America As A Gun Culture

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Washington, who had to command militiamen, had no illusions about them. He had seen not a single instance, he once wrote, that would justify “an opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of fighting. I have found them useful as light Parties to skirmish in the woods, but incapable of making or sustaining a serious attack.” Despite the poor record of militia troops in the Revolution, as compared with the courage and persistence of Washington’s small and fluctuating Continental Army, the myth persisted that the freedom of America had been won by the armed yeoman and the militia system, and the old fear of a standing army was in no way diminished now that it was not to be under the command of an English aristocracy but of native American generals. In the mid-1780’s, when the Americans had won their independence and were living under the Articles of Confederation, Secretary of War Henry Knox found himself the administrator of an army of about seven hundred men. In the 1790’s, when it was proposed under the Constitution to add only about five hundred more, Pennsylvania Democrat Senator William Maclay anxiously observed that the government seemed to be “laying the foundation of a standing army”! Only the disastrous performance of militiamen in the War of 1812 persuaded many American leaders that the militia was a slender reed upon which to rest the security of the nation.

In the meantime the passion for a popular militia as against a professional army had found its permanent embodiment in the Second Amendment to the Constitution: “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.” By its inclusion in the Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms thus gained permanent sanction in the nation, but it came to be regarded as an item on the basic list of guarantees of individual liberties. Plainly it was not meant as such. The right to bear arms was a collective , not an individual, right, closely linked to the civic need (especially keen in the absence of a sufficient national army) for “a well regulated Militia.” It was, in effect, a promise that Congress would not be able to bar the states from doing whatever was necessary to maintain well-regulated militias.

The Supreme Court has more than once decided that the Second Amendment does not bar certain state or federal gun controls. In 1886 it upheld an Illinois statute forbidding bodies of men to associate in military organizations or to drill or parade with arms in cities or towns. When Congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934 forbidding the transportation in interstate commerce of unregistered shotguns, an attempt to invoke the Second Amendment against the law was rejected by the Court in what is now the leading case on the subject, United States v. Miller (1939). In this case the Court, ruling on the prosecution of two men who had been convicted of violating the National Firearms Act by taking an unregistered sawed-off shotgun across state lines, concluded that the sawed-off shotgun had no “reasonable relationship to the prevention, preservation, or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.” The Court ruled that since the gun in question was not part of ordinary military equipment, its use was unrelated to the common defense. The Court further found that the clear purpose of the Second Amendment was to implement the constitutional provision for “calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions” and declared that the Second Amendment “must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.”