By Hari Kumar, Deputy National Secretary of the American Party of Labor.
The historical distortions around the Second Amendment:
The Second (2nd) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is often cited by the National Rifle Association (NRA), right wingers, and members of the Republican Party to justify rejecting most if not all gun regulations. They argue that the 2nd Amendment means that Americans are and should be “free” to carry arms. They say it gives Americans the right to bear arms to resist the “tyranny of governments.” Currently about a third of U.S. adults say they personally own a gun. As discussed in the Red Phoenix the proliferation of weaponry kills citizens of the USA, and ultimately is an anti-working class device. This is perceived differently across sectors within the working class, as the more vulnerable see more of a threat from guns. This was found in a recent large study. Attitudes on gun violence varied by race, with 80% of Black adults saying gun violence is a “very big problem,” in contrast to 59% of Hispanic adults or 24% of white adults seeing it as such. More whites and Hispanics viewed it as a “moderate problem” or less. (PEW)
The flimsy at best, and distorted history that is used by the right wing and the NRA is not well enough understood. Some honest non-aligned Americans are taken in by the Constitutional pomp and pretensions of the right wing.
The intent of the 2nd Amendment was to ensure the ruling class had access to an armed force ready to defend its independence from colonial powers, most especially the British. Recall that the 2nd Amendment refers to “the militia,” which is defined in the Free Dictionary as “an army composed of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers,” and “a military force that is not part of a regular army and is subject to call for service in an emergency.”
The original language of the 2nd Amendment reads as:
“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.”
In reality the new arising capitalist state quickly began to view the militias skeptically, fundamentally because militias might turn against the ruling class themselves. Moreover a centralized army could enable the dominant section of the ruling class (the emerging Northern capitalists) to tame its class ally (the slaveocracy). A central army could also ensure the ruling class to keep its oppressed people in line. That began with the suppression of Native Americans, Black slaves, and indentured servants. But as Shay’s Rebellion soon showed (see below), a central army could also suppress any militant, white, poorer farmers. Finally, later on a central standing army could suppress the proletariat of all colors. Such needs of the ruling class do not even consider the military activity in the later USA imperialist state about to seize parts of Mexico and later the Philippines.
The origins of opposition to standing armies in the American bourgeois democratic revolution:
As the former American colonists challenged their English masters in the American War of Independence, its leaders were hostile towards a standing army. They were spurred on by two facts. The ruling classes in the colonies of America had arisen from the English ruling class. Both had the recent memory of Cromwell’s Army, who had been regicides and killed King Charles. They drew one obvious conclusion, that a centralized army could be targeted against a ruling class. As the conservative class themselves, the independent new rulers of the colony still recognized this danger (Spitzer, R. J., 2020, The Politics of Gun Control, pp. 36-38). Meanwhile, the common people at large hated the ruthless, vicious behavior of the British troops. So for some time the militias could not be touched by the ruling classes who had used them to win the first battles for independence.
Hence warnings about a standing army were sounded early. In 1776 Samuel Adams wrote that a “standing army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the liberties of the people.” So strong was this sentiment that, “The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written in 1776, said that ‘standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty.’ This became enshrined in “the Declaration of Independence.” In which Thomas Jefferson complained that “He [the King] has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power” (Spitzer, 2020).
The War of Independence was carried out by citizen militias and an army, in reality amounting to “fourteen armies: the thirteen state militias and the Continental Army.” But early on a tension evolved between the views of the first constitution of the peoples (Articles of Confederation), expressing the fear of a centralized threat to liberty, and the need to coordinate the war of independence. As George Washington, the first commander of the Continental Army, pointed out, the untrained militias were “totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which being followed by a want of confidence in themselves, when opposed to Troops regularly train’d, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in Arms, makes them timid, and ready to fly from their own shadows.” Nonetheless, the American War of Independence was won in 1783. However the revolution had been won by a class alliance between several layers of colonial America.
The new ruling class in the USA:
The war installed a coalition ruling class of developing capitalists and landed slave-owning planters. Actually these had not changed in substance from prior to the anti-colonial revolution. As Edmund Morgan noted: “The fact that the lower ranks were involved in the contest should not obscure the fact that the contest itself was generally a struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established” (as cited in Zinn, 2003, A People’s History of the United States,” p. 83).
Over time this was bound to become an overt struggle against the people’s potential to rise against continued oppression by the ruling class. By 1787 it became evident that a central army to enforce State rule would evolve, due to Shay’s Rebellion and smaller pockets of unrest from militias. Between 1783 and 1787, steadily more sectors of the people were excluded from land, living, or any ‘freedom.’ At first the Constitution excluded “merely” Native Americans, Black slaves, indentured servants, and women. But the limits of freedom soon imperiled the poor whites including farmers. As the people rebelled it accompanied moves to limit the power of militias.
