To many gun owners, and especially to the NRA, the right to own guns is as sacred as the right of free speech. The Constitution, after all, includes the 2nd Amendment in the Bill of Rights immediately following freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assembly and the right to petition the government. There it is in black and white: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
However, that’s not the complete wording of the 2nd Amendment. Conveniently, the NRA ignores the first and, I believe, most important part: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…” Reading the amendment in its entirety changes the meaning of the amendment dramatically.
So what were our Founding Fathers really thinking when it comes to guns? According to historian, constitutional scholar and author Fergus Bordewich, they devoted little time or discussion to the issue. In an interview on Democratic Perspective, he says, “You would think that something that looms so large for present day Americans must have been something that loomed large for those who crafted the amendment. Not so. I read the debates. And I recommend to anyone who is getting annoyed by what I’m saying here to go read the debates. All the papers for the first congress are in print. It was kind of a collective shrug, frankly. There was no discussion whatsoever of this as a fundamental human right at all.”
This should come as no surprise to any thinking American. The Founders were creating a nation governed by the people. Their only real concerns regarding tyranny revolved around defending the nation from the British to the north and the Spanish to the south, and from giving too much power to a president who might try to become king.
According to Bordewich, “There was no mystery in the [2nd] amendment except that it’s badly written. It’s badly worded because we can still be sitting here 200 odd years later debating what they actually meant. And it’s perfectly clear, if you know the history and context, that they were talking about guns that would be handled by people who belonged to a militia.” That is supported by the fact that the amendment that immediately follows, the 3rd Amendment, prohibits soldiers from quartering in a house without permission of the owner – an issue that had risen out of the actions of the British army prior to and during the Revolutionary War. In other words, the Founders and most American citizens of the time were extremely wary of creating a standing army.
So what changed? How did we get to the point where nearly anyone can go into a gun shop and walk out a few minutes later with a powerful weapon of war? What led us to accepting hundreds of mass shootings and tens of thousands of non-suicidal gun deaths each year as the price of freedom?
Bordewich responds, “You get there by having a powerful, ruthless lobbying organization that’s backed by the arms industry that wants to sell a lot of guns and has convinced people that they are somehow threatened by reasonable legislation to control guns.”
Indeed, many Americans now seem more willing to put limits on the other rights enumerated in the Constitution than they are on guns. If that ever happens, we will have lost our democracy.