Now Is the Time for Sensible Gun Control
The massacre at a Las Vegas concert that killed 59 people and injured more than 500 on October 1 — and was followed this week by further murders in Maryland — has aroused public outrage about America’s laissez-faire gun laws.
With little hope for a reduction in horrific gun violence, critics are challenging the gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. That provision states:
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.
The right of militias, and US citizens, to own guns makes a lot of sense — when understood in historical context.
At the beginning of the war for independence, the Continental Army did not have a highly organized military infrastructure, nor sufficient supplies of weapons, uniforms or provisions to match the British. That’s why soldiers were expected to bring their own guns. “Standard issue” weapons were unheard of. The most preferred combat weapons were the single-shot rifle and the single-shot musket.
Nevertheless, the Continental Army often lacked the weapons and supplies to effectively battle the British: “A shortage of arms was chronic. Little more than a year after the outbreak of the war, one quarter of the Continental Army had no guns.”
The North Carolina Museum of History describes a prominent incident in which the lack of weapons and supplies thwarted a military opportunity:
The North Carolina troops planned an expedition to Georgia and Florida, but it failed for lack of supplies. One officer defended General Robert Howe of North Carolina, stating that the public was throwing a thousand reflections on the General and the army for not marching to attack the enemy and storm lines, without provisions and without ammunition.
With the signing of the Paris Treaty in 1783 — which brought an end to the Revolutionary War — the 13 colonies, along with the land east of the Mississippi that was ceded to America by the British, only constituted about a third of the present United States. That was still the landscape of America when the Constitution was ratified in 1788, and also when the first ten amendments were approved by the states in 1791.
The potentially hostile armies of France, Spain and Mexico surrounded America’s western and southern borders — and the British occupied Canada and the far west (what is now Oregon and Washington).
After the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783, the United States reduced its standing military to only a token force. The United States Army wasn’t established until 1796, five years after the adoption of the Second Amendment. This means that for at least that five-year period — with dangers looming on all its borders — the United States was totally dependent on state militias for national defense. No wonder, therefore, that the Second Amendment called for armed militias.
I support gun control — which would require background checks, the prohibition of assault weapons for civilians and the linking of gun-purchase databases with no-fly lists and lists of suspected terrorists.
Yet at the time of the Second Amendment, I would have argued for a strong provision for gun ownership: one requiring everyone of military age to own a gun. This would have insured the necessary preparedness for the dangers that our fledgling nation faced, surrounded by potential adversaries with highly-trained and well-supplied armies.
Today though, such a provision makes no sense given that the United States military, despite recent claims to the contrary, is the best equipped and best trained in the history of the world. What was vital to America in the 18th century may have little relevance to 21st-century America.
During the eight years of the American Revolution, 8,000 patriots of the Continental Army were killed in battle — but their sacrifice gave us a nation.
During another eight years, from 2008-2015, more than 200,000 people in the United States lost their lives due to gun violence. And what do we have to show for that loss other than grief, pain and the bewilderment of the rest of the world at our gun laws?
It’s time for a new revolution — with gun laws that honor America, its founders and their sacrifices.
Bernard Starr, PhD, is professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.”