Gun Control Has Always Been A Part Of American History
January 25, 2013 by Sam Rolley
Let’s allow momentarily for some advocacy of the devil in the gun debate and admit that, for better or for worse, gun control is deeply rooted in the history of the United States.
In our modern, sound bite society, the politicization of any given issue leads to a national discussion that includes neither historical reference nor reasonable debate. Evidence enough is the discourse that has emerged in the wake of the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And given our human limitations, coupled with a political system in which leaders benefit, both financially and in reputation, by screaming at the top of their lungs either for or against something, there’s no reasonable expectation of any well-thought-out or balanced ideas surfacing.
The debate thus far has been a fallaciously toned one, which ignores a trove of interesting historical footnotes that could no doubt lead the populace to a Constitutionally and socially responsible consensus on the right to bear arms. So far, Americans have instead been prodded into one of the following collective conclusions:
- Children at Sandy Hook died at the barrel of a gun. A child dying is tragic; therefore guns are bad.
- Mass killings sometimes involve assault rifles; therefore, banning assault rifles would stop mass killings.
- Per the Constitution, gun control is un-American; therefore, there should be absolutely no gun control.
- Gun control has preceded tyranny at some points in history; therefore, any advocate of gun control is an enemy of freedom.
To take on the first point, it is helpful to reference the President’s gun-control address that followed his signing of 23 executive actions related to guns earlier this month. At one point, President Barack Obama called for more gun-related research as he stood in front of a group of schoolchildren placed as an agenda-driving prop and uttered these words: “We do not benefit from ignorance.”
That is, perhaps, one of the most useful things the current President has ever said. So let’s not allow ourselves to be ignorant of the fact that even though what occurred at Sandy Hook was a heart-wrenching and senseless loss of life at the peak of innocence, children have been spared harm on numerous occasions when would-be assailants were stopped by firearms.
Next, if we are to believe that banning classes of firearms based on aesthetics will in any way make Americans safer from the prospect becoming the victim of a mass murderer, we must then accept that there will never be another Charles Whitman, Timothy McVeigh, highway sniper or Monroe Phillips in our midst.
Moving on the Constitutional issue of gun control, most conservatives — and the National Rifle Association, for now — will argue that the 2nd Amendment expressly prohibits infringement on the right to bear arms.
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.
But, as many religious people also do with the Bible, conservatives and liberals are guilty of failing to take the words as a whole. Conservatives often put all the emphasis of the Amendment on the latter phrasing, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The same holds true for liberals reading the Amendment, salivating over, “A well regulated…”
Conservatives would do better to further the cause of protecting the 2nd Amendment from draconian anti-gun legislation by refuting the assertions of the NRA and anyone historically dishonest enough to believe that the Founders’ vision of firearm responsibility lent itself to a libertarian free-for-all. The Militia Act of 1792 — which by some examinations lends credence to the President’s healthcare mandate — required the purchase of firearms by able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 and the inspection of said firearms, and it led to door-to-door questioning about firearm ownership to create records of compliance.
From the Act:
I. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia, by the Captain or Commanding Officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this Act. And it shall at all time hereafter be the duty of every such Captain or Commanding Officer of a company, to enroll every such citizen as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of 18 years, or being at the age of 18 years, and under the age of 45 years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrollment, by the proper non-commissioned Officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack. That the commissioned Officers shall severally be armed with a sword or hanger, and espontoon; and that from and after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound; and every citizen so enrolled, and providing himself with the arms, ammunition and accoutrements, required as aforesaid, shall hold the same exempted from all suits, distresses, executions or sales, for debt or for the payment of taxes.
The best possible gun legislation would solve two poignant modern American disagreements: How big does our military need to be, and who is allowed to own guns in America? British essayist Christopher Hitchens put it well in his 1994 essay “The Myth of Gun Control”:
In exchange for abolition of the military-industrial complex, who would not consider reporting for the occasional weekend – as in many democratic European nations – and acquiring the rudiments of weapons training, to be accompanied by a reading of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Utopian, you say. No more than the half-baked pacifism that, when preached by gun-controllers, has as its corollary a duopoly of force in the hands of the state and the criminal. Certainly no more utopian than the pathetic “guns for vouchers” swap meets that are now making police precincts a laughingstock as they concentrate on the disarmament of the law-abiding (and the opportunist).
While Congress mandated that any able-bodied man should be prepared to purchase a firearm and join a militia, there were certain segments of the population that were categorically denied the right to bear arms during this period. That group included slaves and free blacks as well as law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the new Nation.
While the idea of banning guns on a racial basis or in retaliation for failing to pledge allegiance to the State is unsavory, today’s gun laws also contain restrictions that are not so Constitutionally unfavorable. Gun bans on the basis of mental competency, criminality or routine chemically altered states of perception all seem reasonable to even the staunchest defenders of the right to bear arms.
A favorite accusation of gun grabbers, Piers Morgan in particular, is that 2nd Amendment advocates simply want to live in an “utter Wild West hell.” But Morgan fails to realize that the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood depiction of America’s frontier towns was not historically accurate. In fact, local gun laws that mandated that travelers turn over their six-shooters to the town lawman before entering populated town areas were popular at the time.
