Friday, July 16, 2010

The Founding Fathers, Gun Control, and the American Right of Revolution

I just read a terrific post by Kaili Joy Gray on her blog Daily Kos: State of the Nation by way of Cafe Mom.  The article is entitled "Why Liberals Should Love the Second Amendment" and it was prompted by the uproar over recent Supreme Court decisions extending firearm rights

I'm going to send you away now, to read Gray's post.  Click this link, then come back to me when you're finished:

I approve of the Supreme Court's decision, I agree wholeheartedly with Gray's conclusions, but I have to pipe up about all of her references to "the Founding Fathers' Intent." The Second Amendment is a direct legacy of the American Revolution and was definitely intended by the founders to ensure that, if needed, ordinary Americans would be able to get their hands on firearms to once again fire "the shot heard round the world."  However, the phrase "our Founding Fathers intent" is bandied about by both sides of every constitutional argument to support their agenda, and it grates on my nerves every time I hear it or read it.

The Constitution of the United States of America has served us well over the past 220+ years since ratification because it was well-crafted initially and because it has been tweaked with appropriate amendments as needed over time, so I'm all in favor of our constitution. However, our Constitution is not the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. It is not the word of God, and the so-called Founding Fathers were not infallible prophets but imperfect human beings, a mixture of good and bad, altruism and selfishness. They were very much men of their time and they did not have the power to envision the United States in its current form. Most likely they would all be horrified by what they would see as the excessive democracy and mayhem of our modern society, government, and culture. Just who were these "Founding Fathers" we speak of with such reverence?

An overwhelming majority of the men who collaborated on our Constitution, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, were wealthy members of the colonial elite, and the government they devised was designed largely to preserve and protect the interests of the privileged classes to which they belonged. Moreover, much of the best-loved and most inclusive language about "we the People" in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights was put there to mask class struggles between rich and poor and to redirect the impoverished colonists' anger against the British government instead of against their wealthy colonial neighbors.

Even in the early years of our nation's history, when the Founding Fathers themselves were at the helm of government, provisions in the Constitution that promoted a strong Federal government and were advantageous to the economic interests of the wealthy were most rigorously enforced. Meanwhile, in 1798, during the administration of Founding Father John Adams and just seven years after the First Amendment protecting free speech was passed, Congress passed the Sedition Act which made it a crime to say or write anything "false, scandalous, or malicious" against Congress, the President, or the government. Americans were convicted and imprisoned under this law, and the Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional. George W. Bush's contempt for civil liberties is actually closer to the Founding Fathers’ original intent than many Americans would care to believe.

So to me, what's great about our Constitution and the reason for its endurance and continued usefulness has not so much to do with the intentions of the Founding Fathers, and everything to do with the efforts of those who have believed in the ideals of political equality and social justice enough to fight for them in the streets and in the courthouses of America. What's great about the United States is that when they told us that power derives from the people and belongs to the people, we believed it and have struggled throughout our history to make it so.

So, getting back to the issue at hand, the 2nd amendment and the right to bear arms. Historically, in the context of late eighteenth-century America in the wake of the Revolution, the right to bear arms was indisputably meant to ensure that ordinary people could rise up against oppressive government if necessary. And before we dismiss that by saying we've already had our revolution, now our government is good and just and we won't ever need to revolt again, let's look at the history of a couple of other revolutions. The French celebrated Bastille Day this week, commemorating the anniversary of the overthrow of their monarchy in 1789. Many Americans don't realize that it took three subsequent revolutions in France before the French got their current form of government. Look at the Russian revolution. In the early aftermath of the overthrow of the tsar, when socialism still meant power to the people and an end to oppression, who would have thought that "the people" would ever need arms to revolt against themselves?  No one envisioned the abuses the Soviet Union would inflict upon its people in 1917.  Yes, the need for revolution seems unlikely in the United States today, even comical, perhaps. But history is full of chaos and upheaval, with violent revolutions preceded by eras of deceptive calm that people thought would last forever. I'm not suggesting that we all rush out to buy guns so we're ready to fight on the barricades tomorrow. However, if the second amendment were scrapped altogether or dismissed by the Supreme Court as a quaint anachronism, then restrictive laws such as those in Chicago and the District of Columbia would likely spread throughout the nation. Statistics show that the Chicago and D.C. handgun bans did not prevent criminals from obtaining guns and did not decrease violent crime, but those laws made it impossible for law-abiding citizens to obtain handguns. Government is always in a state of flux, with the pendulum swinging between oppression and redress, and I believe that safeguarding our civil liberties is the best insurance we have against government ever growing so oppressive that we would need to scrap it all and start over again through a bloody, painful revolution. It's so much easier for a government to enslave and oppress people who are not allowed to speak their minds, who don't get to vote, and who don't get to defend themselves.


Unknown said...

Very well put my dear...

Fred and/or Marlies said...

Nice piece of thought but while we agree on the basics, I believe both you and the writer of the article you commented on, miss the point. As a card carrying and contributing member of the ACLU ($20/mo) I value our rights and constitution as much or more then the next guy but I also acknowledge that time changes everything. You can not stop it in its tracks no matter how you interpret life and law of the moment.

The basic premiss here is not the right to own a gun, it is the question of governmental control over that right. May the government forbid a little gun or only a large gun? Or neither? In a hundred years we may have hand held laser weapons which can destroy a whole town. May the government withhold the right for yoou to own such a weapon of mass destruction? We just went to war at the cost of a trillion dollars and tens of thousands of lives only because of the threat of such weapons. We are trying desparately to reduce the expansion of holders of such weapons. Does the Constitution permit individual ownership of such weapons?

Peashooters are one thing but the NRA wants no restrictions on what is permitted to ostensibly 'hunt'. As a liberal who is against guns and abortions I have a conflict about the law. In one case I aim to protect the neighborhood by law from a guy going off half cocked and in the other the rights of a women to do with her body as she pleases without government intervention. There is a reason for having government. What is it? Reasonable behavior by all parties. As soon as reason goes by the wayside, government becomes nonsensical.

So give the guy who fears the midnight invader a chance to buy a gun, a small gun with proper training and permitting but don't tell me he needs the latest and greatest weapon of mass destruction in his bedroom. That's what this argument is about.

Rebecca Grace said...

Actually, the argument IS about whether or not you can buy "a small gun with proper training and permitting." The Chicago and D.C. laws that were before the Supreme Court were outright bans on citizens owning any type of handgun in their home, regardless of permits, licenses, etc. See As with most hot-button issues, gun control is never black and white but shades of gray.

Fred and/or Marlies said...

No Rebecca, the Chicago and NY cases were what the SC ruled on the verbiage of the local laws but the issue is much bigger then that. You spoke of weighty constitutional issues, revolution etc. We still don't know how the court will rule on the big question of what the framers really meant by the right to bear arms.

Where does it stop, where does it end. The gun ban in Chicago was not really enforced by Chicago prosecutors anyway as they used state and federal laws to control gun ownership. Whatever the verbiage was, the ruling was a sort of red herring against nothing. Chicago has slightly rewritten the laws and passed these according to the "new law" by a vote of 45-0.

The big issues of gun control are still open ended and still need to be resolved but it won't happen as long as we have a Conservative Supreme Court. They'll just dance around the issues on a 5-4 basis.

Rebecca Grace said...

It doesn't stop, it doesn't ever end -- that's what makes it such a great topic for discussion.