Why gun control, not individual gun rights, is consistent with American tradition and law

handgun-231699_960_720By Matt Higgins

Whenever a horrific event like the San Bernardino mass shooting occurs, the refrain from gun rights advocates is to discount new laws or any type of gun control measure, arguing that gun control is antithetical to the traditions of the United States.

This libertarian individualist view, however, is contrary to the historical context of the Second Amendment and gun control laws throughout U.S history. It is a product of modern conservative ideology that fanatically distrusts the federal government while embracing the de facto reality of racial segregation.

The Second Amendment includes the introductory clause, “A well-regulated militia.” The militia’s role in colonial America was to defend the individual colonies. This could be from Native American attacks, slave uprisings or in conjunction with British forces in their wars with France in the 18th century.

In the American Revolution, individual colonies called upon militia members to fight the British and, upon victory, many wanted to keep the militias in order to protect states’ rights. Those who supported maintaining the militia after the war wanted to do so as a check on federal power. There was no standing army, which was intentional because Americans’ experience with British troops leading up to and during the Revolutionary War.

Colonial and American laws were influenced by the 18th century English jurist William Blackstone, including his writings about the right to self-defense. Blackstone wrote that humanity has a natural right to self-defense but he also acknowledged that the right to self-defense is tempered.

He stated, “the person who kills another in his own defense should have retreated as far as he conveniently or safely can.” (This is a legal interpretation that is completely contradictory to the current “Stand Your Ground” laws.)

Even Anti-Federalists like William Findley – or those who opposed ratifying the Constitution because it granted too much power to the federal government – opposed individuals taking up arms outside of militia duties.

In response to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, Findley stated, “All men of discretion if they permitted government to be violently opposed even in the execution of an obnoxious law, the same spirit would naturally lead to the destruction of all security and order.”

As the nation expanded west to the Mississippi after the Louisiana Purchase, new states enacted their own laws. Some included making the concealment of a weapon a crime. In 1813, Louisiana passed such a law. In 1840, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a state law that banned concealed weapons like Bowie knives on the legal basis that while an individual had a right to keep and bear arms, it was in only as a part of his duty in the state militia. The court concluded that there was nothing in the state’s or U.S. Constitution that prohibited Tennessee from banning weapons not for military use.

Immediately following the Civil War, Southern states sought to restrict rights for newly liberated African-Americans, including the right to keep and bear arms. Some blacks in Southern states were then members of state militias. Military authorities in control of the states suspended the laws but left open the door for gun control as long as it was not discriminatory against one group.

By 1920, the U.S. became a majority urban nation for the first time. Four years earlier, Congress created the National Guard, replacing the state militias. During the 1920s major cities, like Chicago, were plagued by violence resulting from organized crime during Prohibition. The Tommy gun became the notorious iconic symbol of the era.

The federal government responded to the epidemic of violence and, in 1934, passed the National Firearms Act. The act required certain guns like Tommy guns to be registered with the federal government and by manufacturers and dealers.

In 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. A provision of the law prohibited mail-order gun sales, something the National Rifle Association supported at the time.

The once solidly Democratic South began to crumble. A majority in states like Louisiana voted for George Wallace in the 1968 presidential election. Not since 1996 has a Democratic candidate for president won Louisiana.

The 1960s saw continued white flight from cities into suburbs, as well as the increase in violent crime in many communities. Many white suburbanites began to view the violence in the cities as something outside of their community. Yet, with the end of legal racial segregation, these white suburbanites feared that those from the inner cities would settle in their communities. Couple that fear with a distrust of the federal government by conservative whites in the post-civil rights era, a large segment of the American population was receptive to the new tone of the National Rifle Association.

The NRA only began its intense lobbying efforts to kill any federal or state gun control laws in the late 1970s. From then to today, that lobbying has been so successful that many opponents of gun control use the Second Amendment in their arguments to stop sales of military weapons like AK-47s and to argue in favor of individual liberty regarding carrying guns in public.

The U.S. judicial system has never interpreted the Second Amendment as preventing the any type of gun control in the U.S., even when it strikes down laws regarding gun control. The reason for the absence of federal gun control is inaction by a Congress that fears the NRA more than any other lobbying group.

