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Editor's Letter

Introduction: A Special Issue on the Right to Bear Arms

September 2019

Given the recent tragic shootings, historians should play a role in providing dispassionate facts about the history of gun rights and gun control.

Since its founding 70 years ago, American Heritage has stayed out of the fray of partisan politics, focusing instead on a straightforward telling of the American story.

But the recurring, tragic mass shootings have brought the issues of gun rights and gun control to the forefront of national awareness. We believe that historians have a duty to provide facts and historical context so discussions about the "right to bear arms" can be better informed, and possible solutions found. 

“History, after all, is the memory of a nation,” John F. Kennedy wrote in American Heritage in 1963. But when it comes to the Second Amendment, a very large percent of the American public has either forgotten, or never knew — or has reimagined — the intentions of the Founders when they wrote the Constitution.

So in this issue we provide four important essays by leading experts on the Second Amendment and the right to own guns, which we hope will be informative. 

First, we asked Prof. Joseph Ellis, who is widely acknowledged to be one of the leading scholars on the Founding era and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers, to provide us with historical context for the Second Amendment and what Congress actually intended when it was written. Prof. Ellis also provides an insightful review of the Supreme Court's logic in the landmark District of Columbia v Heller, the case that so dramatically changed the legal understanding of the Second Amendment.

Second, we asked Patrick Charles, a historian with the U.S. Air Force who has studied the subject for ten years and been widely cited for his expertise (including in an opinion of the Supreme Court) to give us an overview of the history of gun rights.

Third, Prof. Adam Winkler has contributed an essay discussing a reasonable balance between gun rights and gun control. He points out that gun rights and gun control are not mutually exclusive, despite what extremists on both sides might tell us. 

Fourth, we asked Richard Levy, the lawyer who helped gun rights advocates win the landmark Heller case, where he thought there might be room for compromise

We also did some of our own digging and provide you with a compilation of all mentions of guns and militia in state constitutions that were ratified by the individual states before the Second Amendment in 1791. If you want to know what the Founding Fathers meant in the Second Amendment, look at the wording of the State Constitutions and draw your own conclusions about whether the prefatory phrase "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" is relevant or not to the meaning of the amendment.

Also, in case you haven't read them, here are the original opinion by Antonin Scalia and the dissents in the Heller case, which had such an impact on the interpretation of the Second Amendment.

And, on the lighter side, we offer two dozen images from our archives on the history of guns in America, from Jamestown to recent times.

When the Second Amendment was written and passed, the Founding generation had just fought a long, bitter war against the strongest professional army in the world. They believed passionately in the need to defend themselves against tyranny. And, with large wilderness areas in all thirteen states, they believed in individuals being able to arm themselves for self defense. 

But, for many of that generation, the greatest fear was a Federal government with its own national army that would become too powerful, crush the individual states, and establish a tyrannical government — as would happen with Napoleon in France a few years later.  

“Liberal and conservative scholars agree they were thinking about allowing the people to defend themselves against Federal tyranny,” says Jeffrey Rosen, President of the National Constitution Center. “They were scared about the Federal standing army, and thought people organizing themselves in State militias could take up arms and protect their liberties. They didn’t much think about whether it was an individual or a collective right.”

Given the all-too-frequent news of mass shootings, has much changed in the last 50 years? Consider this passage in “America as a Gun Culture,” an essay by Richard Hofstadter published nearly fifty years ago in American Heritage:

“In 1968, after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., there was an almost touching national revulsion against our own gun culture, and for once the protesting correspondence on the subject reaching senators and representatives outweighed letters stirred up by the extraordinarily efficient lobby of the National Rifle Association. And yet all that came out of this moment of acute concern was a feeble measure, immensely disappointing to advocates of serious gun control, restricting the mail-order sales of guns. It seems clear now that the strategic moment for gun controls has passed and that the United States will continue to endure an armed populace, at least until there is a major political disaster involving the use of guns.”

Will anything be different this time?