Shay’s Rebellion inspires moves to a centralized army:
Daniel Shay led a rebellion in January 1787, which reflected the impoverishment of the debt-burdened white middle to poor farmer class. Congress had injected an inflationary money supply to finance the War of Independence. The farmers struggled against overwhelming debts and taxes, and if they refused payments, the Western Massachusetts state forced land seizures. In response farmers rose and tried to close the courts. But they were firmly put down by Governor James Bowdoin with an army assembled by General Benjamin Lincoln. The unperturbed slave-owner Thomas Jefferson remarked, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing… The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
This convinced the ruling class that the unreliable militias would need to be countered by a national army. However one faction of the ruling class opposed moving to a central army. This was the strong pro-militia slavers: “Southerners in particular were very concerned about maintaining state militias to suppress slave rebellions because they were doubtful that a national government dominated by Northern interests would be willing to commit federal troops and supplies to keep African Americans in the bondage of slavery” (Spitzer, 2020, p. 45).
From the Second Amendment in 1791 to the 1901 formation of the National Guard:
The first Constitution was the 1777 Articles of Confederation. That was initially ratified by 13 states in 1781 and left a weak central government. But after Shay’s Rebellion, this was re-discussed. The Constitutional Convention struggled with this issue in 1787, coming up with a new Constitution. This therefore had to be re-ratified by a majority of states (9 of 13) in a vote in 1787. In the discussion the issue of militias against a state army had re-surfaced reflecting disagreements around a strong central state power. But by 1789, a federal government was established enabling federal courts, central taxation and presidential powers.
The Federalist Papers was a collection of essays written to promote ratification of the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. In one (No. 24, 1787) Alexander Hamilton argued “that it would be a mistake to restrict or ban standing armies in times of peace.” The tension between recognizing the nature of a modern army – and assuaging the protests of the militia lobby — became the compromise wording of the later 2nd Amendment. This simply ensured that in times of armed emergency, the central forces could recruit into a standing army at will, from the militias. For now the militias remained.
At no time did the debates around the Second Amendment invoke anything to do with rights of hunting, or individual rights. What was at stake was the ability to draft in extra men in case of further military combat with the former colonialists – England – or perhaps any new one such as the French. It is true that the militias continued to be deployed with devastating effects against the Indians and during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. But by then they were becoming a problem for ruling class central state control, as militias in Georgia and Virginia faced off against the national federal army over its members, forcing even more grossly unfair treatment than usual of Cherokee and Creek tribes. (Spitzer, p.46; Foner, pp. 195-198). Then after the militias performed excruciatingly poorly during the war of 1812 they were no longer even credible as a force to defend the nation.
The later Civil War (1861-65) further showed the need for a federal army to defend the dominant section of the ruling class’ interests. As the Northern based capitalists developed further and required movement of “free” labor, the ruling class coalition itself was bound to come into collision. This was noted by Marx for the International Working Men’s Association when addressing Abraham Lincoln in 1865: “When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, ‘slavery’ on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up.”
The disillusion with militias finally resulted in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 statements to Congress calling for reform: “Our militia law is obsolete and worthless.“ (Spitzer, p. 46). That reform sentiment now resulted in forming the National Guard, which, added to the now existing Army, removed any notion of the militia from modern life.
The Second Amendment does not relate to individual ownership of weapons. Rather it was a mechanism to ensure the state has adequate firepower in case of invasion. It was also a compromise formulation designed to prevent any standing, central army that was independent of the Congress. The transformation of the 2nd Amendment into the relatively recent fulmination of “individual rights” resulted from the National Rifle Association propaganda that began in the 1970s. It was then enshrined into a reinterpretation by the Supreme Court in 2008. This move coincided with the start of a rise of right wing “militias” in the USA. They underpin the Republican ideology as transformed by Trumpism. All these moves were assisted by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court Heller Decision of 2008:
As the National Rifle Association was trying hard to sell guns, the NRA staff lawyer and general counsel named Robert Dowlut started deluging the legal press. Dowlut unleashed a series of articles in the legal journals of the USA. These changed the overall climate, and inspired the right wing members of the Supreme Court including Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia:
“In 1997, Dowlut published his most forceful and sweeping article yet in the Stanford Law & Policy Review… That same year, ruling on the Brady Law case, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted the ‘growing body of scholarly commentary’ that had ‘marshal[ed] an impressive array of historical evidence,’ and hinted at his eagerness to hear a Second Amendment case. Justice Antonin Scalia, in his 1998 book, A Matter of Interpretation, stated that ‘dispassionate scholarship’ suggested there was a personal right to keep and bear arms. The revisionist view of the Second Amendment had gone mainstream.” (Dave Gilson, 2014, “The NRA’s Murder Mystery.”)
