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Progressive Politics in Minnesota, the Nation, and the World

An Historical Look At The 2nd Amendment

Category: Guns
Posted: 10/02/17 22:08

by Dave Mindeman

Guns in America is one very complicated topic. But this complexity only seems to appear here. Other Western countries don't have mass shootings as a matter of course. They still happen, but are unique in that they are so rare in places like Denmark or England or Australia.

Other countries also do not have a 2nd Amendment ensnared in their Constitutions and when gun situations turn massively violent, they address it with solid, specific legislation.

We do not have that luxury.

Gun manufacturers have weaponized this part of our Bill of Rights. And over time the Supreme Court has been deciding cases in favor of gun rights activism. The NRA and gun lobby have amassed fortunes in political capital meant to ram their legislative agenda through a Congress beholden to them.

The Second Amendment was clearly controversial right from the beginning. In 1788, Congress was debating how it would maintain a national army, and having just overthrown the yoke of a repressive England, Patrick Henry made the following argument:

"Let me here call your attention to that part [Article 1, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution] which gives the Congress power to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States. . . .

"By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither . . . this power being exclusively given to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended little remains of power left to the states may, at the pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory."


Henry argued that neglect of this Congressional power could leave the various states defenseless. Thus the idea of state militias was brokered as a means to ensure defense of the people.

However, Henry then went on to reveal the real reason for state "protection"....

"In this state (VA)," he said, "there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States. . . . May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free."

Henry argued that, under the right circumstances, southern blacks could be emancipated by drafting them into the national army and leave the states no choice to object and without their own defense if other slaves decided to rebel.

Henry also had other fears...

Patrick Henry was also convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias. He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they'd use the Constitution to free the South's slaves (a process then called "Manumission" ).

In other words, the south was worried that a national army would not be incentivized to put down slave insurrections.

So, once the Constitution was completed - the Bill of Rights included that 2nd Amendment provision to ensure slavery would not be interfered with and give states the right to maintain their own methods of enforcement.

Of course, the original thought process has been lost to the ages. And gun lobbies have placed their own interpretation over and above the arguments of the Founding Fathers.

Madison's first draft of the 2nd Amendment was worded this way...

"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person."

But George Mason and Patrick Henry insisted on a language change - and thus the final 2nd Amendment appeared...

"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."

And all of those gun rights trolls were born.
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