In what can only be reckoned an instance of cognitive derangement, defenders of last year’s January 6 attack on the Capitol have ventured to suggest that an episode of overt violence involving multiple deaths was in fact a legitimate act of political dissent, a lawful exercise of the First Amendment’s assertion of rights to free speech and—wait for it—”peaceable assembly.” Still more absurd, however, is a fundamental misreading of the Second Amendment that encourages such flawed interpretations.
Unravelling the twisted logic here will require a recap of events of the year 1786, when the first armed insurrection in U.S. history occurred in western Massachusetts. Known as Shays’ Rebellion, the uprising took place in and around Northampton, where a veteran of the American Revolution named Daniel Shays and a growing number of followers had fallen into debt during the economic uncertainty that attended the country’s newly-won independence.
Having been granted bounty land for their military service, many of these men had taken out loans for improvements to their new property, and found themselves unable to make the payments on these debts. When the banks initiated foreclosures, Shays and his men began appearing at the bankruptcy auctions, armed and determined to prevent the sale of their farms. In response, officials in Boston ordered the raising of a force of militia to restore order. At this, Shays and a group estimated at as many as a thousand men planned an assault on the federal armory at Springfield, hoping to seize weapons and defy all governmental authority.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, then capital of the United States, President George Washington received news of the insurrection only to realize that he had no legal authority to do anything about it. While empowered to defend the country against foreign enemies, under the Articles of Confederation that had been drafted during the Revolution he had no mandate to act against domestic uprisings.
Fortunately for the cause of law and order, the Massachusetts militia proved equal to the challenge, intercepting Shays’ motley army and scattering it northward into the wilds of Vermont, then an independent republic. Even so, the ongoing threat of such uprisings was enough to compel Washington and his closest advisors, chiefly Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, to organize the drafting of a new document that would, among other things, grant the federal government the authority to defend the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
The resulting Constitution of the United States was completed in late summer of 1787, and the following year was submitted to the individual states for ratification. Listed among a series of initial amendments was one that a) acknowledged the role militia forces had played in the national defense and b) sought to ensure that those called upon to serve in such forces would be familiar with the use of firearms. It read as follows: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Nowhere does this language suggest that the militias in question might consist of vigilantes intent on overthrowing the government whenever they happened to disagree with it. Both the text of the amendment and its historical context clearly convey precisely the opposite, that militias were intended to be regulated by and serve in support of established authority. And yet, the former interpretation has become widely accepted by today’s insurrectionists, who tend to see themselves as self-appointed freedom-fighters answerable to nobody.
Buttressing their argument is another misinterpretation of the amendment in question: the notion that its reference to “arms” inevitably extends to modern assault rifles, weapons that bear little resemblance to the smooth-bore muskets the founders originally intended. At a time when conservatives have embraced the dubious theory of originalism, whereby Supreme Court justices are obliged to interpret the Constitution as it was understood at the time it was written, their insistence on applying the amendment to modern weaponry is at best glaringly hypocritical and at worst a death-dealing instance of political subversion.
To understand how this came about, we need only look to the incestuous relationship that exists between modern gun manufacturers and the army of lobbyists who work on their behalf, both of which profit handsomely from the notion that all manner of guns must be made widely available to the general public. Small wonder, then, that supporters of the ad hoc militias who took part in the January 6 attack should characterize their insurrection as an act of legitimate political discourse, a self-empowering fantasy with disastrous implications for civil society.
In addition to eroding confidence in popular democracy, this approach to gun regulation has led to the deaths of hundreds of unsuspecting victims, many of them small children, whose lives have been ended in the most violent way imaginable by mentally unstable assassins with easy access to assault weapons. That such guns should be sold to and openly carried by members of the general public defies any logical or historical interpretation of the country’s guiding principles and is plainly insane.