It is interesting that Dowlut had been jailed for murder for six years and then released upon what can be called a technicality. In any case, the stage was set. The legal movement Dowlut began together with the multi-millionaire Casey sparked a challenge to gun laws in New York that went to the Supreme Court. In a decision on what the Second Amendment meant, “The Supreme Court ruled that average citizens have a constitutional right to possess handguns for personal self protection in the home.” (Spitzer, 2017, “Gun Law History in the US and Second Amendment Rights.”)
“The court’s landmark 5 to 4 decision split along ideological grounds and wiped away years of lower court decisions that had held that the intent of the amendment, ratified more than 200 years ago, was to tie the right of gun possession to militia service.”
Barnes, Robert. (2008, June 27). “Justices Reject D.C. Ban On Handgun Ownership.” Washington Post.
The individual right of the citizen was promoted to erase the 2nd Amendment’s specific wording of the militia. Judge Scalia pontificated that “The Second Amendment… surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”
President Bush was pleased saying, “As a longstanding advocate of the rights of gun owners in America, I applaud the Supreme Court’s historic decision today confirming what has always been clear in the Constitution: The Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear firearms.”
The Vice President for Law and Policy at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Dennis A. Henigan, puts it differently: “(For) the Second Amendment… Scalia interprets ‘keep and bear Arms’ by ripping the phrase out of context; that is, by artificially separating the phrase from its stated purpose of ensuring a ‘well regulated Militia… necessary to the security of a free State.’ The issue is not whether ‘keep Arms’ and ‘bear Arms’ could have non-militia meanings in other contexts. The issue is the meaning of the phrase ‘keep and bear Arms’ in the context of a provision declaring the importance of a “well regulated Militia … to the security of a free State.” The closest contemporary usage of ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’ was in the Massachusetts Bill of Rights, which provided that ‘the people have a right to keep and bear arms for the common defense,’ in a provision that also warned of the dangers of peacetime armies and urged civilian control of the military. How do we know that ‘keep and bear arms’ in that provision did not refer to individual self-defense? Because its context says otherwise. In a similar way, the meaning of the same phrase in the Second Amendment is affected by the context supplied by the militia language. Only through highly selective reliance on context to derive meaning does Scalia arrive at his predetermined conclusion.”
The few restrictions that were still in place after the 2008 ruling were either never enforced or made ineffectual. These included “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The Court also said that certain types of especially powerful weapons might be subject to regulation, along with allowing laws regarding the safe storage of firearms. Further, the Court referred repeatedly to gun laws that had existed earlier in American history as a justification for allowing similar contemporary laws. (Spitzer, 2017)
Current Danger of Right-Wing Militias:
The shift towards individual gun ownership was accompanied by developing paramilitary organizations serving reaction. The far-right putsch attempt of January 6th, 2021, in Washington D.C. included bands such as the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters, among others. Individuals of the Republican Party either directly or indirectly agitated these militia movements to actions. Donald Trump at the rally preceding the 2021 storming of Congress declared to his followers: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He refused to call out the National Guard to quell the storming of the Congress. On the US-Mexico border, anti-immigration gangs have long systematically harassed immigrants. In 1977, David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, organized thousands of Klan members to the border to capture migrants and turn them in to the Border Patrol. Members of the fascist National Alliance penetrated the so-called Minutemen Project to brutalize migrants crossing the border from Latin America. The Proud Boys, the Minutemen, and Oathkeepers also participated with arms in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017. The armed terrorists clashed with counter-demonstrators with the intent of creating fear and panic. This led to the death of Heather Heyer and at least 49 other injuries.
The wording and intent of the Second Amendment was warped beyond any recognition to justify profiteering by the companies associated to the NRA, and the political agenda of the far right wing in the USA. The Supreme Court began a new descent into the defense of blatant right wing agendas from this time on. The working class can see through the lies of the Second Amendment agenda. Only people’s control over the agencies of the USA state can ensure a truly democratic agenda for the workers. That requires the building of a Marxist-Leninist party. One problem this building will confront is that some left organizations have invariably (nearly religiously) clung to the 2nd Amendment. This ignores the ongoing senseless slaughter of the working class by “individualists” and right-wingers.