The time is approaching when we will be compelled by an act of Congress to register our firearms.
We are continually reminded that “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” That part is clear to everyone except those promulgating law in Washington, D.C. Few people, though, understand what is meant by the first part of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Let’s begin with an account of a genuine muster of the well-regulated militia:
The four pages of text in these images (following the title page of the book from which they are copied) give a brief illustration of the reason for the much-misunderstood Second Amendment. Ezekiel Porter, mentioned on the second page, was my fourth-great-grandfather, by the way.
This excerpt describes the forming of the militia in Farmington, Franklin County, Maine, which at the time was in Kennebec County, Massachusetts. They had good reason to become “well-regulated” and they were expected to use their privately-owned guns. Yes, those guns were simple black-powder muskets, long rifles, and pistols and, in the event of an invasion, those citizens would come up against the same sorts of weapons they themselves owned plus a few cannons that the invaders could drag with them. There was no standing army in the USA of 1790. And this militia, described in the History of Farmington and comprised of capable men of the area towns, was smart to train for battle, because the British surely did come back and invade the United States in the war of 1812.
The Constitution provides for a navy, but it specifically prohibits a standing army for a period of longer than two years. That provision has never been rescinded by any amendment. However, we have supported a standing army (and more) ever since the last time Congress made a declaration of war on June 5, 1942, now 75 years longer than authorized by the Constitution since we’ve had no threat of invasion of this country in that time.
Among the powers granted to Congress in Article I, Section 8, are these:
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy; To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
Then the Second Amendment clarifies: 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.
Now compare this language from the Constitution to the truncated excerpt from the History of Farmington, above.
Should the United States be policing the world? Or instead, should we citizens throughout the country be training ourselves regularly in order to repel invaders? I’m not sure, but I am sure that I am not proud of the politics since 1945 that have been driving us into a permanent worldwide policing role and military presence. We have been in Korea, for instance, since 1950. Could we not have trained the South Korean military in self-defense in a little over two years from the cessation of gunfire in 1953? Could we not have withdrawn our forces from that country by, say, 1955? (See A Parting Tribute to my Uncle Woody.)
The constitutional prohibition against a standing army and the provision for a well-regulated militia, together, are what make the debate about the right to bear arms so complicated. Perhaps the original threat giving rise to the Second Amendment, defending ourselves from an invading foreign army, has evaporated, but perhaps a new basis has cemented itself just as firmly. Perhaps the invaders we must defend against are hidden within our midst.
The National Guard, a term in use since 1824, now fills the role of the constitutional militia. The Militia Act of 1903 redefined and recreated the traditional state militias as the “organized militia,” that is, the National Guard.
So how is it that we also maintain a standing army dispersed to permanent undeclared wars and other assignments around the world? Please comment if you have the answer to that.
In spite of these developments, it remains indisputable that the Constitution provides for the citizenry of the country, not the professional army of the federal government, to keep and bear arms.
It was clear to the founders of the United States that an armed population is comprised of citizens, an unarmed population is comprised of subjects. George Washington is credited with the statement: “A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”
The Second Amendment, then and now, is about defending the United States of America from forces that would destroy it, from outside or from within. Originally, every home was equipped with one or more firearms anyway — standard equipment for hunting and personal defense, and readily diverted to the purpose of defending the country. It can certainly be argued that a citizen might properly own a weapon in any class of arms that could be deployed against the United States, the better to emloy such a weapon in the service of the militia.
In the centuries that have passed since the adoption of the Second Amendment in 1791, the National Guard, better trained and better equipped, has taken over for the militia described in the History of Farmington. I accept that, and while I have no desire to own my own fleet of Phantom jets, I also do not intend to jeopardize my permanent right to own the firearms that I consider important to my own safety as well as my country’s defense.
A Recent Historical Perspective
I suppose I am more in tune with the America of the 70 years preceding my birth than the America of the 70 years since I was born. While I have mastered the skills for “survival” — better to say participation — in the ever-changing society of the past few decades, I have also mastered the skills needed for survival in the ages familiar to my grandparents.
I’ve seen it from both perspectives. I don’t trust the present — the technology, the world order, the federal government, the culture of the masses, the distribution systems for food and other perishables, or America’s single source for all manufactured goods (China).
That something has changed in the character of our population is obvious to an older American. When I was born (1950) a home typically had one wage-earner. There was a mindset that approved of locking up the mentally ill, and more were locked up than perhaps was right. But some were confined that should have been. Courts did not coddle violent criminals. Children conformed to certain social standards called “manners” and did not dictate the tone of a household or the spending habits of a family. Only a narrow band of entertainment and advertising were aimed at children, not the entire entertainment industry. Education was designed to impart information and promote critical thinking, not to indoctrinate compliant minions of a ruling oligarchy.
When I was five years old the Meadow Gold milkman in Lima, Ohio, still drove a horse-drawn ice-chilled wagon drawn by the mare, Buttermilk. The man who repaired pots and pans also appeared from time to time on a horse-drawn cart. Many of the country’s railroad trains were still pulled by steam locomotives. Our home didn’t have a television or telephone, and my parents survived for months at a time without an automobile. A long gun in a closet or on the wall was no more unusual than an umbrella in a stand beside the front door. The elevator at the Montgomery Ward store had a full-time operator who delivered customers to their chosen floors. It took a nickel to get a six-ounce bottle of pop from a machine and there was a two-cent deposit on a glass bottle. My grandmother was still mourning my uncle’s death in Korea.
It wasn’t until I was ten years old that I owned my first firearm, a Marlin .22-caliber single shot rifle which I earned by selling Christmas cards in Gomer, Ohio. I told my customers what I was working toward, and they supported my objective. I still have the Boys Life magazine with the ad for Junior Sales Club of America, which provided the Christmas cards and the gun. It was shipped to a local hardware store in my name, and my father had to go with me and sign for it to pick it up. I haven’t shot anyone with it yet.
I am not nostalgic for the living conditions of those times. Perhaps, though, I miss the gentle sense of peace, security, and opportunity. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the freedom to engage in any enterprise as a teenager, from street musician to seller of homemade potholders, from apprentice gardener to newspaper carrier. I miss coins made from silver, photo albums, and a news media that barely paid attention to politicians and celebrities.
I miss heroes who were actually honored, Sunday school, and shelves full of National Geographic magazines. I miss holidays that were sincerely celebrated with town ceremonies on the appropriate dates before it became de rigueur to shift them to the nearest Monday for people whose incomes were derived from taxes (and, yes, bank fees have become a new form of taxation with the complicity of Congress, so banks now close on those Monday holidays).
And I miss the respect that Congress once held for the American people. I am not volunteering to register my firearms, but I do think that we are, at last, a conquered people.