The History of The Gun Rights War
The history of the gun rights war goes back as far as anyone wants to dig. I would not be surprised if someone were to uncover a lost chapter from the book of Genesis describing how Eve and a coalition of mothers from the land of Nod instigated a rule requiring weapons-grade stones to be cleared from fields and work spaces in hopes of preventing crimes of passion such as befell Able. Throughout history there are examples of governments and people of power attempting to control the peasants by restricting their access to weapons.
Here in the US the history of gun control is integral to the creation of the nation. It was when British troops marched from Boston to seize militia arms in Lexington and Concord that the people drew the line in the sand and the war for independence began in earnest. For the better part of the following century the right to arms was clearly understood and recognized in the United States. Debate over the Second Amendment revolved not around whether the right existed, but whether such a clearly understood and unquestionable right needed to be reiterated in the Constitution at all.
It wasn’t until the debate over the citizenship of free Blacks began to heat up that the general right to arms became an issue of any significance. The reasons for the two issues to be connected and the challenges involved in recognizing Blacks as citizens, were summed up by Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott decision of 1856. In his majority opinion Taney wrote that it was basically unthinkable to even consider the idea of Blacks as citizens since as citizens they would have “the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, …the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went” (emphasis added).
Clearly Taney and his colleagues saw the right to “keep and carry arms” as absolute as the right to free speech and self-determination. Ironically, their expression of these foundational principles, including free people enjoying the fundamental right to arms, was delivered in an expression of opposition to recognizing these rights to an entire race of people. In subsequent years this dichotomy grew as the same principle of free men having a right to arms inspired both the Second Amendment and America’s gun control laws. America’s collective hypocrisy showed brightly as we ensconced the right as one of the most fundamental and important – when applying it to ourselves – and excoriated it as a dangerous threat to public safety and a violation of “common sense” – when applying it to Blacks.
In the years that followed the Civil War, the desire to keep guns away from African-Americans outstripped the desire to maintain the principles of the Second Amendment. Lawmakers and judges enacted and supported laws which restricted the possession and carry of arms in a variety of ways. Initially these laws were intended to only be enforced against African-Americans, but it wasn’t long before they were being applied to other various “underclasses” – the poor, recent immigrants, and people in less respected trades. Eventually people’s sense of fairness began kicking in, but rather than repeal the oppressive laws, they began enforcing them more even-handedly against everyone.
The definitions and history that was so intentionally twisted and distorted to disenfranchise Black citizens became the foundation for disenfranchising the citizens of many states and in 1934 the entire nation with enactment of the National Firearms Act.
Even then Congress and the federal government recognized the supremacy of the Second Amendment, but they used the same sort of distorted legalese to claim that it was OK because they were not exercising regulatory powers, but rather exercising taxing powers and that there was nothing in the Constitution saying they couldn’t tax firearms.
This notion was only challenged in the Supreme Court once and only government lawyers made arguments – in favor of the regulations. Though the Court clearly suggested that the Second Amendment applied primarily to military-style arms, hoplophobic judges and gun control advocates interpreted the decision to mean that only those actively participating in a government sanctioned militia had a right to arms.
That idea was repudiated by the Supreme Court in 2008 with their decision in DC v. Heller and the follow-up case McDonald v. Chicago. There is much going on in that arena today, but that will have to wait for Part 2 in this series on the history of the Gun Rights War.
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