What the Second Amendment Really Says

Ideas and Issues
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New Orleans      Continuing to look for silver lining in the clouds of pandemic, a note in the paper caught my eye.  Because schools have been shut down around the country, the US has  now gone without any school shooting incidents for more than a month for the first time in quite a long time.  I was reminded of this gruesome fact as well seeing that twenty were killed in Nova Scotia in a house to house massacre by a gunman dressed as a cop.  It’s another virus that’s spreading.

Recently on Wade’s World,  I spoke with Jonathan Hennessey, a Los Angeles based author and documentarian.   While working on another project focusing on the US Constitution, Hennessey, delving into the history, was struck by how the much cited and constantly controversial Second Amendment, focusing on the right to bear arms, has been misinterpreted.  All of which led him to create the documentary, “You Don’t Understand the Second Amendment,” a title which minces no words and gets right to the point.  I had initially found myself grousing that I was going to have to watch a two-hour plus film to prepare for the interview, thinking I might prefer to put bamboo shoots under my fingernails instead, but some of the history was fascinating, and, frankly, I learned and relearned some things, and I bet you would have the same experience.

So, let’s join Hennessey and pop some myth-bubbles that conservatives and zealots have been using to distort the history around our right to own guns.

Remember that there are two parts to the Second Amendment.  The first says we can bear arms and the second talks about the role of a militia. When the Founding Fathers were talking about bearing guns they were talking about hunting and home defense, not military-grade weapons.  No one was allowed to own artillery pieces, and Hennessey’s film points out that AK-47’s and the like have more capacity than any mortar or cannon of that time.  The militia piece of the Second Amendment is a rough weld that came from a series of political compromises, but there was nothing about it that justified the argument that private citizens had the right to decide to organize themselves into a militia to fight the government.  In fact, everything about the history made it clear that any militia would be controlled and run by the state governments rather than in opposition to any government.  State constitutions were clear on this as well, and governors themselves were usually designated to lead the militia.

All of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were add-ons after the Constitution was written in order to win approvals of the states.  In fact, contrary to current mythmaking, only three states proposed adding the Second Amendment.  James Madison, the chief author of the Constitution, and of course the Federalist Papers that made their political case, wanted no amendments.  He agreed to this one and others as an election campaign issue running for a Congressional seat in Virginia against James Monroe, by appearing to compromise and accept some, sufficiently to win the race.  Both would later become president.

You get the message.  There’s a lot none of us really know about the Second Amendment.  It’s worth getting the history and the facts straight before we swallow the NRA line and fake news whole.  If you’re willing to have an open mind and learn something, then Jonathan Hennessey’s “You Don’t Understand the Second Amendment” is available for free on Vimeo and a bunch of other platforms.  Surprise yourself.  Take a look!