Following the tragic shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. by Adam Lanza , many Americans are wondering what exactly our Founding Fathers intended when they set the Second Amendment to paper more than 200 years ago. Surely not the killing of 20 young children and six women.
Were firearms intended only for militias as the first clause might indicate? Or are municipalities prohibited from banning certain firearms as the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago when it overturned the Windy City’s ban on hand guns?
The problem with these lines of thought is that in both we are refusing to frame this debate in the 21st century. Or even more appropriate, the year 2012 whose multiple mass shootings included the massacre in Aurora, Colo. and last week’s two tragedies in Happy Valley, Ore. and Newtown. If we truly wish to demystify the intentions of James Madison when he wrote the Second Amendment, we must reconstruct the environment in which he conceived it and recognize that it was a very different time, with very different circumstances, and very different weapons.
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At first, success in the Revolutionary War helped the Founding Fathers realize the necessity of firearms. A far-away government imposed taxes without representation, but with an armed citizenry, the colonies had fought for the right to form their own government. It is likely that Madison intended that guns be available if this course of action was ever again necessary.
But now the field has changed. The muskets that the minutemen took up against the British were a good match for the weapons they would be facing on the battlefield. This is undoubtedly no longer the case.
Now there is no citizen armament and really, nothing short of military aircraft or an atomic weapon that could match the US military. And even todays Supreme Court would find it hard to permit the construction of backyard missile silos. Regrettably or not, we must concede that the conditions allowing for an armed revolution of the people have long since vanished.
But, theres still the question of why firearms for a militia might be necessary. Again, we should take Madisons perspective. While America was fulfilling its manifest destiny, expansionists would often instigate territorial disputes with the native people whose land and resources they were claiming. When those peoples objected violently, groups of armed men, shoulder to shoulder, could repel them with force and keep their communities safe. Now that we have essentially concluded all territorial disputes in North America, it is safe to say that this justifications time has passed.
But then, there is personal defense, by far the most controversial rationale for unmitigated gun rights. Proponents of this school of thought suggest that firearms even automatic weapons are necessary for protecting their homes from intruders and from violent criminals, both of whom may be similarly armed. They use this argument to justify owning weapons with silencers, expanded magazines, and semi-automatic triggering mechanisms. What they ignore though, is that in the days of James Madison, none of these technologies existed, nor was there any conception that they ever would be.
The weapons with which Madison was familiar were essentially muskets, in addition to rudimentary pistols and rifles. A competent user could take a single wildly inaccurate shot, and then find himself rummaging around with a ram-rod (and a powder bag he had to tear with his teeth) for over a minute before being able to take another. There was no way an individual could maim two people before being subdued, let alone 32 as at Virginia Tech, or 26 in Sandy Hook Elementary the site of what is now the deadliest school shooting in US history.
Madison never meant Second Amendment to allow guns of Sandy Hook shooting