- Historic Sites
America As A Gun Culture
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
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.”
While the notion that “the right to bear arms” is inconsistent with state or federal gun regulation is largely confined to the obstinate lobbyists of the National Rifle Association, another belief of American gun enthusiasts enjoys a very wide currency in the United States, extending to a good many liberals, civil libertarians, and even radicals. It is the idea that popular access to arms is an important counterpoise to tyranny. A historian, recently remonstrating against our gun policies, was asked by a sympathetic liberal listener whether it was not true, for example, that one of the first acts of the Nazis had been to make it impossible for the nonparty, nonmilitary citizen to have a gun—the assumption being that the German people had thus lost their last barrier to tyranny. In fact Nazi gun policies were of no basic consequence: the democratic game had been lost long before, when legitimate authorities under the Weimar Republic would not or could not stop uniformed groups of Nazi terrorists from intimidating other citizens on the streets and in their meetings and when the courts and the Reich Ministry of Justice did not act firmly and consistently to punish the makers of any Nazi Putsch according to law. It is not strong and firm governments but weak ones, incapable of exerting their regulatory and punitive powers, that are overthrown by tyrannies. Nonetheless, the American historical mythology about the protective value of guns has survived the modern technological era in all the glory of its naïveté, and it has been taken over from the whites by some young blacks, notably the Panthers, whose accumulations of arms have thus far proved more lethal to themselves than to anyone else. In all societies the presence of small groups of uncontrolled and unauthorized men in unregulated possession of arms is recognized to be dangerous. A query therefore must ring in our heads: Why is it that in all other modern democratic societies those endangered ask to have such men disarmed, while in the United States alone they insist on arming themselves?