America is a nation born of violence. From the very beginning of European settlement, the effort to establish a foothold was a constant battle, sometimes with the peoples here before the Europeans (who weren’t all sunshine and rainbows to each other before Europeans arrived) and sometimes with the land itself. Sometimes it was both: the Lost Colony of Roanoke likely acquired its moniker through a combination of drought and fighting the natives. Settlers were the hardy, the brave, the avaricious, and, often, the desperate.
In the two centuries after Roanoke the border of what became colonies pressed westward. There were Englishmen, and French, and Germans, but the point of the spear was as often as not Irish and Scots-Irish, pushing west from Pennsylvania and Virginia, through the Shenandoah and over the Wilderness Road into Tennessee and Kentucky. Most had little in the way of material possessions, but brought with them one indispensable tool, adopted from German settlers who had settled in Pennsylvania: the “Kentucky” long rifle.
The long rifle, with its spiraled bore and longer barrel, offered significant advantages over smooth-bore muskets, in both range and accuracy. Settlers shouldered them in the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and countless unnamed skirmishes with the Indian tribes. When the break with England came, it was on both sides at Kings Mountain, that battle of rebel and loyalist militias, a rift foreshadowing another still four score years in the future. Those familiar with the movie The Patriot can envision the advantages long rifles could offer from the (albeit technically fictional) scene in which Benjamin Martin threatens Cornwallis with the prospect of officers being targeted in every engagement. That conversation may not have happened but the basic premise is certainly true. The long rifle was present in western Pennsylvania, when the President of a new nation, under a new Constitution, marched out to put down an armed rebellion over a tax on whiskey. President Washington succeeded using just the show of military force, though he left a contingent of 1200 Federal troops behind for a time, just in case. What he did not do, what as far as is known to history he did not even consider doing, was disarm the populace.
The new Constitution that President Washington swore to preserve, protect, and defend included a provision almost without precedent in human history. While it did borrow from the English Bill of Rights of a century prior (“Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law”) the Second Amendment to the American Bill of Rights went a step further: it stated that, without reference to religion or social class or any other qualifier, “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.” The genius of the Second Amendment was not that it recognized the right of individuals to possess arms (the English Parliament had done that, at least for Protestants) or even that it forbade the government from infringing upon that right. The real genius, the thing no government had ever done, was recognizing that the states, and by extension the people, might someday find it necessary to take up arms against an overbearing and tyrannical central government.
President Washington was undoubtedly familiar with Federalist No. 46, published in January of 1788 and penned by James Madison, a man largely responsible for the Constitution and Bill of Rights who was serving Virginia in the House of Representatives as Washington marched toward Pennsylvania in late 1794. Washington, for his part, viewed the tax as legitimate under the new federal Constitution but had little desire to use force so early in the life of the nascent republic (he delayed as long as he thought prudent and later pardoned the few men actually convicted of federal crimes.) Madison, much more prone to siding with the People as opposed to the Government, had written in Federalist No. 46 just 6 years prior:
Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors.
Much has occurred on the topic of the Second Amendment between the Whiskey Rebellion and the present. The militias were put into practice in a war we fought against ourselves. The Supreme Court, as on so much else, has been scattershot: it’s difficult to see (at least to this layman) how the Justices who ruled on United States v. Miller (1939) were reading the same Constitution as those who ruled on Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016). Arms have changed, the federal government has changed, people have changed, but one thing has not changed: the Second Amendment remains the People’s last bulwark against tyranny, whether the majority of citizens, or the federal judiciary, want to admit it or not.
This is not an opinion one voices in polite company. The media, and to a large extent the politicians themselves, have done an excellent job painting anyone who believes the main reason the Founders included the Second Amendment is defense from the government as crazy and potentially dangerous. Even among limited government Constitutionalists who believe in the personal right to gun ownership, the idea is considered at the very least eccentric. Most people seem to subscribe to the idea that we have reached the end of history and violence against the government, even if just, would be futile; or they believe we have at least reached a point where we can sort out our differences with the government in court. This is not only extremely naive concerning human nature but also makes the assumption that the government in question must always be federal. Potentially the same applies just as much to resisting, say, your local south Florida sheriff’s office.
There is also a segment of the electorate who will never recognize an individual right to firearms at all, or if they do it is limited to single-shot hunting rifles and not “weapons of war.” These are the people who start sentences with “no civilian needs a….” as if the Constitution contains a clause requiring a citizen to prove he “needs” the arms the Second Amendment says he can keep and bear. The implication that the onus is on the citizen to justify their rights, as opposed to the government justifying restrictions on those rights, is typical of the mindset of those who believe that, in every area of life, the government has a duty to do things for you instead of just a responsibility to not do things to you.
In a perverse way these people may actually understand the originalist meaning of the Second Amendment better than a lot of gun rights supporters. Their calls for the confiscation of firearms, particularly what they deem “military style” firearms, just so happens to coincide with their desire for ever larger and more intrusive government. This is why they can believe both that individually owned weapons can’t possibly protect you from the overwhelming force of the government and that a pistol in the hands of a sheriff’s deputy has absolutely no chance against an AR-15. The reason this does not strike them as contradictory is that they’re really only interested in one thing: confiscation. Whatever argument they feel advances that goal in the moment is the one they will use, with no concern for accuracy and truth. They realize, consciously or not, that the individual right to keep and bear arms is the last line of defense against their beloved government, and they desire the citizenry be defenseless.
Luckily for us, the Founders knew enough about popular passions to implement a system designed to prevent rule by the mob, represented in this case by the mouthpieces from Parkland High and their media co-conspirators. Unfortunately for us, as a society we have become dangerously emotional in our politics (the bad laws passed and the freedoms surrendered in the name of safety, especially children’s safety, are legion) and the guy in the White House seems more than willing to sign a restrictive gun control bill, despite pressure from the Right. In their incessant attacks on the NRA the Left signals that for all their lip service about democracy they don’t much like it when Second Amendment supporters use the tools at their disposal to influence members of Congress. Americans without strong feelings on guns would do well to consider that, if the full court press against the NRA works, the next target may be a lobbying group they do support.
The purpose of the Second Amendment is that the people, either individually if necessary or collectively under the flags of their respective states, ultimately possess the means to ensure their liberty, be those means the Long Rifle or the AR-15. There are dangers in the world, but none is so threatening as a free man’s disregard of his natural rights. It is possible that too many have disregarded them for too long, and there is no going back. Surely there remain, as Madison called them, the “free and gallant citizens of America.” Whether there are enough is anyone’s guess.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.