A new book is making waves in the die-hard community of Second Amendment supporters. The book, heavily sourced and researched, claims that the founding fathers did not intend for gun rights to extend to all Americans, but only those in organized state militias. The book even seems to compare modern gun owners with a kind of cult.
The book is Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry, by Marine veteran and historian Patrick J. Charles.
Charles claims American gun owners are “guided by political ideology more so than facts.”
Serious debates about gun control date back to 1911, Charles notes. That’s when two distinct sides began campaigning for their positions.
“What is often characterized as the history of gun rights is not really history at all,” he writes, “at least as understood by historians.”
“Rather it is a historically based narrative that is researched, written and disseminated…to reinforce the political and cultural views of the gun-rights community.”
“Charles is the historian of the 24th Special Operations Wing of the US Air Force,” The Daily Mail writes, “and says he is not ‘anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment, associated with communism or socialism, unfamiliar with firearms’.”
So what is at the root of his argument?
The Second Amendment of the Constitution, written in 1789, states: “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.”
These are, arguably, the most heavily scrutinized words in the Constitution. The debate comes from the rather awkward transitions of the sentence. It could simply read “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” But it does not. And so debate continues.
Charles seems less concerned with syntax and grammar and more hung up on the context.
“In Charles’ view,” The Mail surmises, “the well-regulated militia phrase of the Second Amendment has been deliberately overlooked by gun advocates because it undermines their main argument for looser gun control rules.”
Charles takes his investigation of gun culture all the back across the pond.
England’s 1689 Bill of Rights would have been influential on America’s founders. Article VII states: “That the subjects which are protestants, may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions, and as allowed by law.”
“Charles argues that this meant Parliament could choose which persons could be armed – ‘suitable to their condition’ – and under what circumstances those arms could be borne – ‘as allowed by the law’,” The Mail writes.
“A 1796 cartoon depicts what the Founding Fathers envisioned when writing the Second Amendment. A British supplementary militia of everyday people who took up their arms when needed. They wanted Americans to pick up their weapons to defend themselves if similar circumstances arose. The cartoon reads: ‘Supplementary Militia turning out for Twenty Days Amusement, “The French invade us, hay? D*** me whose afraid?”‘,” The Mail writes.
This idea of patriotism is not lost on most American gun owners, though they rarely belong to the growing network of loosely organized militia groups.
Charles points to the phrase “well regulated” from the American amendment as an indication that gun owners be part of state-sponsored militias. In modern society, this would mean state guards.
Charles writes “every political and legal commentator from the Glorious Revolution through to the American Revolution agreed that the right to arms was useless, unless the militia was properly trained and disciplined.”
Yet this seems to imply that the only use guns have is directly tied to the activities of a well-regulated militia. A gun must not have a sporting purpose, or be useful for hunting, or have any historical value in-and-of-itself, or be useful for self-defense….
Charles quotes an eighteenth century author complaining about the lack of training. “Should you take your Fire-Arms along with you,” the man wrote, “that John in the Rear will be firing his Piece into the Back-side of his Friend Tom in the Front or, which would still be worse, blow out the Brains of his noble Captain.”
“A Firelock, with Bayonet fixed on the End of it, is a very awkward Kind of Instrument, and that it requires more Dexterity than you may be aware of.”
This must have resonated with the colonists. When the American Revolution began, few of the new Americans who showed up to fight had any formal military training.
“Outlining the importance that the Founding Fathers placed on military discipline and training to effectuate a constitutional well-regulated militia is vital,” Charles writes, “because there are many contemporary Americans who improperly equate a well-regulated militia as being one and the same with a mere armed citizenry.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth. The Founding Fathers would have categorized such militias as ill-regulated, unregulated, or an armed mob.”
So who did show up to fight on the side of the new nation? A mere armed citizenry, I think.
Let’s skip over that question for a minute. We clearly have agencies responsible for safe-guarding states’ interests today. We also have a proliferation of less organized groups that get much more media attention. These “militias” are certainly not well-regulated.
Oddly, these informal groups were rampant at the start of the colonists’ rebellion. In 1792, after the Second Amendment was adopted, the “Militia Acts” were passed. That was a political effort to organize and regulate militias at the state level (and to protect the new nation from new rebellions).
19th Century politics are even more cumbersome. There was a massive Civil War. Who could or couldn’t own a gun was often determined by race. America expanded westward, where guns were ubiquitous.
It wasn’t until the industrial revolution and the eruption of urban gang violence that gun ownership was once again a hot topic of debate.
New York enacted a law in 1911 requiring would-be gun owners to get permits before purchasing guns. By this point, the NRA was beginning to participate in the argument.
There were a host of laws enacted to restrict the types of guns that could be produced and owned by citizens during the 20th Century. The National Firearms Act of 1934. The Gun Control Act of 1968. The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994….
The Supreme Court jumped in, too. In 2008, in District of Columbia v Heller, the court weighed upheld the constitutional right to armed self defense in our own homes.
Charles sees the current political arguments for gun rights as “appealing to a broader conservative political base that opposes liberal views, fears government overreach and views the Second Amendment as the last line of defense.”
Admittedly, I’m no historian. Yet I believe the founding fathers had some practical experience with “government overreach.”
Though he provides compelling arguments about Constitutional interpretation, Charles can’t hide his doubts about armed self-defense. Charles calls this argument for gun ownership “armed faith.” He concludes that the “unrestrained right to repel force with force […] does society more harm than good.”
Gun ownership in America, he claims, has become a “faith that less restrictions on the access, ownership and use of firearms ensures democratic governance, protects all constitutional liberties, such as speech, religion and assembly, and as a matter of public policy is far better than any restrictive alternatives.”
Though Charles claims to be examining the Second Amendment through a lens of objectivity, he seems to miss the larger ideology shared by many contemporary gun owners. The founding fathers were compelled to codify a position on firearms becasue they were determined to face down threats to their existence. This was not some abstract political threat. The Americans were fighting the British, and others. And this wasn’t a foreign government; until the rebellion, it was their own tyrannical government. We only call them the founding fathers becasue the rag-tag bunch of rebels won the war.