False history can kill, as the American people have seen again in the slaughter of 12 people working at the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. on Monday, when an emotionally disturbed gunman gained access to the military facility and opened fire, adding the site to a long list of mass-murder scenes across the United States.
Though the focus after the latest rampage has been on the need for better mental health detection and for better security at bases, the underlying story is again how easy it is for people in the United States, like the troubled Aaron Alexis, to obtain lethal weaponry – and how hard it is to keep guns away from dangerous individuals.
In that sense, the Navy Yard narrative is just one more bloody patch in the grim tapestry that stretches from Virginia Tech to Aurora to Newtown to hundreds of other locations where thousands upon thousands of innocent lives have been taken by gun violence in America.
But a key reason why the nation is frozen in a shocking paralysis, unable to protect even little children, is that the American Right has sold much of the country on a false history regarding the Second Amendment. Right-wingers and other gun-rights advocates insist that the carnage can’t be stopped because it is part of what the Framers designed.
Yet that is not and never was the actual history. When the First Congress passed the Second Amendment in 1789, the goal was to promote state militias for the maintenance of order in a time of political violence, potential slave revolts and simmering hostilities with both European powers and Native Americans on the frontiers.
The amendment was never intended as a blank check for some unstable person to massacre fellow Americans. Indeed, it defined its purpose as achieving “security” against disruptions to the country’s new republican form of government. The Second Amendment read:
“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.” In other words, if read in context, you would see that the Second Amendment was enacted so each state would have the specific right to form “a well-regulated militia” to maintain “security,” i.e. to put down armed disorder.
In the late Eighteenth Century, the meaning of “bearing” arms also referred to a citizen being part of a militia or army. It didn’t mean that an individual had the right to possess whatever number of high-capacity killing machines that he or she might want. Indeed, the most lethal weapon that early Americans owned was a slow-loading, single-fired musket or rifle.
And, the Framers of the Constitution were not some anarchists who wanted an armed population so people could overthrow the government if they weren’t happy with something. Indeed, one of the crises that led to the Constitution was the inability of the old system under the Articles of Confederation to put down the Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-87.
The Framers – people like George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris – were the Establishment of the day. They also recognized how fragile the nation’s independence was and how novel was the idea of a constitutional republic with democratic elections. They were seeking a system that took political action that reflected the will of the people, yet within a framework that constrained the passions of democracy.
The whole idea of the Constitution – with its mix of voting, elected representatives and checks and balances – was to create a political structure that made violence unnecessary. As the Preamble states, two key goals were to “promote the general Welfare” and to “insure domestic Tranquility.” So, the Framers weren’t encouraging violent uprisings against the republic that they were founding. To the contrary, they characterized violence against the constitutional system as “treason” in Article IV, Section 4.
And one of the first uses of the new state militias formed under the Second Amendment and the Militia Acts was for President Washington to lead a federalized force of militiamen against the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt, in western Pennsylvania in 1794.
Though it’s true that many Americans owned a musket or rifle in those early years especially on the frontier, regulations on munitions were still common in cities where storing of gunpowder, for instance, represented a threat to the public safety. As the nation spread westward, so did common-sense restrictions on gun violence. Sheriffs in some of the wildest of Wild West towns enforced gun bans that today would prompt a recall election financed by the National Rifle Association.
This history was well understood both by citizens and courts. For generations, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as a collective right, allowing Americans to participate in a “well-regulated Militia,” not as an individual right to buy the latest weaponry at a gun show or stockpile a military-style arsenal in the basement.
However, in recent decades – understanding the power of narrative on the human imagination – a resurgent American Right rewrote the history of the Founding era, dispatching “researchers” to cherry-pick or fabricate quotes from Revolutionary War leaders to create politically convenient illusions. [See, for instance, Steven Krulik's compilation of apocryphal gun quotes.]
Among the false narratives was the one about the Second Amendment, which the Right (and some on the Left) transformed into a supposed device by which the Framers authorized armed rebellion against the constitutional Republic. Rather than people who believed in the rule of law and social order, the Framers were contorted into mad radicals who wanted citizens to be empowered to shoot police, soldiers, elected representatives and government officials.
