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Letter: Misreading 2nd Amendment

The renewed discussion over gun rights in America prompted by the Newtown, Conn., shootings is premised upon a distorted and mythical understanding of the Second Amendment, one promoted and perpetuated by the NRA and libertarian fantasies about American history. The founders never intended the Second Amendment to support an individual right to gun ownership.

Instead, from the earliest days of our history, the amendment was understood to refer to a collective right to bear arms in the service of a well-regulated militia. The militia itself was intended to suppress armed insurrections. In the 1794 tax revolt known as the Whiskey Rebellion, George Washington donned his old uniform and led 13,000 militia men to disperse 6,000 rebels who had threatened to sack Pittsburgh.

As this example shows, contrary to the views of libertarians and the NRA, the Second Amendment was never intended to support armed insurrection by citizens against the government. Those who make such claims are either relying on quotes taken out of context by anti-Federalists, or using spurious quotations from alleged historical sources. In fact, just the opposite was intended. The men who crafted the Constitution and our federal system were among the wealthiest and most powerful in the former colonies. They knew that the last thing a new nation needed was the constant threat of armed insurrection from malcontents.

In all the debate over the wording of the Second Amendment at our nation’s founding, there is no evidence that an individual right to gun ownership was ever considered.



Legacy Comments8

"The whole of the Bill (of Rights) is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals.... It establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of." (Albert Gallatin of the New York Historical Society, October 7, 1789) “A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences.” (Thomas Jefferson) “The Constitution of the United States asserts that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Justice William Johnson,1823)

Yeah. The founder's intent was "If ya don't like what we are doing, then shoot us"? Makes perfect sense... right?

Hey! I see "Dover Sole" is back on the menu at the Concord Monitor!

Welcome back Bill. Nice to have your voice added to the mix.

The American Revolution was an armed insurrection against the government. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were written within the lives of the generation that fought in that armed insurrection. Please refer to Constitutional scholars Laurence Tribe, Sanford Levinson and Akhil Reed Amar.

Publius--thank. Interesting question, with surely no easy answer-or any perhaps. Our long history with guns does amount to a defacto "right" to possess them, whether one thinks there is an inherent right or not. So in that regard, I don't see it as a problem. What does concern me is the increasingly shrill rhetoric from the right, over the last 20 years, regarding guns and increasingly many other issues. Formerly, we had 3 networks and daily newspapers, all of whom adhered to basic principles of good journalism. With media characters like Limbaugh, Beck, Newsmax, Breitbart, and Drudge, and to a slightly lesser degree NewsCorp/Fox, that's no longer the case. Now there's something for almost everyone, regardless of ideological stripe. This has had the effect of reinforcing extremist views, via confirmation bias (where seldom is heard a contrary word). As Mann and Ornstein have documented in their recent book, this is most pronounced on the right. The gun debate and the absolutist stance of the NRA illustrates this, and much as any group, the NRA has helped bring us to this place: we are a nation awash in guns, and extremism in defense of "liberty" that has more in common with the ideals of the Confederacy than with those of the Founding Fathers.

Bruce - Your historical data is correct. The purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to ensure that there were adequate people with arms to make up a militia, thus a standing army would not be necessary. As for facilitating rebellion, the Constitution defines treason as, among other things, taking up arms against the government. But my question is, even though there is no historical support for this idea that the 2nd Amendment was intended to facilitate rebellion, or, to a lesser extent, to allow citizens to protect themselves against illegal actions by the government, does that make the idea illegitimate? Doesn't that question have to be dealt with in any reasonable gun-control debate?

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--

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