Saying the words “what the Founding Fathers intended” involves a lot of assumptions. No matter how brilliant they were, the men who put together the United States of America could hardly imagine the Industrial Revolution, let alone what came the following century.
In short, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights serve as great blueprints yet in many ways are dated documents. You see the problem in debates over the Second Amendment, which become noisy every time there’s a mass shooting in America.
People arguing gun issues often don’t know where the amendment came from and what it meant to our founders. With the noise louder than ever following the death of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, here are the biggest misconceptions and outright lies you’ll hear about the Second Amendment in 2018.
1. ‘It begins and ends with the right to bear arms.’
People who think this way are the same ones who share a headline on Facebook without reading the article. If you look at the Bill of Rights, you’ll find James Madison says quite a bit more:
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.
Any way you want to twist it, having “well regulated” at the start opens the door to any regulation Congress might want to pass. If anyone claims to be strict about interpreting the Constitution, it means reading the entire amendment — all 27 words of it.
Next: Since there was no standing army, a militia needed to be ready to fight for the country.
2. ‘The 2nd Amendment has nothing to do with the army.’
There was no standing army in 1790, and Alexander Hamilton wrote about the subject in The Federalist Papers (1788). Hamilton acknowledged the widespread belief at the time that “standing armies are dangerous to liberty,” and he proposed regulating a militia to handle the job.
Remember, prior to the Revolutionary War, British soldiers had gunned down colonists in the streets. The American experiment therefore would not include such an army. Yet the U.S. would still have to defend itself from enemies from abroad and on the continent. Hamilton’s militia would serve as “the most natural defense of a free country.”
Quite simply, the Second Amendment has everything to do with the military and nothing to do with citizens owning guns in their free time.
Next: Unrestricted gun ownership would have horrified men who didn’t allow 90% of populations to vote.
3. ‘The Founding Fathers allowed for unrestricted gun ownership.’
When the Founding Fathers agreed on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, many of the basic rights Americans take for granted did not exist. Women could not vote. Slaves did not count as full human beings. (They came to three fifths of an individual, for tax and representation purposes.)
Over 50% of white men did not have the right to vote, according to Albert McKinley’s 1905 study on the subject. Only white landowners over 21 could exercise the franchise. In Pennsylvania, one of the original colonies, a tiny fraction of the rural population (8%) could vote in 1790.
We mention this because people actually believe the Founding Fathers allowed for military-style weapons in citizens’ hands. When they didn’t trust 90% of the population with the right to vote, why exactly would they arm every man with a high-powered gun for sport?
Next: The Founders’ militia was the enemy of rebel Americans.
4. ‘The idea of militias allows for rebellion by Americans.’
This one you’ll hear from the most paranoid gun owners, some of whom may actually know people in (or belong to) an underground militia. Seeing that the Founding Fathers considered a militia the first line of defense for America, they certainly would not have been comfortable with armed bands of citizens.
In fact, the Militia Acts of 1792 required white males to own a musket and other equipment to stop such uprisings. When some tax-protesting Pennsylvanians launched the Whiskey Rebellion (1792-94), George Washington led a group of state militias to halt the rebellion. It’s what we call the National Guard, a subdivision of the U.S. Army, today.
Next: If the Second Amendment is under attack, gun sales have a funny way of showing it.
5. ‘The 2nd Amendment is under attack.’
You don’t go long without hearing the Second Amendment is “under attack,” but we’re not sure what that means. Certainly, the number of guns in America has skyrocketed over the past decades.
An analysis by Mother Jones showed about 190 million guns for a U.S. population of 260 million in 1994. By 2012, America was home to well over 300 million guns for a population of 320 million. Gun sales have boomed, and the Second Amendment remains untouched.
Next: Only one Supreme Court ever allowed for individual gun ownership in 230 years.
6. ‘Individuals are guaranteed the right to keep guns by the 2nd Amendment.’
It doesn’t get any more basic than this myth. There is nothing in the amendment that says gun owners can own and keep firearms in their homes. Legal scholars have studied the question for centuries, and the Supreme Court never ruled otherwise — until 2008.
In the Heller decision of ’08, the individual finally got that right in a 5-4 (i.e., party-line) decision. Still, the Supreme Court said it did not include the “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
Next: Gun ownership only became a fiercely conservative position in recent decades.
7. ‘Conservatives always interpreted the 2nd Amendment this way.’
Warren Burger, appointed by President Richard Nixon as Supreme Court Chief Justice in 1969, got the job because of his conservative record in the Republican party and court system. Burger held the nation’s top judicial post for 17 years.
“If I were writing the Bill of Rights now, there wouldn’t be any such thing as the Second Amendment,” Burger told PBS in 1991. “This has been the subject of the greatest fraud on the American people by special interest groups in my lifetime.”
Just after, Burger brought up a point echoed by Parkland teenagers in 2018. “If a militia, which was going to be the state army, was going to be well regulated, why wouldn’t 16- and 17-year-olds be regulated in the use of arms?”
Next: Arguments for zero gun control often devolve into lies like this one.
8. ‘Gun control laws would mean a surge in illegal guns.’
This scare tactic, usually heard from the gun lobby (representing gun sellers), misses several points at once. America has seen how guns easily end up in the hands of the wrong people. Smarter gun laws won’t increase those numbers.
Countries such as Germany and France, both of which have strict gun laws, have dramatically lower levels of gun ownership (and a fraction of the gun violence). Besides, how exactly could Americans improve upon the 300 million guns already in circulation?
Next: Actually, Americans are quite ready for gun regulations.
9. ‘Americans don’t want gun regulations.’
This lie has been shot to pieces in 2018. Check any survey and you’ll find universal (95% or better) support for background checks. With the Parkland tragedy in the news, a Quinnipiac poll revealed even stronger opinions on the issue from Americans.
For example, 83% supported a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases. Meanwhile, 67% supported a ban on assault weapons. Finally, in the highest number Quinnipiac ever polled. 66% supported “stricter gun laws.”
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