As noted last week, the major fear of the framers of the Constitution was the kind of big government against which the Colonies had revolted; a regime dominated by the English King and his standing army. The Articles of Confederation had gone to the opposite extreme establishing not only a small Federal government, but also a weak one. There remained the matter of protecting the rights of the States and the people, and the anti-Federalists continued calling for a Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution. While Madison and the Federalists opposed such a move, believing it would lead people to think the Constitution itself was terribly insufficient, to keep peace with the opposition they finally relented. With the promise of corrective action, 11 of the 13 States finally agreed that there needed to be an effective national body, and the Constitution was ratified.
Twenty-three amendments were suggested, and finally ten were adopted. But for the next century few paid much attention to them. Subsequently, it was believed that the Federal government began to compromise individual rights, and several of the ten began to be taken more seriously.
The first amendment dealing with press, speech and religious freedoms has generated the most court cases. But in recent years it has been the second amendment, which has produced the sharp controversy. It reads: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 wording was adopted from English common law, which held that citizens must be prepared to defend the state in times of national emergency, and thus needed to band together in militias. It was the alternative to a large standing army. Everybody carrying anything from a hand gun to a military assault weapon may not have been what the English or our framers had in mind. Whatever the Supreme Court has sanctioned today, it does not sound like a “well ordered militia.” Nor do I believe our founders intended for an armed populace to kill off tens of thousands of our citizens each year. But the NRA, which controls the Congress and probably five members of the Supreme Court, think otherwise.
Last year there were 58 murders by firearms in Britain and the yearly number has continued to decline. In the United States last year there were 8775 murders by firearms. If the 2nd Amendment follows British law, which mandates tight restrictions on civilian possession of guns, somewhere along the line something must have been missed.
Or perhaps five members of the Supreme Court were guided more by a conservative political prejudice than by what the 2nd Amendment really intended.
These days there is a hard core of “patriots” who believe that the real enemy of the American people is their own government, and who insist on arming themselves lest Federal troops swoop down on them. But that is what the Bill of Rights seeks to prohibit.
Perhaps the real question is not how the 2nd Amendment has been interpreted, but what kind of society we want. Is it a retreat to the wild west where everybody is armed and on the street, and has the right to shoot anyone they believe threatens them? Is it the right to stand your ground anywhere at any time, even when you have stalked the person you end up shooting? The people, not the courts, must finally answer that question
But back to the larger question: Is our nation living up to the promises guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, or are there efforts to so water it down in the name of national security that we are in danger of losing personal freedoms promised? But that’s for next week.