Yet another set of bodies has been laid to rest, this time in Orlando, Florida, slaughtered by yet another gun-wielding maniac. The National Rifle Association issued its usual irresponsible platitudes. Many Republicans – and some Democrats — in thrall to the gun lobby continue to refuse to take action against the nation’s plague of gun violence. It’s a show we’ve seen before, like a summer rerun that was depressing the first time we saw it, and only gets worse with age.
Remarkably, neither side in the debate over gun control has paid much attention to what the members of the First Congress, who created the Second Amendment, were really thinking. In the course of researching my new book “The First Congress: How James How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government”, I was astonished to discover how perfunctory the debate was over the Second Amendment. Indeed, it was the least discussed of all the amendments that formed the Bill of Rights. This might seem strange, given that the First Congress was very contentious on most of the issues that came before it. But the members knew exactly what the amendment meant: a national militia organization under the aegis of the federal government that would serve as the nation’s first line of defense. It certainly did not mean a free-for-all of unorganized citizens armed to the teeth in a Hobbesian world of fear.
In 1789, James Madison did propose an absolute individual right to bear arms. But Congress decisively altered his proposal, making it clear that the amendment applied specifically to an officially sanctioned force. The first version of the amendment stated: “A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The Senate further underscored the legislators’ intention by deleting the elastic phrase “composed of the body of the people,” thus making it even clearer that this did not mean a force composed of everybody and anybody.
That’s not all. Members of Congress were well aware that Secretary of War Henry Knox – a former Boston bookseller who served as Washington’s chief of artillery during the Revolution –was writing a comprehensive plan that laid out just how the national militia would be organized. Americans were fiercely opposed to the establishment of a standing army: what that evoked was bullying Redcoats billeted in your home, eating your food, and insulting your wife and daughter. But the nation had to defend itself somehow against the British to the north, Spanish to the south, and powerful Indian nations along its frontiers. Knox proposed that able-bodied white men be organized into several “grand corps” that would include males from eighteen to forty-five, with a reserve corps of men up to the age of sixty. Controversy centered not on the abstract “right to bear arms” but on fears that too many men might be called away from their work for militia duty, and that young draftees would “acquire a habit of Idelness.” Although the Militia Acts, passed in 1792 by the Second Congress, did not fully bring Knox’s plan to fruition, they laid the foundation for today’s state-based National Guard system.
The gun lobby is fond of citing the language of the Second Amendment as if it existed in a historical vacuum, twisting it to justify a supposed right of anyone – including potential terrorists who are not allowed to board airplanes – to buy and publicly brandish any kind of murderous battlefield weapon. The Second Amendment’s “originalists” wouldn’t be cheering them on. More likely, they’d be sitting in with Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives, in hope of bringing the insanity of rampant gun violence to an end.