GUN VIOLENCE, THE SECOND AMENDMENT, AND THE “ORIGINALISTS”

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The rash of recent gun violence has refocused attention on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The radical reactionaries on the Supreme Court, who are supposedly “originalists,”  have interpreted this language as giving individuals the right to bear arms and an individual right to security through armed self-defense.

Somehow the “originalists” have forgotten (or choose to ignore) the first two phrases of the amendment’s language which link the right to bear arms to a well-regulated militia and the security of the state. Clearly, the original writers of the Second Amendment did NOT have in mind the right of each individual, on his or her own, to bear arms. And they had no possible conception that arms would include semi-automatic weapons that could fire multiple bullets per second; the arms they knew took many seconds to reload for a second shot. So much for originalism! (I’ll write more about the hypocrisy of the “originalists” on the Supreme Court in a future post.)

Actually, what the writers of the Second Amendment had in mind was security against slave revolts. The Second Amendment was pushed by Patrick Henry (Governor of Virginia) and George Mason (intellectual leader of the anti-Constitution anti-federalists). They were worried that the new Constitution would give the federal government the sole power to form militias, preventing states and local entities from doing so. They were also concerned that Northerners would dominate the new federal government. Given that parts of Virginia, for example, had more enslaved Blacks than Whites, Henry and Mason (and others) wanted to ensure that southern states had the power to form militias to protect white slave owners from slave revolts. [1] Therefore, if there’s any originalism in the right-wing justices’ support of an individual right to bear arms, it’s originalism that has strong racist overtones.

The ”originalists” supposedly don’t support any evolution of the meaning of the Constitution over time; according to them, it’s the original language and intent of the writers that should govern judicial decision making. Furthermore, a leading “originalist,” Justice Alito, just wrote in his draft decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, that for an unwritten right to be legitimate, it must be deeply rooted in the nation’s history and have been understood to exist when the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Under either of these originalist principles, an individual right to bear arms, particularly the types of arms available today, would be impossible to assert in a truly originalist interpretation of the Constitution. Again, so much for honest originalism!

A constitutional right to individual gun ownership is a relatively new interpretation of the Second Amendment, invented by the gun industry in the 1970s and aided and abetted by the National Rifle Association (NRA). It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the Republican Party adopted support of individual gun ownership as a core belief and policy position. In the 1960s, Republicans were strong supporters of gun control, in part because they were strong supporters of law and order. Furthermore, during the 1960s, with the rise of the Black Power movement and pushback from the Black community against racism by police, Republicans were concerned about Blacks having guns. So, for example, in 1967, California passed the Mulford Act, the most sweeping gun control law in the country. It banned personal possession of a firearm without a permit and was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. At the federal level, the Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, which restricted the sale of firearms across state lines. Neither of these laws raised any constitutional concerns at the time.

Until 1959, every legal article about the Second Amendment concluded that it was not intended to guarantee an individual’s right to own a gun. In the 1970s, legal scholars funded by the gun and ammunition industry, and their front group the NRA, began to make the argument that the Second Amendment did establish an individual right to gun ownership. [2]

In 1972, the Republican Party’s policy platform supported gun laws restricting the sale of handguns. However, in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control.

In 1977, an at-the-time radical wing of the NRA took control of the organization and shifted its focus from marksmanship and responsible gun ownership by hunters to assertion of a right to individual ownership of guns for self-defense and to opposition to any restrictions on gun ownership. In 1980, the Republican Party platform opposed the federal registration of firearms for the first time and the NRA, for the first time, endorsed a presidential candidate: Republican Ronald Reagan. This led to the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986, which repealed much of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and dramatically weakened federal gun control. Ironically, it was signed into law by President Reagan (who 19 years earlier had signed California’s strong gun control law).

Nonetheless, after three mass shootings in four years, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 included a ban on assault weapons and large capacity  ammunition magazines, as they had been used in the mass shootings and were key to making  the horrific carnage possible. However, this ban had a ten-year sunset provision. Therefore, the ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed despite numerous attempts to do so.

These are key elements of the history of the Second Amendment and policies on gun ownership that have gotten us to where we are today. There have been over 230 mass shootings in the US already in 2022 – well over one per day. (A mass shooting is defined as one where four or more people are injured or killed, not including the shooter.) There were 20 in the week after the May 24th Uvalde, TX, school shooting. In the 230 mass shootings so far this year, 256 people have been killed and 1,010 injured. Historically, there were nearly 700 mass shootings in 2021, a significant increase from 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019. [3]

I urge you to speak out and act out however you are comfortable to contribute to the movement to take strong action to reduce gun violence in this country. Nowhere else in the world does civilian gun violence take anywhere near the toll that it does in the US. Other countries have and are taking strong, effective steps to reduce gun violence. We can too. We have a long way to go; the sooner we start the better.

[1]      Mystal, E., 2022, “Allow me to retort: A Black guy’s guide to the Constitution,” NY, NY. The New Press.

[2]      Richardson, H. C., 5/24/22, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-24-2022?s=r)

[3]      Ledur, J., & Rabinowitz, K., 6/3/22, “There have been over 200 mass shootings so far in 2022,” The Washington Post

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