Yesterday’s tragedy at Newtown is not the first time our nation has faced the horror of a mass shooting. It may not be the last. It can’t help but make any thoughtful person consider the role of firearms in society.
When considering what the Second Amendment meant or was intended to mean when it was written two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, and what it may still mean to us today and what its function in society could continue to be, it may be helpful to consider the ways in which firearms and society have changed over time.
A fundamental fact about firearms is that their origin is as weapons of war. They were not developed for hunting. They were not developed for sport. Their original role was not for use by homeowners in protecting their families and property against criminals. They were not invented, refined, improved, and made more and more deadly and easy to use so that citizens could employ them in militias from the well-ordered to the little more than rabble. They were not for the people to protect themselves against the state. They were for people under orders to kill other people at the behest of governmental authority–one king’s soldiers shot at another king’s soldiers in order to kill them.
By the time of the adoption of the Second Amendment, firearms had reached a certain level of development. They were single-shot weapons. What they fired were not bullets as we now know them. The vast majority of firearms at that time were what is known as smooth-bore muskets. They fired balls of lead of about a half-inch in diameter. They were wildly inaccurate at ranges greater than fifty yards. And they did not fire quickly. The most skilled, experienced, well-trained musketeers–who were almost invariably soldiers or men who had received military training–would be hard-pressed to fire even four shots per minute. Rifled muskets–the ancestors of today’s rifles–existed, were highly accurate at ranges of 400 yards or more, but were difficult to load. A rifleman might be able to fire two shots every three minutes if he were competent in using his weapon.
Nowadays, due to the pressures of weapons development among nations, firearms are significantly more powerful and accurate than they were two-and-a-quarter centuries ago. Only hobbyists any longer fire smooth-bore single-shot firearms. Pistols and rifles–including assault rifles and machine guns–are all capable of firing bullets at high velocity accurately at long distances. Furthermore, firearms nowadays routinely are capable of firing ten or twenty or more bullets rapidly before needing to be reloaded.
As for the militia, the nature of that has also changed significantly since the adoption of the Second Amendment. The Founding Fathers would probably not recognize our National Guard as being what they meant by a militia, though our National Guard is descended and derived from the militias referred to in the amendment. The militias essentially ceased to exist in the wake of the Civil War of a century-and-a-half ago.
A large part of what the Founding Fathers intended in the Second Amendment was for the people to be able to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. I myself own a rifle because I believe in the wisdom of this interpretation of the amendment, and I believe it my duty as a citizen to own a rifle and know how to use it. But I know that the instances of an armed populace successfully revolting against a central government absent that government’s own regular military forces fracturing and assisting the rebels, as we are seeing happen in Syria now, are extremely rare. And I know that the American military possesses weapons of fearful devastation that make my rifle look like little more than a foolish gesture.
The Second Amendment as it is currently interpreted is a dangerous anachronism. Whatever the solution to the problem it presents our society is to be, it should be clear at this point that a solution needs to be found.