I was planning to continue my writing on the U.S. Constitution, especially about how it is part of climate change as well as campaign finance and granting the rights of human beings to others.
However, something else has come up, something constitutional, but not so much about how court decisions and amendments have modified and refreshed our guiding document, but about a myth that is attached to it. Now there is nothing so unusual about myths replacing reality in history nor are myths always harmful, but they can be; they can be dangerous, even deadly.
That being the case, sometimes we need to rethink a myth to see whether it truly has anything to do with our time; whether the frequency with which it is repeated has anything to do with its validity; whether it has anything to do with the issue with which it is associated.
If we determine that the answer is no; that the founders’ concerns of the late 1700s are no longer an issue, because they were expressed in the midst of a war to gain independence from a foreign power, one that instead of using its military to defend its subjects, was using these armed forces to oppress them. We need to consider how our time is different from the late 18th century; whether we’re dealing with the fundamental freedoms that remain fully alive for 21st century Americans: religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, the ones the Bill of Rights emphasizes by placing them in the First Amendment.
In contrast, consider what the founders thought was of enough importance to place in the Third Amendment: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” A problem back then, certainly, with foreign troops in our midst, but not today, and who now cites this part of the Constitution as the basis for a freedom that is threatened?
With these two amendments as a frame, let us turn to the Second Amendment, which is about the “security of a free state … .” A permanent military is an established part of today’s United States. It’s common for our citizens to serve in our armed forces in a variety of ways; I am one of them.
But for my European ancestors of the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a different story. They had invaded the lands of an established people, who often resisted violently, and hunting was part of everyday life, so these newcomers were armed accordingly. When the relationship between the colonists and the English government unraveled in the later 1700s, it became the colonists’ turn to resist with force, which meant they had to acquire military weapons and they had to organize into militias. The term militia has taken on connotations far removed from the Minutemen that Paul Revere rode to warn, in part because we no longer need our citizens to organize and arm themselves with military weapons to provide for the “security of a free state … .”
Having a nation of more than 300 million people requires us to delegate all kinds of responsibilities in our much more complicated 21st century world, including what is “necessary to the security of a free state … ,” so we have delegated “the right of people to bear arms” to specialists, which we call police and soldiers, which our largely representative government does its best to see are “well regulated … .” Even with the dissent citizens have expressed about some of our wars, there is no longer neither king nor Parliment to “infringe” on the right of the American people, through its armed forces, “to keep and bear arms … .”
There is a important discussion to be held about military weapons and their copies in the hands of civilians, about hunting as it exists in our time, and about target shooting at a range, a discussion between people who can work together to address common concerns and leave the Second Amendment myth out of it. Our fundamental freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition are not at issue. However, the responsibility that goes with freedom is. The conversation cannot begin soon enough.
John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community journalist and a patriot.