Meadville Tribune


October 23, 2013

Gun regulation columnist fails to grasp key history behind Second Amendment

“... the right of the citizens to keep and bear arms” is “the palladium of the liberties of a republic ...”

— Justice Joseph Story

“Self-defense, therefore, as it is justly called the primary law of nature, so it is not, neither can it be in fact, taken away by the law of society.”

— William Blackstone

On the subject of gun control, it is quite evident to me that Mr. Tyler Mattera (column Sept. 26, “Guns are only a problem because conservative owners allow them to be”) has some rather profound misperceptions of the motivations of his political opponents and he is apparently ignorant of the origins of the Second Amendment and the thoughts of the founders who wrote it.

The Founding Fathers were steeped in the history of English common law and the philosophical underpinnings of The Enlightenment. They were astute observers of the human condition and they were intimately familiar with the writings of Locke, Hobbes and Montesquieu and they were also well aware of the recent history of the political troubles in England that culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1689.

Common Englishmen had a tradition of ownership of arms that dated back to the Saxon invasion and the concept of a militia was introduced around 690 AD. These liberties persisted throughout the reign of King Alfred and during the Norman Conquest and beyond, greatly influencing the evolution of English government. Under common law, commoners were required to own the most fearsome military arm of the day, the English longbow, which was capable of killing an armored knight, which the French learned to their dismay at the Battle of Agincourt. The concept of a militia composed of common Englishmen was greatly expanded by Tudor monarchs, rendering England nearly impregnable to foreign invasion.

The ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell resulted in the first serious attempts at arms control. Cromwell and the Stuart kings greatly distrusted the commoners, regarding them as potentially treasonous, and a great deal of effort was expended in an attempt to confiscate weapons. These actions created a great deal of resentment and were ultimately, along with such laws as the Hunting Act, instrumental in provoking the Glorious Revolution, which caused James II to flee to France.

The Declaration of Rights that arose from this conflict codified the right to bear arms; “the subjects which are Protestant may have arms for their defense ...” These monumental historical events occurred less than 100 years before our own revolution and the founders were most assuredly intimately familiar with them. The common law tradition of ownership of arms was very much a part of the fabric of Colonial America and these rights were jealously guarded. Indeed, the Revolutionary War was started when British General Thomas Gage attempted to confiscate powder and arms stored in a little town named Concord, Mass.

During the writing of the Bill of Rights and specifically the Second Amendment, the founders drew upon these many experiences, their vast knowledge of philosophy and history, both English and their own, and nearly 1,000 years of common law tradition. There are innumerable contemporary citations describing the thoughts of these men regarding arms, including: “The advantage that Americans have over every other nation is that they are armed” (James Madison); and “The great objective is that every man be armed; everyone who is able may have a gun” (Patrick Henry). The first eight Amendments to the Bill of Rights all describe individual rights. For modern scholars to assert that the Second is only one that is reserved to the states is ludicrous. As to the notion of a “well regulated” militia, the actual meaning of “well regulated” in the 1780s was “well functioning.”

So, how did gun control ever even become a viable political philosophy? As it turns out, the vast majority of gun control laws have their origins in the Confederate South. There are innumerable historical citations describing the passage of gun control laws specifically aimed at preventing African Americans from owning guns. The Southern gentry was terrified at the prospect of retribution and they did everything in their power to limit the possession of arms by non-Whites, with such laws multiplying during Reconstruction.

The North is of course not immune from prejudice. The first major gun control law in the North was the Sullivan Act, enacted in 1911 in New York. It is widely accepted that this law was directly aimed at the newly arrived Italian and Irish immigrants. The subsequent major gun control laws of the 20th century (the National Firearms Act, the Gun Control Act and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban) were all enacted by so-called progressives as they used various social upheavals to justify further impositions on our rights.

Mr. Mattera accuses the advocates of a natural right to self defense, a right that is based on a 1,500-year common law tradition, of “selfishness,” that we “support the violence that is plaguing this country” and that we “perpetuate a philosophy that enables ... mass shootings.” I will endeavor to not impugn Mr. Mattera’s viewpoints in such language but I will make several observations about his assertions regarding recent events.

The common denominator of virtually all of the recent mass shootings is that they occurred in “gun-free zones” and they were perpetrated by people who were seriously mentally ill. From Sandy Hook to Fort Hood to Aurora to Columbine to the Washington Navy Yard, in every one of these places the victims were unarmed and the shooter was insane (except for Major Hassan at Fort Hood, who’s a terrorist).

The cities with the highest murder rates, such as Chicago, are invariably those with strict gun control laws. The use of a gun in self defense occurs about 2.5 million times a year in the U.S., the vast majority of incidents never resulting in shot being fired. The only effective defense that the majority of women and most senior citizens have against a violent criminal is a gun.

As for gun registration, the only people who could be expected to comply are the law abiding. Criminals, by definition, don’t follow the rules. And finally, as to the “ridiculous” notion that a citizen should ever be concerned about his government, would he perhaps be referring to the same government that has been spying on all of our emails and phone records? The one that assassinates U.S. citizens on a presidential “kill list” using drones? The one that harasses their political opponents with IRS audits?

We, the supporters of the Second Amendment, will NEVER relinquish our God-given right to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. This right is an ancient one and it is the only effective method of protecting oneself from violent criminals and, in the very last resort, from tyrannical government. I will end with this quote from the founder of Mr. Mattera’s school, George Mason: “To disarm the people (is) the best and most effective way to enslave them.”

Dr. Frederic McDermott is a Meadville-area resident and member of the PENNCREST School Board.

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