Fortunately, changing Congress is much easier than amending the Constitution.

Recognizing the complex history of the right to bear arms in America does not make one hostile to any form of gun ownership. However, failing to recognize that the right to bear arms refers to more than just an individual right is antithetical to the ideals mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution.

Matt Higgins is an assistant professor of History at SUNO and a freelance journalist. He taught in the Jefferson Parish Public School System for four years. 

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11 Responses to Why gun control, not individual gun rights, is consistent with American tradition and law

  1. Fredster says:

    Excellent post Matt. Well said.


  2. Elaborating on the last point, “bear(ing) arms refers to more than just an individual right,” the extreme liberal interpretation that the Second Amendment currently enjoys in allowing individuals the ability to build arsenals with massive killing potential, abrogating the monopoly on lethal violence previously assumed given to the state in the political concept of the social contract. We have returned to that Hobbesian brutish state of nature as concealed and open carry laws expand along with personal arsenal creation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. martybankson says:

    Elaborating on the last point, “bear(ing) arms refers to more than an individual right,” the extreme liberal interpretation of the Second Amendment has been getting has allowed for the building of massive arsenals by many individuals, and, along with expanded concealed and open carry laws, has abrogated the monopoly of lethal force once given the state in the political concept of the Social Contract. We have returned to that brutish Hobbesian state of nature that such a “contract” was to free us from.


  4. jechoisir says:

    I think you need to take a long look at that second paragraph and also the fifth from last. “It is a product of modern conservative ideology that fanatically distrusts the federal government while embracing the de facto reality of racial segregation”—-so really, what you mean is that it is Southern racial fanatics, whom you strangely call “conservatives”—who are the culprits here. Your reading of history might pass muster in this paper, but it will not bear the scrutiny of educated, thinking people. Why don’t you just stick to the Second Amendment and leave race and oppression and the radical conservatives, an oxymoron, out of the discussion? It is columns like this that make me want to go out and buy a big old black gun and maybe attach it to the bow of my Christmas wreath.

    I have just been doing some genealogical research on ancestors who lived in Florida and the Mobile area in the first third of the 19th century. Most were cattlemen and farmers, and they were routinely called from their homes to fight the Creeks and earlier (1812) the British. They used their hunting guns. They knew next to nothing about military maneuvers other than what they had learned when they left their fields to fight at King’s Mountain. Looking through militia records from the 1760s onward in the South, I conclude that in that period private gun ownership was not related merely to assure a well-ordered militia but also to assure the individual self-protection and provide food in a frontier world.

    And contrary to your construction of facts, self-defence against animals and renegades and hunting remained the main uses of guns in the South so long as the South was largely rural. When every nouveau riches Tom, Dick, and Harry decided to become a hunter and go off to Montana or some other cold place to shoot animals, the elan of guns became part of their culture. These folks might be populists, but they are generally not conservative, and old-time hunters like my father feared them, would not hunt in woods they frequented.

    William Faulkner depicts them in his novella “The Bear.” They buy fancy hunting gear, bait the areas around their deer stands, something no real hunter would have done even in the fifties. It’s a status and a “man” thing with most I know. And these are the NRA base, not racists wanting to assure “de-facto segregation.” They are rich rednecks. They were not brought up, as conservatives were brought up, in a ritualized hunting tradition, where the use of guns was taught over a period of years and where the gun was the only thing that the hunter had that the deer or squirrels did not have. No cameras, no baiting. It was a more or less fair contest, and it permitted men to go out into the woods, where they had played as children and which they loved. It also put meat on a lot of tables where there might not have been meat. Those are the “conservatives.” And they had a healthy respect for guns.

    I have refused to sign more NRA petitions than I can remember. I once asked a student who had asked me to sign one exactly what usefulness he thought a grenade launcher had in hunting. The NRA is the arm not of hunters, but of gunmakers, and they have convinced the nouveau hunters “the government” will take away their guns, given half a chance. And frankly, in this administration, I suspect there is cause for them to believe that.

