The part of North America known as the United States has long had a gun culture. It’s one of our oddities that makes people from other countries shake their heads and wonder why we’re so gun-crazy. I’ve never liked this aspect of our character, but there you are; it’s enshrined in the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution, which reads (as almost everyone knows):
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.
Is the first part of that amendment about a well-regulated militia the most important, or the second part about the peoples’ right to keep and bear arms? Who knows? Who can say for sure what the adopters of that amendment in 1791 really understood it to mean.
In fact, the who, what, where, when, why, and how of this amendment have been debated so long and so heatedly that even I, as a long-time gun control advocate, am thoroughly sick of it. I do wish James Madison, who drafted the amendment, would have done us all a favor by being just a little more specific.
And there is this: There was good reason for the 2nd Amendment when it was added to the Constitution. The infant United States had only just won independence in 1783 from a Great Britain that had, among many other tyrannies, repeatedly tried to disarm the colonists to prevent their rebellion. When the Constitution was drafted in 1787 there was still great suspicion and distrust of a strong central government imposing its will upon the states and their individual citizens.
That is why Article I of the Constitution established the Congress and its powers, and Article II established the office of the Presidency and its powers. Congress’ duty is to enact the laws; the President’s duty is to see they are well and faithfully executed. Although George Washington was so revered after the war that some people wanted him to be an American King, the Constitutional framers intended the United States President to be subordinate to the United States Congress, not a supreme ruler over it, as in Great Britain.
Back to the 2nd Amendment: It was one of ten amendments added to the Constitution before it was ratified by the states in 1791. The purpose of these amendments was to protect those rights of individual citizens that had been abrogated under British rule, and that many citizens feared might still be abrogated under a too-strong central government. Twelve amendments were offered to the states for ratification; ten of the twelve were approved and added to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008, the United States Supreme Court ruled the 2nd Amendment does give individual citizens, not just members of the military, the right to own guns. So there you have it: Until and unless some future Supreme Court reverses that ruling, individual gun ownership in the United States is constitutionally protected.
But here’s what’s different today from when the Constitution and its first 10 Amendments were ratified in 1791:
In 1791 the United States had only a small standing army, with state militias providing the bulk of common defense. All able-bodied males in each state were considered militia members.
Militia members provided their own weapons. In 1791, that weapon was a single-shot, muzzle-loading smooth bore musket that initially took about a minute to load, and twenty seconds thereafter to reload. The smooth bore musket was notoriously inaccurate. It also discharged a great deal of black smoke as it fired. That is why armies stood and fired at each other in ranks at close range.
A rifle musket was also available, which had grooves inside the barrel to guide the bullet. It improved accuracy but took longer to load. It was used primarily by snipers and other individual marksmen, while the infantry carried the smooth bore musket. The most either of these weapons could fire was three rounds a minute.
In 1791, a state militia member could use a musket not only in war or for personal protection, but also to hunt game for food, if that was necessary. The United States was still an agrarian and frontier nation, and for many families, hunting was necessary.
Today, the United States has a large standing army, state militias have become national guard units attached to the states, regular army and national guard members do not buy their own weapons, there is no requirement to belong to either the army or a national guard, and not that many people still have to go hunting to put food on their tables. (Although many people still like to hunt, but that’s a different topic.)
Also today, in contrast to 1791, armies no longer use single-shot muskets. They use automatic assault rifles, such as the AK-47, which can fire 600 rounds a minute. A semi-automatic cousin, the AR-15, can fire 30-45 rounds a minute. Both rifles are designed to kill a lot of people very quickly. That makes them good choices for armies at war, but not particularly good choices for civilians hunting game if you hope to have anything left of your game after you kill it.
It is legal in the United States to own a fully automatic rifle such as the AK-47 if it was manufactured before 1986. If you can find one, you can buy it. If the AK-47 you find was manufactured after 1986, too bad; it is illegal for you to own it.
Fear not, though: you can go into a gun store and, as long as you pass the gun store’s required background check, you can buy an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that will look almost like an AK-47 and do almost as much damage. If you fail the store’s background check you can still buy that AR-15 at a gun show or from a friend, with no background check required. Or you might be able to score an AK-47 on the black market, if that’s your mass killing weapon of choice.
It’s estimated there are 5 to 10 million AR-15s in the United States, within a broader total of 300 million guns for a population of 327.2 million. That’s a lot of fire power and a lot of gun culture for a country that doesn’t now require military service.
So this is where we are with the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right of individual gun ownership. We are just chock-full of guns all over the country.
I do wonder if, in 1791, instead of single-shot muskets that could kill at most three people a minute, the state militias had carried AK-47s or AR-15s that could kill anywhere from 45 to 600 people a minute.
Would the founders have thought it so important that the peoples’ right, when not serving as militia members, to keep and bear such lethal weapons not be infringed?
I do wonder.