The Second Amendment to the US Constitution 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.”
Guns, gun violence, and the Second Amendment are contested topics in American politics. For those on the Right, especially those who fall in line with the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Second Amendment protects our “first freedom,” the right to bear arms, upon which all other freedoms depend. Furthermore, defenders of a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment rely on a narrow reading of the American Revolution and the “Founding Fathers.” Such a general constitutional and historical interpretation underlies efforts to protect unchecked gun ownership in the United States today. It is for this reason, that we need to carefully consider the historical origins of the “right to bear arms”.
Much of this historical work is being done on college campuses at a time where legislators and college governing boards are debating whether to allow concealed carry on their grounds. In Georgia, where I taught last year, the so-called “campus carry” HB 859 bill went through the Georgia State legislature and was met with immediate controversy. The bill, had it passed, would have allowed individuals to carry concealed weapons around campus.
Questions concerning HB 859 consumed many of my out-of-classroom and in-class discussions at Georgia State University. Students debated a range of issues and asked probing questions. Would entire public campuses be open to concealed carry? Would such a bill even extend to university daycare programs? How might concealed guns on campus hinder or limit free speech, rather than protect it? Would public colleges now be arenas for “wild west showdowns”? In a moment of supposed levity, one student even asked if I’d wear a Kevlar vest to class.
Luckily, Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill and did so with a statement that ran the gamut of “historical” and constitutional justifications. He cited the minutes from a meeting of the “Board of Visitors of the newly created University of Virginia” that was held on October 4, 1824, and at which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were present. In this meeting, Deal cites Jefferson’s contention that, “No student shall, within the precincts of the University … keep or use weapons or arms of any kind.” Deal made sure to also note that Jefferson was the “principal author” of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Such a statement is meant to “constitutionally” and “historically” justify Deal’s limitation of the Second Amendment. History then is, in many ways, at the center of the debate over the right to bear arms and the “Founding Fathers” are used to expand and limit the rights of gun owners.
History becomes even more heated when shootings happen. Pulse in Orlando. Police shootings. School shootings. Fathers shoot children. Children shoot parents. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people with the help of guns. The debate between the right to bear arms and the needs of public security come to a head. Guns expedite death or guns protect would-be victims. And in nearly every instance, the revolutionary age is trotted out as a justification for buying more guns and carrying guns onto college campuses.
After the Pulse shooting, the editors of Age of Revolutions decided to bring the issue of the revolutionary origins of the “right to bear arms” to the site. Over the course of this week, we will release several posts from our panel “Bearing Arms in the Age of Revolutions.” Our hope is that these posts will raise critical questions about revolutionary violence, individual and collective ownership of “arms,” the history of public security, and the responsibilities of citizens from across the Atlantic World.
Robert Churchill, Noah Shusterman, and Andrew Fagal have authored three posts and Eliga Gould close the week with a thoughtful comment. We at Age of Revolutions are incredibly grateful for their insight and hard work bringing this panel to bear.
Our panel’s schedule:
Robert Churchill, University of Hartford
Noah Shusterman, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Andrew Fagal, Princeton
Eliga Gould, University of New Hampshire