    But it is misinformed columns like this one, which seeks to get all the boogy-men in the Liberal’s imagination into one bad box—conservatives (for they oppose the theory-driven schemes of so-called Progressives), whites (except for the “good” ones who dance to tune of Democratic leaders), gunowners who are white—that ruin the witness of those who would remake society according to their theories and who neglect and reject tradition and reveal as false understanding of history as the NRA promotes.

    I am white, but two friends, each with a Ph.D., who are black and teach in a state university visited last week and wanted to show me their new guns. I needed one, they said. Why? I asked. Because, one said, “this president has left us to our own devices when it comes to self-protection. When he spoke after the California terrorist shooting and I heard him say global warming and gun control were bigger issues than terrorism, I got dressed and went to the police department and asked what kind of pistol I needed. Then I went to Wal-Mart.” They had concluded he was not merely delusional, but hated America. They had watched him waffle for seven years, call Ft. Hood shooting “workplace violence,” contribute to and approve of things like Ferguson, and they were afraid. What about that connection? Consider it.

    This administration hasn’t the political capital to get even a reasonable gun-control passed. Its every action makes people think maybe the NRA is right. I don’t think Americans are reduced to a Hobbsian state of nature. They are not planning to use the guns on their fellows. I think many actually have come to believe that given this President’s treatment of police and other law enforcement (e.g., the F.B.I Director), his obvious distaste for American traditions and values, and his pathological inability to disengage from his childhood muslim and communist socialistic upbringing, many people are thinking of dangers they can perceive. They believe ISIS when it says in its monthly newsletter that it intends to obliterate American cities, that they are actively working toward weapons of mass destruction in the wilds where they are permitted to thrive. And, as one of my gun-toting friends told me, then at least I have be able to define my closet of water bottles.

    This is one thing the radical left and Mr. Obama will not slip past the American people. Those who are serious about reasonable control of guns need to know what they are talking about, and they need to learn to compromise.

    While I support reasonable gun control, I also know it would not have prevented Sandy Hook, where a mother took her mentally ill son to a gun range with her, or Columbine, where two sets of parents who paid no attention to what their children were doing in their garages; never even inquired. It would not have stopped Charleston. Modern Progressives have effectively separated people from their Gods. They bash Christians at every turn, demand that schools have no Christmas trees, etc etc. And the same Hollywood whose vacant celebrities call for gun control feed the young with violence. And yet they offer nothing positive to replace God. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit says, “If He is not who he said he is, then the only thing a person can do is kill.” Think deeper and get your facts straight, please.


  5. Stephen Winham says:

    jechoisir presents an ideological counterpoint to Higgins’ largely non-ideological history lesson. It would have better served its purpose without the tirade at the end. Marty Bankston carries the argument beyond its usual limits, but recent events would certainly tend to support his main premise.

    What we seem to have lost on this issue is not a historical perspective or intellectual capacity, but plain common sense. Most proposals for gun control I have seen put forth are more than reasonable. The bottom-line position of the NRA (which is much more powerful than it should be) is very simple – ANY gun control opens the door to a TOTAL ban on gun ownership. Although it is clearly effective, this position makes NO common sense, nor is it intellectually honest.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Louis Sparks says:

    Are you in favor of the NSA probing your private parts too?


    • Stephen Winham says:

      Unless I go completely off-grid/net, I don’t have much choice, do I? And the probing is certainly not restricted to the NSA. Corporate America makes many decisions based on such probes.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. jechoisir says:

    Mr. Higgins’ essay is “historical” and mine is “ideological”? Is that because Mr. Higgins is a certified historian and I am not? Or do you think Mr. Higgins wrote “pure” history and did not draw a conclusion based on the facts he sees and cites?

    I submit both comments are ideological in the broad meaning of that term. The core of Mr. Higgins’ “history” is actually his odd interpretation or
    generalization about the meaning of facts, not fact itself. He manipulated history to support a limited viewpoint that is identified with a political group. Moreover, his treatment of the history of militia lacks substance. His view of the causes of gun proliferation cannot pass serious scrutiny. It is no more “pure” history than my response.

