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As Long as We Remember...

April 17, 2013

"Keep and Bear Arms"

Patrick W. Allen

Navigating the cacophony of interpretation and opinion regarding the most cited, used and misused words in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly demonstrates an ongoing selective re-definition of strict constitutional language written over two hundred years ago.


It's astonishing how so few words have being adapted and re-purposed to meet the political objectives for individuals, groups and political parties.


The Founding Fathers (Framers) were an eclectic group of land owners, publishers, scientists, businessmen and bankers ... not too unlike those who currently hold office in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. For the most part, the Framers were forwarding thinking individuals driven by the awareness and knowledge of technological advances and historical events which preceded them. Like today, they also struggled with consensus and compromise ... i.e., 3/5 person, no women's voting rights; and, although everyone was considered equal according to the Framers own writings at the time, everyone did not turn out to be equal.


A clear indication of how the Framers approached an unknown future can be found in the Bill of Rights, specifically in the Second Amendment. Here, the Framers purposefully wrote specific language with enough guidance, albeit ambiguous to some, so that the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government would have to work together to keep this right relevant in a changing world.


2nd Amendment: “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.”


Keep: To hold in one’s possession. To have custody of.


Bear: To display. To have on one’s person.


Notice that the text in the Second Amendment does not define ownership, purchase, make or model of “Arms.” This is clearly, based on the Framers understanding regarding the historical evolution of firearms technology; where the Framers realized having a firearm in a citizen’s possession is one matter, but the continued, expected and unknown evolution of firearms technology is a matter to be taken up by future legislative bodies.


A Bit of History … Following the War of Independence, aside from Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, the United States was a frontier nation based on a loose coalition of colony states. The West was wide open, with much of it uncharted, and the new country was looking forward to a new beginning for its occupants. At this moment in time, the range of available firearms was limited, but what was available was required by those who needed to put food on the table and to protect their families and personal property.


For almost a century, small, but not evolutionary, advances were being made with firearms technology.  However, during the second half of the 19th Century, significant advances were being made in ammunition (cartridge) as well as improvements to both long guns and hand-held revolvers.


America’s First Spray-n-Pray Weapon … In 1861, Dr. Richard Gatling patented the Gatling Gun, a six-barreled weapon capable of firing a phenomenal 200 rounds per minute. It gun was a hand-driven, crank-operated, multiple barrel, machine gun. It weighed approximately 800 lbs. and typically required a team of horses to move it from site to site. Because of its weight and difficulty to transport, along with a regulated inventory, the government was not concerned with this weapon falling into the hands of private citizens.


Gen. George Armstrong Custer was provided two Gatling guns to take on his journey to the western Indian territories. The general turned down the offer, citing the gun’s weight and transportation difficulties.


The Need for Government Intervention … While General Custer was meandering westward toward his destiny, cities, towns and villages throughout the Mid-West were quickly recognizing that just like in war time, firearms are the weapon of choice to solve grievances and disputes. Add a little whiskey, and maybe a disagreement over who gets the girl and a bad outcome is inevitable. Local law enforcement developed and upheld a policy of confiscating firearms at the city limit line as the cowboys rode into town for a night of rowdy behavior. Those who disputed the public safety policy were simply turned around and sent galloping back to their bunk houses. Those who complied, handed over their firearms, found the closest saloon and howled at the moon to their heart’s content. There were no pro-gun rallies and nary a peep of infringement to a cowboy’s Second Amendment rights.


America’s Second Spray-n-Pray Weapon … In 1919 John Thompson invented the iconic and soon to be notorious Thompson Machine Gun. Mr. Thompson offered the highly maneuverable rapid fire weapon to the Army, but the Army declined … principally because of the $200 price tag. It is important to note that the Armed Forces did bring the Thompson firearm into the inventory, but not until 1938, when it became an instant hit with soldiers and a must-have sought after weapon.


However, between 1919 and 1938, the 600-plus rounds per minute sub-machine gun came off the production line to be used as a “Chopper” or “Chicago Typewriter.” While the Army turned its back on the weapon, private citizens (known as gangsters) were employing the “Tommy Gun” as a tool of their trade. To keep pace, police departments also began to order the gun as they did not want to be outgunned.


The popularity of sub-machine guns such as the Thompson with violent gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s was one of the main reasons given for passage of the National Firearms Act by Congress in 1934. One of its provisions is that all owners of any fully automatic firearm were required to register them with the predecessor agency of the modern Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The law also placed restrictions on the possession, transfer, and transport of the weapons.


Once again, there were no pro-gun rallies or shouts of government overreach and Second Amendment infringement.


Summary … Regardless of the side you take in the gun debate, or whether you even take a side, it is important to note that our government has the obligation and legislative authority to periodically determine the range of firearms available to its citizens. As in past cases, certain makes and models of firearms have been added to or removed from the list of approved weapons, based on the evolution of firearms technology as well as changes in societal and cultural norms … all without disturbing the constitutionality of the Second Amendment or infringing on a citizen’s right “to keep and bear arms.”


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