Yesterday, the United States Senate defeated efforts to modestly regulate the sale and purchase of guns. Often, those of us who support gun control cede that owning guns is consistent with freedom but argue that, like other freedoms, certain sensible limitations are necessary for our safety. However, I would submit that yesterday’s defeat was a defeat for freedom as the American Founders understood it. The history of the Second Amendment tells us that the framers of the Bill of Rights believed regulating firearms is not only consistent with freedom, but a critical aspect of preserving liberty.
Up until a month before the Bill of Rights was sent to the States in September of 1789, the Second Amendment contained an additional clause. When James Madison first proposed to Congress an amendment regarding the right to bear arms, it stated: “A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.” In this original draft, the freedom to not bear arms was as important as the right to bear them.
The immediate subjects and beneficiaries of this “scruples clause,” as indicated by the debates in the House of Representatives, were pacifist communities. During the Revolutionary War, over 90 members of a neutral band of Moravian Delaware Indians were massacred by Pennsylvania militiamen and Quakers and Mennonites were sometimes harassed and intimidated. After the war, concern for the religious freedom to opt out of war and worries that those with weapons would impose upon those without was substantial. Ratification conventions in Maryland, New York, Virginia and North Carolina proposed separate amendments to the Bill of Rights, which broadly asserted that religion “can be directed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence.”
All Americans had good reason to fear being forced to bear arms. European monarchs had long imposed conscription and raised war levies on the backs of ordinary citizens. Following the Whiskey Rebellion, Congress did in fact conscript all white male citizens into state militias and even required those citizens to arm themselves with specific weapons in the Second Militia Act of 1792. While Americans today understand gun ownership as a hallmark of freedom, for many early Americans carrying guns was at best a cumbersome duty or troublesome necessity and at worst a sign of subjugation.
It is not clear from the record of the debates in the House of Representatives why the scruples clause was dropped from the Second Amendment at the last minute. Elbridge Gerry raised concerns that the government could choose which religions would have a right to bear arms. Others worried that claims of religious conscience would allow people to shirk their militia duties.
We might surmise that the best reason for dropping the clause is that the other Amendments in the Bill of Rights are sufficient warning against the notion that bearing arms is the bedrock of freedom. The Third and Fourth Amendments secure our persons and property against the forcible incursions of soldiers and the government. The First Amendment guarantees of free speech, religion and peaceable assembly mean that we have the right to do these things without being threatened, intimidated or killed. Taken together, the three amendments in closest proximity to the Second Amendment suggest that freedom means being free from the violence of one’s government and fellow citizens.
Moreover, the spirit of the scruples clause remains in the first words of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment is the only place in the Bill of Rights where Congress’s capacity to “regulate” appears in plain language. Our forebears clearly believed that freedom involved not only ensuring that the government would not have a monopoly on guns, but also that we would carefully regulate our weapons. The main purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect against the dreaded tyranny of the majority, where some citizens might forcibly compromise the rights of each individual. The recent rash of mass shootings and the toll of gun deaths in the United States more generally demonstrates that our laws are wildly out of balance. We have long since passed the day when the freedom to bear arms outstripped our freedom to feel secure in our homes, offices, schools and places of worship.
The Constitution balances the right to own guns with the right of all citizens to feel free from fear and intimidation. The debate surrounding the very words to include in the Second Amendment demonstrates that the Founders understood the right to bear arms as both a guarantee of freedom and a potential threat to it. Adequate Congressional regulation of firearms is critical to freedom. Yesterday was a defeat for liberty.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
By melding theory and practice, Philadelphia’s Vanguard S.O.S. are building skills and collective power.
The 1958 voyage of the Golden Rule offers important strategic lessons on how to confront an overwhelming evil and win.
Regardless of whether or not he scruples clause was included in the Constitution, I would hardly say that the Senate failing to pass universal background checks are a defeat for liberty. It was a victory for the Constitution. When legislators begin meddling with the Constitution (regardless of whether you believe universal background checks are constitutional or not), it’s not unreasonable to want at least a 60 majority vote in order to deal with or change ANY aspect of the Constitution. The framers were also highly worried about “some common impulse of passion” may lead a majority to subvert the rights of the minority. In this case, it would be at the best interests of the people to take our time writing legislation in the wake of a tragedy to help keep the legislation as objective as possible (need I mention the Red Scare?). It is also worth mentioning the bill proposed in the Senate would have done absolutely nothing to stop the Newtown or Aurora, Colorado shooting. Passion has a lot to do with how the American public feels, but in this case, the events at hand have next to nothing to do with the legislation on the table. I’d like to see Congress challenging the American majority, especially when passions are playing a role, losing our objectivity. Our elected officials first concern should be the Constitution, and not the temporary wishes, fears or ideology of the majority. If our Senators as there for the 60-vote majority threshold, us constituents should be grateful. Especially in a time when the central power of the federal government is ever increasing, taking it slow can only help our objectivity while respecting the rights of the minority.
“The Second Amendment is the only place in the Bill of Rights where Congress’s capacity to “regulate” appears in plain language. Our forebears clearly believed that freedom involved not only ensuring that the government would not have a monopoly on guns, but also that we would carefully regulate our weapons.”
Our forebearers clearly did NOT as you assert. I suggest you research the definition of “regulate” as it applies in their writings on the matter.
That same amendment is the one which will one day let me pikect Fred Phelps’s funeral. I intend to be carrying the biggest God Hates Fred Phelps sign of anyone there. See you on CNN!
The issue is that the constitution is held up as a nationalistic relic. It was meant to be an evolving document, but changing it is tantamount to treason in the eyes of the public. The foundation of our government has already become arbitrary. What good does the right to bear arms really do at this point? Is any means of defending from tyranny better than none? The sad answer is no, if the gov turned its sights on us, it will be in a desperate attempt to maintain order. The threat will be coming equally if not
more so from within. The increasing power of the central government and the growth of bureaucracy are a result of a decaying American system. The people have become despotic, and the government despondent.
The bill of rights is meant to protect the minority, which is why holding it up to the sway of the majority is absurd. The democratic impulse is too strong, the idea that the majority is always right is just factionalized thinking. Where do the majority of citizens stand,and how does that translate through the representatives we’ve elected?Tyranny isn’t coming, it is already here. As a nation, we aren’t in control of our passions. We don’t need ideology, we have a nationalistic origin myth, and the passions of our factionalized identities to guide us.
I stumbled across this and couldn’t help myself from chiming in. Know it is old and nobody will read this.
My biggest fear as a modern American is that instead of developing and acting as a beacon for the fundamental principles of liberty and freedom we were founded to uphold, our own dogmatism will allow them to rot and disappear. It happened to the Catholic Church, and humanity is still paying the price.