These “scholars” love to cite provocative comments by Thomas Jefferson, who was not even a participant in drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights because he was the U.S. representative in France at the time. But these revisionists still will quote Jefferson in a 1787 letter criticizing the Constitution for its commander-in-chief provisions. Jefferson argued that violence, like the Shays’s Rebellion, was to be welcomed. He declared that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”
It is ironic, however, that Jefferson was never willing to risk his own blood as that “natural manure.” During the Revolutionary War when traitor Benedict Arnold led a force of Loyalists against Richmond, Jefferson, who was then Virginia’s governor, declined to rally the state militia in defense of the capital but rather fled for his life. Later, when British cavalry approached Charlottesville and his home of Monticello, Gov. Jefferson again took flight.
Despite his personal cowardice, Jefferson had a lust when it came to others shedding blood. He also was eager for Virginia to have a state militia of armed whites to crush possible black slave rebellions, another prospect that terrified him.
As a slaveholder and a pseudo-scientific racist, Jefferson surely did not envision blacks as having any individual right to own guns themselves or to fight for their own liberty. Reflecting on blacks who fought bravely in the Revolution, Jefferson concluded that their courage was an illusion resulting from their intellectual inability to recognize danger.
Yet, whatever one thinks of Jefferson’s racism and cowardice, it’s a historical error to cite Jefferson in any way as speaking definitively about what the Framers intended with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was not directly involved in either.
Still, this false history was advanced by the American Right in the last half of the Twentieth Century as a kind of neo-Confederate call to arms, with the goal of rallying whites into a near-insurrectionary fury particularly in the South but also in rural areas of the North and West. Many fancied themselves an armed resistance against the tyrannical federal government.
Southern whites brandished guns and engaged in violence to resist the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government finally stepped in to end Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. In the 1990s, “citizens militias” began to pop up in reaction to the election of Democrat Bill Clinton, culminating in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1994.
Winning the Court
While designed primarily for the weak-minded, the Right’s faux Founding history also had an impact on right-wing “intellectuals” including Republican lawyers who worked their way up through the federal judiciary under Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
By 2008, these right-wing jurists held a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and could thus overturn generations of legal precedents and declare that the Second Amendment established an individual right for Americans to own guns. Though even these five right-wing justices accepted society’s right to protect the general welfare of the population through some gun control, the Supreme Court’s ruling effectively “validated” the Right’s made-up history.
The ruling created a political dynamic in which even liberals in national politics, the likes of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, had to genuflect to the supposed Second Amendment right of Americans to parade around in public with guns on their hips and high-powered semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.
As guns-right activists struck down gun regulations in Congress and in statehouses across the nation, their dominant argument was that the Second Amendment offered no leeway for restrictions on gun ownership; it’s what the Framers wanted.
So, pretty much any unstable person could load up with a vast killing capacity and slouch off to a bar, a work place, a church or a school – even an elementary school – and treat fellow Americans as targets in a violent video game. Somehow, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was overtaken by the “right” to own an AR-15 with a 30-or-100-bullet magazine.
When right-wing politicians talk about the Second Amendment now, they don’t even bother to include the preamble that explains the point of the amendment. The entire amendment is only 26 words. But the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, apparently find the preamble inconvenient because it would undercut the false storyline that they foist on uneducated Americans. So they just lop off the first 12 words.
Nor do Cruz and his fellow Tea Partiers explain to their followers what the Framers meant by “bear arms.” The phrase reflected the reasoning in the preamble that the whole point was to create “well-regulated” state militias to maintain “security,” not to free up anybody with a beef to kill government representatives.
This bogus narrative of the Framers seeking to encourage violence to subvert the peaceful and orderly process that they had painstakingly created in Philadelphia in 1787 also has been pushed by prominent right-wingers, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News personality Andrew Napolitano
After last December’s massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut, Napolitano declared: “The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us.”
The clear message from the Right has been that armed Americans must confront the “tyrannical” Barack Obama – the twice-elected President of the United States (and the first African-American to hold that office) – especially if he presses ahead seeking commonsense gun restrictions.
Which brings us back to the Navy Yard massacre in Washington D.C. It has quickly and quietly taken its place among the other mass slaughters that can’t be stopped because the Right’s powerful propaganda apparatus has sold millions of Americans on the dangerous – and false – notion that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted it this way.
These modern “revolutionaries” have been persuaded that they are channeling the intent of the Framers who supposedly saw armed uprisings against the legally constituted U.S. government as an important element of “liberty.” But that belief is not the historical reality. Indeed, the reality is almost the opposite.