The NRA’s stated purpose is the defense of Americans’ Constitutional (Second Amendment) right to keep and bear arms, and they zealously maintain that this right is both absolute and inviolable and all but natural. In its landmark 2008 decision, District of Columbia vs. Heller , the US Supreme Court held that self-defense is a natural right and that a 31-year-old ban on handguns in DC violated the Second Amendment. The NRA and gun rights supporters would have us all believe that the Second Amendment — and the right to bear arms –was somehow written on different paper than the rest of the Constitution and that it can thus never be changed. History simply does not support this position. In fact, it provides two Constitutional examples that support repeal — or at the very least, clarification — of the Second Amendment: Prohibition, and Slavery.
The ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment (18A) in January, 1919 ushered in the brief era of prohibition against the manufacture, sale, and transporation of alcoholic beverages in the United States, enforced under the Volestead Act of 1920. It was repealed just thirteen years later by the Twentyfirst Amendment. Its passage was mainly supported by Republicans, who hypocritically portrayed themselves as “dry”, tea-totalling moralists, and by Women Suffrage groups, who were themselves engaged in the long-running struggle to recognize women’s right to vote in the US. The third bedfellow were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christian groups, particularly the Methodists and Baptists. Women Suffrage groups believed that consumption of alcohol promoted domestic violence, concluding that it’s prohibition would greatly reduce such violence. One can easily imagine they’d be willing to do a bit of political horse-trading: that is, agreeing to support prohibition in exchange for support in their battle for voting rights. That the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified just a year and a half after 18A makes this seem all the more likely.
Some gun rights advocates will quickly point out that neither 18A nor 21A were part of the Bill of Rights and are therefore somehow less a part of the Constitution itself. Aside from the fact that this is a patently specious claim, the Thirteenth Amendment (13A) changed something that was originally codified in the Constitution itself, that is, slavery.
Slavery is mentioned three times in the main body of the US Constitution. It first appears in Article 1, Section 2, which lays out the “math” by which the number of representatives from each state are to be determined. So-called “other persons” (which included slaves) would count as three-fifths of a person for these purposes. This clause was inserted as a compromise between slave-holding (and also less populous) states and the more industrial, more densely-populated “free” states. The slave states, ironically, wanted their slaves to be counted as whole persons to help boost their alotment of representatives; free states felt that slaves shouldn’t be counted at all. Slavery is mentioned a second time in Article 1, Section 9, which prohibits the importation of slaves. Notice that this didn’t make slavery itself illegal. It simply meant that slave holders had to “buy American”. Slaves could still be bought and sold so long as they were born and bred in the US. It was not only legal to own slaves; it was constitutional!
The third and probably most damning codification of slavery in the Constitution is found in Article 4, Section 2, which established that run-away slaves caught in a free state must be extradicted back to the state — and the owner — from which they had escaped. There is neither question nor doubt that slavery was very much a part of and explicitly supported by the US Constitution.
It is historical fact that Founders such as Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and Madison, though slave-holders themselves, abhorred slavery and recommended that slavery be abolished. Yet, it was so strongly entrenched in the national economy and psyche that it would take nearly a century, culminating in what still remains our most lethal war to excise it from our laws and our land.
And yet, the fact is that slavery in the US — somthing that was even more “Constitutional” than the right keep and bear arms — was abolished.
Then and Now
Over the past 226 years since the Constitution was first ratified, much has changed in the world and in the United States. The country has grown in land, population, and world presence and influence. Things we take for granted today didn’t exist in 1787: Flight, computers, space travel, the marvels of modern medicine come quickly to mind. There was also no such thing as a police department anywhere in the US. We had volunteer fire departments since colonial times, and hospitals had already been around, in various (sometimes rather gruesome) forms long before the Revolution. And, even though the US had no standing — that is, regular — army, we could (and out of necessity, on many occasions DID) call up volunteers to form well-regulated militias. These could take the form of rag-tag groups of citizens with guns or farm implements assembled into a posse to track down a wild animal or a criminal that might be serving grief to a town or hamlet. Or, it could be a larger, more highly regimented mustering of “troops”, under a chain of command who had, at some point, received formal training in the arts of war, such as during the Revolution.
But, with the possible exception of Philadelphia, no city had a police force. Police work, as such, was done by local sheriffs and their deputies, who were usually elected by the localities they served. These duties were about as limited as their resources and amounted mostly to process serviing, evictions, and handling the occasional “civil disturbance” (i.e., Friday night down at the local becoming a bit too energetic.) New York didn’t even have a police department until well into the nineteenth century. Same for Boston. Police departments that did exist were more constabulary than para-military. The highly-organized system of ranks and chain-of-command was something that didn’t really appear until after the Civil War.
To be able to handle situations that required more than a sheriff and a deputy or two, citizens (read: male land-owners) would be called upon to volunteer for deputization to address the issue at hand. Once the matter had been resolved, these deputies would then be dismissed. Obviously, having an armed citizenry to call upon was necessary in such times and circumstances.
We have long since outgrown the ability of a single sheriff or a handful of constables to keep watch and maintain order when the “boys” get a little to worked up. We now have highly-organized, well-armed law enforcement at local, city, state and federal levels. We also have the most expensive, well-armed, well-trained military on the planet. It is painfully clear that need for an armed citizenry so that we can form “well-regulated militias” no longer exists. To suggest that the purpose of keeping citizens well-armed is to prevent the government from getting too much power is to ignore one simple fact: GOVERNMENT ALREADY HAS FAR, FAR MORE FIREPOWER THAN ANY WELL-ARMED CITIZENRY COULD EVER HOPE TO OVERCOME. (I’ve already covered this point in an earlier post, so I won’t belabor it here.)
There is, therefore, no longer a need for militias to maintain the security of a free state. We have police departments and our military. There is also clear and unequivocal precedent for modifying the Constitution itself, as well as amending the amendments. There is nothing “sacred” about any one particular word, phrase, or sentence in our Constitution. What makes it important is something more than the sum of its parts, or the durability of any one of its parts. Our Constitution lays the foundation for a government that is empowered by the governed — We, the People. But, we are not frozen in time. We are born, we live, we die, our way of life continued by those who come after us. Neither, then, is the Constitution frozen in time, nor should it be. The Framers knew this and made provision for it to be amended, even expected, encouraged, and authored such amendments right from the start. To suggest that any part of it is “sacred” or otherwise immutable is not only silly, it demonstrates a poor grasp of the Constitution itself as well as a disregard for the principles embodied therein.
If any part of the Constitution should be held in highest regard, it should be the opening words — the Preamble.
We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
The NRA and gun rights adherents will tell you that an armed society is a polite society. In fact, however, societies in which politeness — domestic tranquility, if you like — is maintained by the threat of lethal force is called prison. Allowing anyone to purchase a gun without so much as a simple background check, or allowing anyone to own weapons that can fire more than a handful of bullets without reloading, does far, FAR more to undermine the general welfare than to promote it. We invest our trust and our treasure in providing for our common defense against those who would seek to destroy that which we hold dear, who would seek to take away those blessings of liberty from ourselves and from our children. The NRA can shout and carry on all it likes about the “sanctity” of their precious Second Amendment. What is becoming clearer with every mass killing, with each new incident of a child or some innocent bystander being gunned down by weapons the NRA has actively encouraged everyone to own, carry, and use, is that the NRA and the Second Amendment are out of step with the rest of the Constitution, and with the values of the people who wrote it, and all who are sworn to uphold it and abide by it. We, the People, have long since outgrown our need — or our use — for both of them.