The Federal government didn’t get in to the business of banning classes of weapons until the 1930s when, emboldened by the government’s foolish prohibition of alcohol, gangsters like Al Capone became a force to be reckoned with when they took to the streets with fully automatic rifles that were a byproduct of World War I. Interestingly enough, the NRA fully backed legislation at the time to take automatic rifles off the streets.
Adam Winkler, author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, recounts how NRA Director Karl Frederick appeared before Congress at the time and was asked whether the 2nd Amendment barred legislation that would restrict access to the weapons; he replied that he had “not given it any study from that point of view.”
His response reflects what the organization’s original intention had been. The NRA was started in 1871 by Union Civil War veterans Col. William C. Church and Gen. George Wingate. Dismayed at the bad shooting skills of the men with whom they had served, they wanted to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” The organization spent the early part of its existence focused on shooting safety, hunter education and law enforcement and military training.
Perhaps the most accurate of the above-mentioned arguments against heavy regulation of guns is that the lack of firearms for self-defense often leads to tyrannical infringement. This is noted both in the Founders’ remarks about the importance of the 2nd Amendment and in the Nation’s historical record. Ironically, Obama, the Nation’s first black President and the man who so affirmatively stated only days ago that we do not benefit from ignorance, is ignorant of the gun views of the civil rights leaders whom he claims to so admire.
Throughout the Nation’s history, the gun-control laws that have been the harshest are those that were levied against blacks, who, as any compassionate, serious and well-informed student of history would be remiss to deny, have endured tyrannical force at many times since the Nation’s founding.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, States all over the Nation grew increasingly fearful of the prospect of a black uprising that they felt could be carried out by slaves or freed blacks. Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831 kicked off a number of gun-control laws aimed at blacks in America’s States.
Virginia responded to the rebellion by prohibiting free blacks the right “to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead…” Later, in 1834, the Tennessee Constitution was changed from “That the freemen of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence” to “That the free white men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence.” The antebellum South was rife with racist calls for gun control.
These abuses did not stop following the Civil War with the onset of black freedom and, in fact, continued through the Jim Crow-era South right up until the civil rights era.
Martin Luther King Jr., upon whose Bible Obama swore to uphold the Constitution on Monday, reportedly kept an arsenal of firearms in his home to ease his mind about the near-constant death threats he received. The peace-promoting civil rights leader even applied for an Alabama concealed carry permit, but was denied due to racism on the part of the police that had the authority to issue the permit. The Alabama permit law under which he was denied had been an NRA-backed initiative.
King knew that if his life was in danger, he could not count on the police for protection. His willingness to exercise his 2nd Amendment rights was also shared by other notable civil rights activists. Among them, Malcom X, who famously posed on the cover of Life magazine with an M1-Carbine.
The Black Panther Party took Malcolm X’s firearm brandishing and made it a part of their persona. At a time when police harassment of blacks was epidemic throughout the Nation, members learned about gun safety when they weren’t studying Marxism.
The YouTube videos of people open carrying through neighborhoods today to assert their 2nd Amendment Rights are reminiscent of similar armed displays by the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. Panther leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale said that because government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of blacks, they ought to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”
The Panthers took to patrolling urban neighborhoods while brandishing firearms to essentially “police the police,” who were infamous for abusing black Americans at the time.
Throughout all of this, the NRA has been on both sides of the gun debate and even supported a measure signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan that set California on track to having some of the Nation’s strictest gun control laws. The 1967 Mulford Act effectively neutralized the Panther Police Patrols by prohibiting the carry of loaded guns in public.
At the NRA national convention in 1977, the group was overtaken by 2nd Amendment purists who shaped the organization more into the lobbying machine that it has become today. Oddly enough, the views the organization’s leaders now espouse are more Black Panther when it comes to gun control than target practice.
Gun control has always been a part of American history. And there is plenty of fairly obvious evidence for both sides of the debate to examine what has worked, what hasn’t and which gun control laws led to tyrannical force being used over segments of the population. If the emotional toll of dead children and the lucrativeness of NRA loudmouthing could be removed from the equation, the Founders’ true intentions could be fulfilled.
With hundreds of millions of guns in American homes, a gun-free future is not going to happen; if it is forced, a bloody and unwarranted fight is likely in the cards. But by taking a look at the gun laws we already have and understanding where they could improve, the debate can come to an end.
Instead of hacking for more membership money by saying what if feels will drive the most fear, the NRA should focus more than ever on its original mission of training Americans to be responsible and well-versed firearms owners.
In every State, before taking control of another potentially deadly machine a competency test is required. The process of driver licensing ensures that vehicle operators are physically and mentally capable of operating a motorized vehicle. Different classes of vehicles require different classes of licenses. Perhaps this is a good universal firearm requirement, both well-regulated and relatively un-infringed.
It’s unfortunate that options like these must be considered, but gone are the days when many young people are raised hunting and seeing the effects firsthand of what a firearm is capable of. Instead, watching the sometimes slow and painful death of an animal downed by a shot that was not placed just so has given way to young minds racking up mass computer-generated casualties onscreen, complete with bloody, cartoonish splatters and bodies that disappear rather than become cold and rot. The demographic of the most recent round of mass shooters makes this evident.
We don’t need new, misguided gun laws that harken back to the days of racial gun bans; we need an emphasis on responsibility and gun respect. And more than ever, we need leaders within the gun movement whose motives are pure.