“Political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” Mao Tse-Tung
According to college professors and other leftists, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution does not guaranty individual citizens a right to keep and bear arms. As with many other classroom representations of history, this one is designed to influence the way the next generation thinks about (and votes on) current political issues.
Liberals and conservatives disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment. The argument is fueled by the somewhat ambiguous wording of the Amendment: “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.” Advocates of gun rights claim that the Second Amendment ensures a right of gun ownership for all individuals. Advocates of gun control take the position that Second Amendment rights are restricted to members of state-sanctioned militias, which no longer exist, hence there is no constitutional right to own guns. There are arguments to be made for both sides, but only one side is presented in a typical college history class.
What Students Hear in Class
The textbook America’s Promise, for example, in a section describing the content of the Bill of Rights, flatly states “The Second Amendment provided for the right of militiamen to keep and bear their own arms.” (Italics added) Professor Eric Foner uses similar language in his textbook Give Me Liberty. He states that the right to keep and bear arms is valid “in conjunction with” membership in an organized militia. These statements sound authoritative, but they are really just endorsements of one particular political position.
The Other Side of The Argument
In June of 2008 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment does indeed establish the right of all individuals to keep and bear arms. The vote was five to four, which means that only four justices endorsed the view being taught in America’s classrooms, and the majority contradicted it.
Even presidential candidate Barack Obama, who had been an advocate of gun control laws throughout his political career, agreed with the Supreme Court majority that the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals. In a public statement about the Court’s decision, Obama said “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms…” (italics added).
Not all historians espouse the pro-gun-control view expressed in the textbook excerpts above. The late Leonard W. Levy, to cite one noteworthy exception, published a book titled Origins of the Bill of Rights, based on an in-depth study of the original intent of the Founding Fathers who wrote and ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution. In the chapter on the Second Amendment he flatly contradicts the “facts” being taught in many classrooms, supporting his position with quotes from an impressive lineup of 18th century documents. “Believing that the amendment does not authorize an individual’s right to keep and bear arms is wrong,” says Levy. “The right to bear arms is an individual right…If all (the Amendment) meant was the right to be a soldier or serve in the military, whether in the militia or in the army, it would hardly be a cherished right and would never have reached constitutional status in the Bill of Rights.”1
He goes on to point out that “Pennsylvania, whose constitution of 1776 first used the phrase ‘the right to bear arms,’ did not even have a state militia.”2 Levy then details the protections of gun rights incorporated into other states’ constitutions, and how they influenced the language of the federal Bill of Rights in 1791.
Levy describes in some detail the intentions of James Madison, who was the primary force behind the Bill of Rights:
When James Madison in 1789 proposed to the First Congress the amendments to the Constitution that became the Bill of Rights, he included one that drew on his own state’s (Virginia’s) constitution: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.” Madison did not make the right to bear arms dependent on serving in a militia. In his notes for the speech in which he urged Congress to recommend Constitutional amendments, he wrote of those amendments, “they relate 1st to private rights,” and he referred to the English Declaration of Rights, which protected the right of individual Protestant subjects to have arms. In his personal correspondence Madison referred to his proposals as “guards for private rights.”3
Levy quotes other Founders who expressed similar sentiments. He also quotes an English minister who warned the English government, on the eve of the American Revolution, that gun factories in the Colonies were producing high quality rifles on a large scale.4 This observation is especially remarkable in light of British law at that time, which forbad manufacturing of almost any kind in the Colonies.5
Resorting to Fraud
There is little in the historical record to support the idea that the Founding Fathers wrote and ratified the Second Amendment only to protect the gun rights of militia members. There was, however, one recently published award-winning book that purported to document the claims of gun control advocates. The book is Arming America, by Dr. Michael Bellesiles; originally published in 2000. In it, Bellesiles cites actual 18th century documents to support the claim that guns were rarely owned by individuals in the years leading up to the ratification of the Bill of Rights, and that an individual right to keep and bear arms was not important enough to Americans of that era to justify a Constitutional amendment. The back cover of the current paperback version summarizes the contents:
Painstakingly examining the historical record, Bellesiles shatters the myth of America’s gun-toting revolutionary citizens. Beginning with the European tradition from which the American colonists emerged, Bellesiles indicates that ordinary people had little access to or practical training in firearms…At the end of the (Civil War), the decision to allow soldiers to keep their weapons transformed the once seldom-needed tool to a perceived necessity, fostering an emotional connection between man and weapon.
Bellesiles’ book was quickly embraced by gun control advocates in academia and the media. Columbia University awarded Bellesiles its Bancroft Prize for best history book of the year. In 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited Bellesiles’ book in a landmark court decision. Here at last, it seemed, was a scholarly work with real documentary evidence to support the pro-gun-control view of history that left-leaning scholars were eager to teach.
The book was a fraud.
In the book, Bellesiles cited reams of data from eighteenth and nineteenth century probate records, among other “sources.” His troubles began when another scholar, a specialist on probate records, asked Bellesiles where the records he cited could be found. This innocent request began a long soap opera of denials, changing stories, and obvious lies; until it became painfully obvious that Bellesiles had resorted to making up facts to suit his conclusions. Columbia rescinded his Bancroft Prize. Emory University pressured him to resign. The Ninth Circuit expunged its references to Bellesiles’ book from the record of its anti-gun-rights decision, but, significantly, let the decision stand. Soon another university hired Bellesiles.
That a United States circuit court could be influenced in handing down a precedent-setting decision by the work of a history professor shows how important the biases of university scholars are. If, as seems likely, the misrepresentations of history professors have long-term influence on the beliefs and attitudes of millions of young voters, the leftist bias so common among college faculties must have significant impact on modern American politics.
1Leonard W. Levy, Origins of the Bill of Rights, Yale Nota Bene 2001, pp. 134-135
2ibid., p. 135
3ibid., pp. 144-145
4Ibid., pp 140
5J.R. Dolan, The Yankee Peddlers of Early America, Bramhall House, p. 48