The recent tragic mass shooting at a Florida high school has the usual suspects coming out in favor of gun control. Once more it is the AR-15 rifle – used by the killer to take 17 lives – that has come under fire. What kind of society, we’re lectured, allows such weapons in civilian hands?
Speaking on CNN on February 19, the network’s law enforcement analyst, James Gagliano, even claimed that those who wrote the Constitution and Second Amendment never meant for this to happen. “[They] could not envision that an 18-year-old kid could go in a gun store,” he said. “He can’t buy beer, but he could buy a semiautomatic weapon, and it’s a weapon of war.”
The Framers understood that along with all other rights of Englishmen, the right to keep and bear arms traveled across the Atlantic. In the Old Country “every man was his own soldier and his own policeman,” wrote G.G. Coulton, in The Medieval Village. Individuals between the age of 16 and 60 were required to answer the “hue and cry,” and to serve in the militia, and could be heavily penalized for shirking these responsibilities. The weapons used for carrying out these duties were their own.
During and after the Revolution, many of the states enshrined this pre-existing right to arms in their state constitutions. When the federal government was called into existence in 1789 by the Constitution, many people had concerns. Would it threaten ancient liberties? By adding a Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, express restrictions were placed on the federal government’s powers, including its ability to infringe the peoples’ right to keep and bear arms.
At the time of their writing, the right to arms would have meant nothing less than an individual citizen’s ability to acquire and possess sufficient weaponry, to fight and apprehend criminals. He would also have been expected to face down foreign troops and Indians in an emergency.
But having successfully thrown off a despotic king, the Framers also wanted the common militiaman to be able to defy with violence his own government should the need arise. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, recognized this in Federalist 46, arguing that a government with tyrannical designs would inspire “plans of resistance,” carried out by “a militia …with arms in their hands.” What sort of arms? Madison’s friend, the Pennsylvanian Tench Coxe, provided an unambiguous answer: “Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American,” he wrote in 1788. [Emphasis added] No contemporary public objection to Madison’s or Coxe’s specific assertions was offered.
CNN’s law-enforcement analyst is very mistaken. The Framers recognized that the federal government was the single greatest threat to individual freedom. Should the central government become too powerful and tyrannical, it was hoped that a militia, armed like soldiers with “weapons of war,” might provide a fail-safe.
The gun-control crowd believes that the Second Amendment at most protects hunting rifles and handguns. They’re shocked to learn that an 18-year-old can buy a semiautomatic, military-style rifle. The Framers would be more shocked by the harebrained idea that “gun-free zones” stop killers, that civilian disarmament will lead to peace and harmony, or even that an 18-year-old can’t buy beer.