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Chiselled on the wall of the entrance lobby of the National Rifle Association are the words: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
This, claims the gun lobby is the Second Amendment of the US constitution. It is not. The oft-quoted right to bear arms clause is preceded by the words “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right….”
Should the amendment be read in its entirety with the second half contingent on the first? Or has the need for a citizens’ militia become redundant in the modern age and therefore only the second half remains relevant?
The NRA is in no doubt. It only every quotes the second half. All references to militias are conspicuous by their absence.
But why do Americans need guns? Conservatives say it is to protect themselves and their families from bad people with guns. Liberals reply: then take the guns away from the baddies as well as the goodies so no one can shoot. It is a policy that has worked in Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other developed countries.
American conservatives retort with what may be the real reason for hanging onto their firearms: Individual gun ownership is the ultimate defence against tyranny – the tyranny of anarchy and the tyranny of overbearing government.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz – one of the most prominent supporters of the NRA and a major beneficiary of the gun lobby’s largesse – was crystal clear on the tyranny issue when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He wrote in his campaign literature:
“The Second Amendment isn’t just for protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It’s a constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny – for the protection of liberty.”
But from whence does this need for weapons as protection against tyranny come? The answer is Britain.
For centuries, successive British monarchs required a well-armed citizens’ army to fight their wars. The weapon of choice was the English (or, if you prefer, Welsh) longbow. Every able-bodied male was forced to participate in regular archery sessions to ensure top notch fighting skills were kept on tap. It was not until the 17th century that Britain had anything resembling the standing armies of today. And the efforts of King James II to create a Catholic-officered standing army was one of the main reasons for his forced abdication.
A year later, the 1689 English Bill of Rights, forbade the “raising and keeping of a standing army… without the consent of parliament.” The Bill of Rights also included a passage (clause 7) which is claimed to be a herald of America’s Second Amendment: “Protestants may have arms for their defence” with the clear implication that the weapons were for defence against monarchical-inspired Catholic tyranny.
By the middle of the 18th century a standing army had become a fact of British life but in America they still relied on a citizens’ militia to fight the constant wars against Native Americans and the dreaded French. That changed with the 1756-63 Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian Wars in America).
To protect the Thirteen Colonies from French attacks, the British sent a large standing army across the Atlantic. This cost money which the British government tried to recoup by imposing taxes on the colonists and ordering them to house the troops that remained. Both were major issues which led to the American War of Independence.
It was those combined factors – the fear of government tyranny and a standing army to enforce that tyranny – that led American Founding Father James Madison to write the Second Amendment. He was not, as Senator Cruz, would say, concerned about hunting rights or target practice.
Clause Seven of the 1689 English Bill of Rights has an additional – and important line. After protecting Protestants right to bear arms it adds three important words “according to law.”
This short phrase has enabled successive British governments to pass a series of gun control laws as responsibility for protection from violence passed from the weapons-bearing individual to a police force controlled by a directly elected government. In 1903, Parliament passed the first gun control law of modern times. The Pistol Act was followed by a series of increasingly restrictive laws on gun ownership passed in 1920, 1930, 1933, 1937 and 1968. Then came the Dunblane Massacre of 1996 when 16 children and one teacher were shot dead in Dunblane, Scotland. The following year pistols were banned.
The NRA is adamant that Americans need protection from the tyranny of their government. Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, wrote in an attack on pro-gun control legislators: “It doesn’t matter to them that the semi-auto ban gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure or kill us.”
The tyranny argument held water when the tyrant was an unelected dictator or a monarch driven by religious and political beliefs contrary to the wider public good, or a government intent on taxing a populace without offering them parliamentary representation. A democratically elected government cannot – by its very nature – be a tyrannical one. If it is, then that democratic system is seriously flawed.
* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.