MISHAWAKA-- Tuesday, Sept. 17, marked the 232nd birthday of the Constitution of the United States. To celebrate the event, Dr. John Haas, Associate Professor of History, delivered a presentation concerning the history and controversy surrounding the Second Amendment.
“It’s something I’ve been reading about for several decades,” said Haas. He said that the Second Amendment must be viewed in two contexts--the context of our present debate and the context of the debate the founding fathers were having in the 1780s and 1790s.
Haas said that, while most people agreed that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms, the Supreme Court held that this right had little or nothing to do with the Second Amendment; rather, they held that the Second Amendment pertained strictly to militias.
However, that all changed eleven years ago. That’s when Justice Scalia handed down the decision in the case District of Columbia v. Heller; the decision stated, “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
“We’re sort of left where we were before Heller,” said Haas, “which was the context of the debate in the 1780s and ‘90s.”
The Constitution was not drafted until after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. During the war, the government had been operating under the Articles of Federation. In 1787, these were completely thrown out, and the Constitution was proposed to take their place.
The Constitution was published in newspapers in the fall of 1787 along with a call for each state to hold conventions to vote on whether or not they would ratify the Constitution. Not everyone wanted to accept the Constitution, and the debate raged so hotly that it gave birth to two political parties: the Federalists (pro-Constitution) and the Anti-Federalists (anti-Constitution).
Patrick Henry identified himself as an Anti-Federalist and in 1788 he argued against the Constitution on the following grounds: “Your arms wherewith you could defend yourselves, are gone. A standing army we shall have also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny… [Congress’s] control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the States can do neither, this power being exclusively given to Congress.”
“In other words,” said Haas, “there’s no guarantee that we get to keep our arms in this new constitution.”
Indeed, during the first vote to ratify the Constitution, not every state agreed to pass it. So the Federalists came up with a compromise: the Bill of Rights.
“The Federalists said to the Anti-Federalists, ‘pass [the Constitution], and we will protect your rights,’” said Haas.
Haas explained that James Madison, who penned the Bill of Rights, would have considered the rights currently maintained by other states in their constitutions. Pennsylvania’s constitution maintained the right to bear arms and mentioned nothing about militias, whereas Virginia’s constitution did the direct opposite, insisting upon a militia and mentioning nothing about the individual right to keep and bear arms.
Madison’s final wording of the Second Amendment reads as follows: “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.”
Originally, Madison’s Bill of Rights contained 12 amendments; however, Congress only passed 10 of those amendments, leaving us with the Bill of Rights that we still use today.
According to Haas, the antiquity of the Bill of Rights is part of the problem.
“We are trying to get a clear answer from the Constitution, which may not be addressing those questions at all,” said Haas.
Haas said that it is very likely that the Second Amendment pertains only to militias.
“The people were the militia. The militia was the people. The people were white males over 18 who were fit to do that kind of stuff,” said Haas. “We do not have that situation today.”
Haas likened the debate about the Second Amendment to placing the Constitution on a rack.
“We’re taking the Constitution and we’re strapping it to a rack and we’re stretching the ropes and we’re trying to torture answers out it that it just doesn’t have.”
He added that the founding fathers would likely be surprised and disappointed that we are turning to them to answer the questions of today.
“They really did expect us to figure it out,” said Haas. “Thomas Jefferson only expected the Constitution to last 20 years. My guess would be that those 55 guys, if we brought them here, they would have varying opinions just like we do.”
He added that he is “fairly confident” that the founding fathers would have agreed with the individual right to keep and bear arms; however, what exactly they say what freedom would mean is another story.
“They would not comprehend our situation,” said Haas.
Haas said that, at the present time, he does not see a clear way to resolve the debate.
“I don’t necessarily see a way out of this. I think we’re kind of stuck.”
Haas concluded his presentation by advising the attendees to read the Constitution for themselves, not only because it is a valuable piece of American history, but also because they will then be better equipped to defend their own viewpoint on the issue.