Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Original Gun Clappers: Shays' Rebellion and the Second Amendment

Eric Kelly. Paul Sciullo III. Stephen Mayhle. Those were the names that reverberated throughout the Pittsburgh area Easter weekend. Everywhere we went, their names rang out. Round-the-clock news coverage, flags at half-staff, even gas stations memorialized these three names. Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo III, and Stephen Mayhle were the three police officers killed by an NRA fanatic with an automatic weapon, Richard Poplawski. Now, I'll admit that I've often had an ... ambivalent relationship with the cops, but I'd hardly wish death on any of them. And these men died so needlessly--due to the insanity of one man and the failure of the dispatcher to tell these officers that their target collected firearms.

Ed Rendell. Wayne LaPierre. This past Sunday these two men were rehashing the same, old, tired debate on gun control on Face the Nation. The Pennsylvania governor and executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association regurgitated the cud that constitutes our nation's gun control debate--as though their arguments were actually new--as though those three officers had not just died needlessly--as though none of it really matters.

And I don't know if it really does matter. The NRA has our nation's politicians on lock. There's no telling how many of our pols are actually on their payroll, but those who aren't run in fear, knowing the NRA will target them in the next election cycle. They continue to have the power to reduce the gun "debate" to nothing more than these meaningless forums. They have been so powerful that their very interpretation of the Second Amendment holds sway over American politics (even that bleeding-heart liberal who's going to take away all their guns, Obama, believes the way they do).

"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."

This "well regulated Militia," they contend, is an individual's right to bear arms. There's hardly a person on the public stage who disagrees with them. More importantly, in their decision to repeal DC's gun ban, the Supreme Court made it clear that they will uphold the NRA's interpretation.

Now, I can't put this all on the NRA. It's how we Americans imagine our own history: Thomas Paine writes Common Sense; some dudes dump tea into a harbor; we sign the Declaration of Independence and form a nation; we fight a little war with the Brits; win; and we all (except those pesky, little slaves) live happily ever after.

So, we celebrate 1776 as the year of our birth. We somehow gloss over the fact that the Revolutionary War lasted seven years. We never really talk about the colonists who remained loyal to the British, how we retaliated against them, or how they fled back to Britain or off to Canada during and after the war. We don't talk about the four years after the War when our fledgling nation was hardly a nation at all--operating under a loose Articles of Confederation whose nebulous powers couldn't even determine whether America was one nation, a confederation of 13 nations, or simply 13 nations out for themselves. Most importantly, we never talk about the three rebellions America faced in its first years of existence--especially the one that finally forced our leaders to get their act together and finally forge the country we have today: Shays' Rebellion.

In August 1786, unpaid War veterans and disgruntled farmers tired of being thrown into debtors' prison formed armed units in central and western Massachusetts to forcibly halt property confiscations. In confrontations across the state, sometimes these groups faced off against local militia; and sometimes they actually were the local militia, forcing Massachusetts' rich to run scared.

On January 25, 1787, Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran, led a group to take the weapons from the Springfield armory. The governor sent two militias to meet Shays' forces. One general, Shepard, whose forces were unpaid, underfed, and inadequately armed, requested permission to use the armory's weapons. However, Secretary of War Henry Knox said that Shepard's request required Congressional approval and Congress was out of session. Therefore, Knox denied Shepard's militia the right to bear arms, being necessary to the security of a free State, Massachusetts (see where I'm going with this?).

Meanwhile, according to Jay Winik in his marvelous history, The Great Upheaval, Shays' rebellion also inspired other little dust-ups from Maine to Georgia. The 13 states were caught with their pants down. Many states didn't even have militias to defend themselves and had to beg rich patrons to supply defenses for them. And, when rebels would flee across state lines, these militias didn't know if they even had the authority to pursue the varmints.

Fortunately, those dust-ups didn't amount to much, and Shays' rebellion itself was finally quashed by March, 1878. The rebellion showed the nation's leaders that there were serious, potentially fatal flaws in the Articles of Confederation. The country had no institutional means with which to protect itself. In response, the Constitutional Convention convened in May of that year, the Constitution was drafted, and the Second Amendment was added to address what happened in Massachusetts and across the nation.

In other words, despite the public discourse on the matter we have today, the Second Amendment is not some vague or misworded amendment about an individual's right granted by the Constitution at all. It's a very specific amendment meant to address a very specific problem the nation faced at the time: it did not want to repeat the problem General Shepard and Secretary Knox faced when a state's militia was left defenseless.

The Second Amendment says that a state's militia has the right to defend itself and, therefore, does not need Congress' approval to do so. It says absolutely nothing about an individual's right. If you don't believe me, look at it again. However, if you want to address whether or not an individual has a right to bear arms, my non-Constitutional lawyer ass would guess that you need to look at the Tenth Amendment:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

In other words, since the Constitution does not expressly rule on the issue, it is up to each, individual state and municipality to decide what its gun laws are. Though our "strict constructionist" judges like Scalia proclaim to only apply the Constitution as it was originally written, we can see here that they are more "activist" on this issue. The amendment refers only to "militia" and no where does it say a thing about the "individual." These conservative judges simply fail to acknowledge the context in which the Second Amendment was written. The actually history simply fails to fit their ideology, and they choose to ignore it. As does the NRA.

Therefore, despite the intentions of our forefathers and their own rhetoric about "states' rights," it was all too easy for the Roberts Court to strip all local governments of their right to determine their own gun policies. And the NRA is hellbent and determined to make sure our local and national governments never regain that right. Both will fight for this imagined individual right to own a gun--whether it be single-loading like Cheney's musket or fully-automatic like the gun Richard Poplawski used to slaughter Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo III, and Stephen Mayhle. As long as the Court remains similarly constituted and as long as the NRA holds onto the power its already got, none of this nonsense is going to change.


jmderosa said...

awesome post, sir.

carlye's blog said...

are you racist?

carlye's blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.