    I went beyond political partisanship to a philosophical view of the reasons gun violence has increased and why gun control has been dealt a serious blow in the past seven years. My reasoning is rooted in a long and serious study of history and an understanding of the uniqueness of American culture, which became American mainly because individuals had guns and knew how to use them from their daily experience in a new world and untamed landscape. We are not like Britain, where only the gentry and aristocrats owned land that was populated by game and where the peasantry never owned guns. The knowledge of that difference and the desire not to reproduce it in America help account for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    That more Americans are buying guns after events like the one in southern California is not because they have become good NRA sympathizers. Like my friends who voted for Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party at least for his first term and probably for his second run as well, people have come to see this President seems to feel only resentment of mainline America and reserves his defense for Muslims. Even after San Bernadino, when his Attorney General sat down with the FBI Director at a long-delayed press conference, Ms. Lynch said she was “more worried” that Americans would demonize Muslims than she was of another attack of the sort the FBI director, but not she, called a terrorist event. My friends thought she and the President, who sent her to keep an eye on Director Comey, were foolish, that they did not see the world clearly. Already concerned by the administration’s support of rioting and its indiscriminate attacks on law enforcement, they sincerely believed they could not count on the feds to protect the American people against attacks from ISIS. Chaos and weakness in government is the source of this rise in gun ownership, which is greater than the rise after 9/11.

    My contextualizing violence (the “tirade” you mentioned) is historical and philosophical, not ideological. The notion that transcendental belief is the strongest force for a peaceful civilization is not a political belief, but runs back to Aristotle, at least. Shared transcendental beliefs underpin a sense of brotherhood and security. They appear to be the glue a nation or civilization has. In his poem “The Second Coming,” Wm. Butler Yeats described the world without them, a world where “the best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity”: “Things fall apart.” he wrote. “The center will not hold.”

    And it is historical fact that the most concerted attack on the transcendental beliefs that underpin American culture and politics has come from the political Left. One may look no further than the President’s remarks at last winter’s congressional prayer breakfast for recent evidence. But the trail is long. Leftists make sure the God of Israel and/or Christianity does not appear in school texts, just as they make sure that first-grade readers include stories where children have Lesbian and Gay parents who are non-religious. It has always been to the purposes of socialists of all stripes to replace a transcendental God with the State, replacing positive belief with negative state controls. Yet it appears human beings yearn toward the belief in an intelligent First Cause. While Flannery O’Connor did not believe The Misfit in her story was correct about his description of the dilemma this poses for mankind, she recognized it as a characteristic response.

    In fine, with many, I believe there is no effective way to stop gun violence with politics alone. It will help if we reinstitute institutions to house the mentally deranged, but I don’t think that will stop it. That is because we must address the final cause of this violence, the degradation of human life, and repressive laws won’t do that. They address the effect, not the cause.

    To say that is not to be political, which is what I think was meant by “ideological.” It is to be pragmatic.

    I have always favored strong gun control, including the prohibition of certain types of weapons (for this does not only include “guns,” as they are commonly understood.) I have always believed the NRA represents gun manufacturers, not people who have legitimate uses for guns. But strong gun controls will not be accomplished through such deeply flawed, partisan “history” as that Mr. Higgins put forward. Blaming whites or any other group will only alienate. Inaccurate interpretations of history will produce no solutions. Better that we should ask ourselves honestly why we need guns and what kinds of guns we need, then move from there.

    Meanwhile, I suggest that political interpretation of history is no purer than philosophical interpretation.


  8. Matthew Walton says:

    Thank you jochoisir, for your eloquence as well as your insight.


  9. earthmother says:

