapons of the American, British, French, and Australian forces.

    • Thanks for the comment. There is much I could discuss, but the item of vital importance I must address is basic US history. I would suggest you spend a bit of time on it, because the issues of slavery were INCREDIBLY important to our founding fathers, and nearly prevented the formation of the states. The British used the tactics of freeing slaves (slavery had already been abolished in most of the civilized world by the time of our Revolution), as did northern generals in the Revolution. Even as the Revolution was happening, slavery was a southern thing, with problems that lasted for years but took until 1860 to culminate in a n horrific civil war.

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