The right of the people to keep and bear arms: Is there a more controversial part of being an American? From the official founding documents to the letters and speeches they delivered over the years, the Founders seemed so clear on their intent – yet still politicians in times of panic have managed to drive gun control into national law.
Some, like our new president, say that no amendment in the Bill of Rights is absolute. Is he right? Does he correctly interpret what the Founders envisioned – or do the opinions and desires of men long dead even matter today? Have a look at the history of gun control in America and decide for yourself.
In the Beginning …
President Joe Biden is also fond of saying that, from the very beginning, there have been people who weren’t allowed to own firearms and certain types of guns that were illegal for any civilian. As we’ve pointed out before at Liberty Nation, Biden might be wrong on that second part, but he’s right about the first – though not in the way he would like to think. The president wants people to believe that since the founding of the nation, felons were prohibited from owning arms. No such law existed, either before or after the ratification of the Constitution – not until more than a century later, in fact. Indeed, there was a law in Virginia requiring every able-bodied man to show up at church on the Sabbath armed and ready for inspection – or pay a three-shilling fine.
In colonial times and the early days of the Republic, gun regulation existed, but it was handled at the colony, territory, or state level. That said, some did, in fact, prohibit anyone of African descent – slave or free man – from possessing a firearm. Native Americans were prohibited in some places from owning guns and not in others, but it was generally a crime to provide an “Indian” with weapons or ammunition. Naturally, after the federal government put a forcible end to slavery, some former slave states passed laws aimed at keeping black men unarmed. That certainly isn’t the argument Biden wants to make to the Democratic Party’s diverse voting base – but like most anti-gun politicians, he isn’t particularly knowledgeable about either firearms or history.
From the Second to the 14th
The first federal firearm regulation was the Second Amendment itself. It reads:
“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.”
Still, however, some state laws forbade black people from owning firearms. That began to change with the Militia Act of 1862. Passed because the Union needed more soldiers for the Civil War, it was the first time “persons of African descent” were allowed to serve in the military, and those who served would be free afterward and welcome to keep their service weapon. Then, on July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified. That had several effects – some great for liberty and some, not so great – but one positive was the application of the Second Amendment to everyone, regardless of race, by granting “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
From Panic to Policy
If there’s one saying that sums up the history of restrictive gun control in the United States, it’s probably a line made famous by former White House chief of staff and mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. Rahm’s Rule, as it’s sometimes called, is simple: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” The Democrats of yesteryear certainly knew that, too.
The 1920s and 1930s are remembered as the heyday of the American gangster. Thanks to the rise in organized crime – itself a response to the rise in demand for bootleg booze during Prohibition – now-famous criminals went after each other and federal agents in the streets with machine guns, often with little concern for whether any bystanders might be hit.
By 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Democrat-controlled Congress had a solution: the National Firearms Act (NFA). Since the Constitution explicitly forbade infringing the right to keep and bear arms – meaning, any type of weapon – they approached it from another angle: the Commerce Clause. Rather than banning machine guns outright, the law required registration and the payment of a tax to transfer one.
The Federal Firearms Act of 1938 then established the Federal Firearms License (FFL). Henceforth, only dealers or manufacturers possessing a license could transport, ship, or receive guns or ammunition through interstate or foreign commerce. It also established that licensed dealers and manufacturers couldn’t ship firearms to anyone convicted of, or under indictment for, a crime or considered a fugitive from justice.
There wasn’t another federal firearm law until three decades later, after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and activists Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of the assassins, two had criminal records – and one was actually on the run from the law after escaping prison – another bought his rifle from a mail-order catalog, and the other bought an unregistered handgun in a private sale.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) further restricted the flow of firearms by forbidding licensed dealers from mailing guns to an unlicensed person or from selling to known felons – though at this point, there still wasn’t a way for weapons dealers to check. This law is why all guns have a serial number – and why destroying that marking is a federal crime.
A Cure or a Curse?
In the 1970s, there were a total of 42 school shootings in the U.S. In the 80s, there were 58. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which was initially sponsored by – surprise, surprise – then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. Rather than decrease the number of school shootings, it nearly doubled it. There were 93 in the decade that followed – almost as many as the previous two decades combined. According to famous gun researcher John Lott, 98% of all mass shootings since 1950 have taken place in gun-free zones.
The Age of Clinton
Once again capitalizing on catastrophe, President Bill Clinton and yet another Democrat-controlled Congress managed to pass both the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act – which established the background check – and the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms use Protection Act (more commonly known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban). Clinton’s ban – which Biden also takes a lot of credit for – eventually expired, but the one that looms ahead should the president get his way will not.
The Founders’ Dream Fulfilled – or Denied?
Despite what the current president says, there were no federal restrictions on the types of firearms that can be used until 145 years after the Constitution took effect. No prohibition on felons using firearms or for anyone having guns mailed to their homes until 179 years after, and no way to require a background check – thus, no way to practically enforce felon prohibition – until 205 years after. And that first one, the NFA, was a government “solution” to a government-caused problem – there likely would have been no golden gangster age without Prohibition.
There’s one more phrase President Biden is fond of that bears consideration: “I respect the Second Amendment, but …” These words have led into many strict gun control proposals that in no way conform to the Second Amendment. It brings to mind an old saying about the word “but.” Basically, what comes before it means nothing – only what come after matters. For those who treasure the right to keep and bear arms, nothing that could possibly come after Biden’s “but” would be worth having.
Read more from James Fite.