Saul Cornell: Steers a middle course on gun control debate

Historians in the News

Few policies evoke a more visceral response than gun control, so public discourse concerning firearm ownership generally ranges from anemic to inane. Do guns or people kill people? Obviously, replacing or with the conjunction and or the phrase in conjunction with would settle the question quickly. Even serious scholarly discussion of the meaning of the Second Amendment is rare because partisan feelings run high. Agreement extends to only two issues. First, Michael Bellesiles went too far when he fabricated data to support a radical gun control agenda in his now discredited book Arming America (2000). Second, the Constitution grants an individual right to bear arms or a collective right to maintain a militia. Unfortunately, that second area of agreement turns out to be a Marxian (Groucho, not Karl) false dichotomy that keeps us as flummoxed as the poor sap enjoined to respond yes or no when asked if he had stopped beating his wife yet.

In short, free American males could have owned firearms to further their personal happiness and should have owned firearms to help protect the community.

In A Well-Regulated Militia, Ohio State University history professor Saul Cornell frees us from the fallacy of the loaded question (excuse the pun) "Is the Second Amendment an individual or a collective right?" by showing beyond a reasonable doubt that it was sort of both but ultimately neither. Originally, keeping and bearing arms was as much a tax or civic obligation as a right. In most colonies, every able-bodied adult man was enjoined by law to own and maintain a military-quality musket or rifle and to drill on muster days. Those who failed to comply were fined because the militia protected Americans from external threats and, in an era before powerful police forces, from domestic unrest. After passage of the U.S. Constitution, some Americans feared that the new federal government might strip them of their military arms as King George had attempted to do during the pre-Revolution imperial crisis. With this view of the matter, the controversial amendment's seemingly odd construction makes sense: "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" (1). In other words, individuals must be able to own firearms so they can help protect the community from a wide assortment of possible external and internal threats....

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