Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Unspeakable Original Intent of the Second Amendment

There has been yet another massacre in the United States. This time, it was at an elementary school in a small town in Connecticut. NRA supporters have responded as they usually do. They claim that nothing can or should be done to restrict civilians' access to firearms. A psychiatrist pundit at Fox News even suggested that the principal and a kindergarten teacher should have been armed. Conservatives invoke the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Yet they never point out what the original intent of the Second Amendment was. The Second Amendment was never intended to give individuals a personal right to own whatever weapons they desired. It was certainly not intended to enable groups of individuals to use deadly force against their own government. Instead, it was intended to enable government-led groups of white men to put down slave rebellions and to steal real estate from the Indians.

To understand the Second Amendment, you have to understand why the Constitution itself was written, and why it was subsequently amended. The desire for a national Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation sprang from a debt crisis. To finance the Revolutionary War, the states and the Continental Congress had borrowed a lot of money. Afterward, the states had to raise taxes to pay off those loans, with interest. As a result, many small farmers lost their land or ended up in debtors' prison. Naturally, some people resisted the tax collectors. In Massachusetts, a Revolutionary war veteran named Daniel Shays led an uprising of state militiamen. A similar uprising, called the Whiskey Rebellion, took place in western Pennsylvania. Not only were poor people rising up in open revolt, but the wealthy citizens of the new nation were frustrated by a chaotic financial market. Lenders had no confidence that the state courts would enforce repayment of loans. As a result, people like James Madison, who later became known as the Father of the Constitution, couldn't get loans to buy new land on the frontier.

If the Constitution was intended to enable the state governments and the federal government to put down local rebellions, why did the Framers amend the Constitution to allow "the people" to bear arms? It's because the "well-regulated militia" that was described in the Second Amendment wasn't intended to be used against the federal, state, or local government. It was to be used against slaves and Indians.

Under English law, all able-bodied men had to respond to their local sheriff's request to serve in a posse to pursue criminal suspects. However, the kinds of weapons that a man was allowed to have depended on his social class and religion. These laws were adapted to serve the needs of the slave economy in colonies such as Virginia. A 1639 law in Virginia required young white men to be armed at public expense. By 1680, it was illegal for black men, slave or free, to carry weapons. Eventually, Virginia permitted black men who lived on frontier plantations to keep guns for defense against Indians.

The Second Amendment was not intended to enable ordinary people to attack the federal government or their state or local government. It was to enable whites to use violence against slaves and Indians. But even before the Second Amendment was written, Quakers insisted that such violence is morally wrong. As our society and legal system have developed, more and more people have rejected violence as an acceptable means for solving conflicts. The unspeakable purpose of the Second Amendment was to support slavery and genocide. We've outlawed slavery and genocide. Now it's time to rethink the Second Amendment.

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