Americans’ fascination with guns is intriguing and disturbing to most non-Americans. We note that there are about 400 million firearms in private possession in the US – more than one for each man, woman and child in the country. At least one of those guns is in the hands of Marjorie Taylor Greene, which is disturbing in its own right. We see a quasi-religious reverence to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees a “right to bear arms.” And as Americans “bear” those arms, they keep shooting themselves and each other in rather alarming numbers.
To listen to the gun zealots, one might think that restrictive gun laws are a relatively new development in US history. And that gun laws deprive individuals of rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Those commonly-held views are, to put it simply, wrong.
The truth is quite different. Gun zealots read the Second Amendment as a guarantee of rights that never existed in the US, from even before its inception, to the enactment of the Bill of Rights, through the so-called Wild West, to the Reagan era held dear by modern conservatives. It’s another big lie.
“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
So, who was the author of that opinion – some lefty, gun-hating pacifist? Nope; it was former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, gun rights champion, constitutional originalist and ardent defender of the Second Amendment, in a 2008 ruling which affirmed citizens’ freedoms to possess handguns.
Scalia realized that there have to be rules – rules and regulations governing the manufacture, possession and use of firearms. And, he readily accepted that having those regulations does not contravene or contradict the Second Amendment.
Scalia went further. He wrote “The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” He saw nothing wrong with restricting access to “those weapons not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes,” and cited the “historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons,’” such as “weapons that are most useful in military service.”
Even Scalia recognized that gun control was not only constitutional; it was part of the American social and legal fabric.
Here’s a brief history lesson.
Early gun control – there have always been rules
When the Second Amendment was written, the nascent country had thirteen colonies and a total population of less than 4 million persons, one-sixth of those being slaves. Just over 5% of the population lived in cities, then defined as centres of 2,500 or more. The colonies had recently fought a war of independence against an occupying force. The prospect of the widely dispersed population being called upon to repel an invading nation was a real possibility. From the states’ standpoint, allowing their citizens to be armed to potentially rise up against a tyrannical federal overseer was a necessity. So, having the right to bear arms became a thing.
Even then, there were rules. There had always been rules. Well before the United States became the United States, colonies and towns enacted laws that regulated and/or restricted the manufacture, sale, ownership, carrying, brandishing, and storage of firearms. When the Second Amendment came to be, governments retained the right to dictate the type of weapons individuals could possess, and what they did with those weapons. They restricted “dangerous or unusual weapons”, and mandated registration and safe storage. In Massachusetts, for example, any firearm stored “improperly” was liable to be seized and sold at public auction.
Rather than being a libertarian free-for-all with respect to personal weaponry, the US at the time of the Second Amendment was a hodgepodge of gun restrictions, aimed at keeping the citizenry safe from each other, and weapons out of the hands of groups that the powers that be didn’t want to see armed – namely, Blacks and Native Americans. Gun laws didn’t magically appear during the late twentieth century – they were there all along.
The Wild West – tamed with gun control
Bonanza: The Cartwright family breaking the law
Skip ahead from the Second Amendment time to the US frontier days. Watch too many old Hollywood westerns and you might think that in the Old West, every person over the age of sixteen carried at least one six-shooter, and used it freely.
The reality? Most frontier towns, in order to protect their citizens and create a safer environment for families, enacted strict gun control measures. In Tombstone Arizona, famous for the gunfight at the OK Corral, carrying of guns within city limits was prohibited – weapons had to be checked on the way in, and retrieved on the way out. Dodge City, Kansas, one of the more famous frontier towns, enacted a ban on the carrying of weapons as its very first municipal law. In fact, strict gun control was a common feature of towns throughout the “Wild” West. That part of history doesn’t get mentioned much, because many Americans want to hold to the myth of self-reliant frontiersmen unburdened by pesky gun laws.
Which brings us to this guy:
Ronald Reagan –gun control advocate
As California governor, Ronald Reagan enacted strict laws barring open carry of firearms. Modern conservatives may bristle at the notion of their hero limiting their “rights” to carry whatever, wherever, and whenever. But, Reagan was not averse to a few rules. In 1967 Reagan signed into law the Mulford Act, which banned the carrying in public of loaded weapons. In doing so, Reagan had the full support of the NRA. Granted, the purpose of the law was to control the Black Panthers, who had exploited the previous law to carry rifles and shotguns to the front of the California legislature (Nothing scares a white conservative more than the prospect of armed black people). But, regardless of his motives, Reagan saw nothing unconstitutional with imposing restrictions on the carrying of weaponry outside the home. As he said at the time, he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” Neither did the NRA.
Reagan staunchly defended the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but even he didn’t see it as an absolute right. As president, he signed a bill which included a ban on automatic weapons. After he left office, he backed the Brady Bill, which called for a national background check and a mandatory waiting period for handgun purchases. Later, he joined with former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in urging Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons, which he had dismissed as not suitable or necessary for sporting or home defense purposes.
Ronald Reagan, like his appointee Scalia, recognized that there are indeed limits on an individual’s right to bear arms.
So what? Time for common sense
So there’s a rich and continuous history of gun control in the US. So conservative icons have accepted that restrictions on gun possession and use are necessary and entirely consistent with the Second Amendment. So Americans realize that a “right to bear arms” is not limitless under the law, just as a “right to free speech” is not limitless. So what?
How about a few basic, common sense rules, following the basic principles that:
- Not everyone is allowed to possess a firearm.
- Not all firearms are allowed.
- Not all places/circumstances are proper for carrying of firearms
Such commonsense rules would include robust, universal background checks, so that people who shouldn’t be allowed to acquire firearms (convicted felons, mentally ill persons, perpetrators of domestic violence, people who believe California wildfires were caused by Jewish space lasers, etc.) are kept far away from firearms.
Commonsense rules would mandate that military-grade firepower is limited to the military. Anyone who argues that an AR-15 with a high capacity magazine is necessary for hunting should have his/her hunting license revoked. He/she is either a very bad shot, or is very confused about the nature of hunting. If a person holds that such weaponry is necessary to help overthrow a tyrannical government, he/she should be reminded that the government’s arsenal includes tanks, fighter jets with smart bombs, nuclear weapons, and about 2 million highly-trained personnel. Face it, Bubba – you’re hopelessly outgunned. Why bother?
And, commonsense rules would address the fact that the concept of “liberty” does not mean the ability to carry a high-powered firearm around like a fashion accessory. Rules should reflect the Scalia argument that it’s perfectly fine to restrict or prohibit the carrying of firearms in public places. Just like they did in the Old West. And just like they did in Ronald Reagan’s California. Or like they do at Republican conventions – Republicans are all in favour of easing restrictions on carrying guns, except in places where Republicans gather.
Think of someone as unhinged as Marjorie Taylor Greene roaming the streets of Washington or the halls of Congress armed with an AR-15 military-grade rifle. If that picture scares Americans, then it’s time to have rules and regulations, and to start enforcing them. Just like in the old days.