    Mass Killings

    Dec. 2, 2015, 14 dead, 21 wounded, San Bernardino, Calif. Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik
    Nov. 29, 2015 3 dead, 9 injured, Colorado Springs, Colo. Robert Lewis Dear
    Oct. 1, 2015 9 dead, 9 injured: Roseburg, Ore., Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer
    July 23, 2015, 2 dead, 9 injured, movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana,] John Russell Houser
    July 16, 2015 5 dead, 3 wounded: Chattanooga, Tenn. Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez
    June 18, 2015 9 dead: Charleston, S.C. Dylann Storm Roof
    May 23, 2014 6 dead, 7 wounded: Isla Vista, Calif. Elliot Rodger
    April 2, 2014 3 killed; 16 injured: Ft. Hood, Texas, Ivan Lopez
    Sept. 16, 2013 12 killed, 3 injured: Washington, D.C. Aaron Alexis
    June 7, 2013 5 killed: Santa Monica, CA. John Zawahri
    Dec. 14, 2012 27 killed, one injured: Newtown, Conn. Sandy Hook Elementary School, Adam Lanza
    Oct. 21, 20123 dead, 4 injured: Brookfield, Wis. Radcliffe Haughton
    Sept. 28, 2012 6 killed, 2 injured: Minneapolis, Minn. Andrew Engeldinger
    Aug. 5, 2012 6 killed, 3 injured: Oak Creek, Wis. Wade Michael Page
    July 20, 2012 12 killed, 58 injured: Aurora, Colo. Theater, James Holmes
    April 2, 2012 7 killed, 3 injured: Oakland .One L. Goh
    Oct. 12, 2011 8 killed, 1 injured: Seal Beach, Calif. Scott Dekraai
    Jan. 8, 2011 6 killed, 11 injured: Tucson, Ariz. Jared Lee Loughner
    Aug. 3, 2010 8 killed, 2 injured: Manchester, Conn. Omar S. Thornton
    Feb. 12, 2010 3 killed, 3 wounded: Huntsville, Ala. Amy Bishop
    Nov. 5, 2009 13 killed, 32 injured: Ft. Hood, Texas. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan
    April 3, 2009 13 killed, 4 injured: Binghamton, N.Y. Jiverly Voong
    Feb. 14, 2008 5 killed, 16 injured: Dekalb, Ill. Steven Kazmierczak
    Dec. 5, 20078 killed, 4 injured: Omaha, Neb. Robert Hawkins
    April 16, 2007 32 killed, 17 injured: Blacksburg, Va. Virginia Tech. Seung-hui Cho
    Feb. 12, 2007 5 killed, 4 injured: Salt Lake City, Utah. Sulejman Talovic
    Oct. 2, 2006, 5 killed, 5 injured: Nickel Mines, Pa. Charles Carl Roberts IV kills five Amish girls
    Jan. 30, 2006 6 dead | Goleta, Calif. Jennifer San Marco
    March 21, 2005 9 killed, 7 injured: Red Lake Indian Reservation, Minn. Jeffrey Weise
    July 8, 2003 5 killed, 9 injured: Meridian, Miss. Doug Williams
    Oct. 28, 2002 3 killed: Tucson, Arizona. Robert S. Flores
    March 5, 2001 2 killed, 13 injured: Santee, Calif. Charles Andrew Williams
    Dec. 26, 2000 7 killed: Wakefield, Mass. Michael McDermott
    Nov. 2, 1999 7 killed: Honolulu, Hawaii. Byran Uyesugi
    Sept. 15, 1999 7 killed, 7 injured: Fort Worth, Tex. Larry Gene Ashbrook
    July 29, 1999 9 killed, 12 injured: Atlanta, Georgia. Mark O. Barton
    April 20, 1999 13 killed, 24 injured: Columbine, Colo. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, students at Columbine High
    March 24, 1998 5 killed,10 injured:Jonesboro, Ark. Middle school students Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden
    Dec. 7, 1993 6 killed, 19 injured: Garden City, N.Y. Colin Ferguson
    July 1, 1993 8 killed, 6 injured: San Francisco, Calif. Gian Luigi Ferri
    May 1, 1992 4 killed, 10 wounded: Olivehurst, Calif , Eric Houston
    Nov. 1, 1991 4 killed, 2 injured: Iowa City, Iowa. Gang Lu
    Oct. 16, 1991 22 killed, 20 wounded: Killeen, Texas. George Jo Hennard
    June 18, 1990, 10 killed, 4 wounded: Jacksonville, Fla. James E. Pough
    Jan. 17, 1989 5 killed, 29 injured; Stockton, Calif. Patrick Edward Purdy
    Aug. 20, 1986, 14 killed, 6 wounded: Edmond, Okla. Patrick H. Sherrill
    July 18, 1984, 21 killed, 19 wounded: San Ysidro, Calif. James Oliver Huberty


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