Friday, June 3, 2011

That Old History Problem

It doesn't come as a shock that Sarah Palin badly bungled the story of Paul Revere's Midnight Ride at a campaign stop at Bunker Hill this weekend:
He who warned, uh, the … the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and, um, by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free … and we were gonna be armed.
Quick review on the substance:
  • Paul Revere's warning somebody - check.
  • There's a horse involved - check.
  • Paul Revere's firing wildly as he rides through towns - negative.
  • Warned the British - backwards.
  • "gonna be secure" - not really clear what this means. As far as personal security was concerned, continuation as a colony of the British crown probably entailed less risk for Americans.
  • "We were gonna be armed" - half check.
The half check there is a bit tricky. It's also the most important part of the story in regards to the history of the 2nd Amendment, which is what Sarah Palin was (most likely) trying to get at.

The British left their bunkers on April 19th, 1776 to confiscate arms from the colonial militia. Advance warning of the British movement allowed Massachusetts farm boys to ambush and rout the British, who had not anticipated resistance. This event highlights why Sarah Palin's 'gun-in-every-home' interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is without historical basis.

Up until the invention of the breech loading rifle, whole militias would have to be raised in order to "bear arms" against a tyrannical government. The "well-regulated militia" may not have been a condition upon which gun ownership rested in the original meaning of the 2nd Amendment, but it certainly explained that the right to political violence, and the access to muskets that was a necessary precursor to that right, was one of the populace in general. The individual right to gun ownership was not protected by the 2nd Amendment; it had never been threatened by the British in America. The arms that are protected by the 2nd Amendment, in reaction to British confiscation efforts in the 1770's are guns maintained by militias.

The question that, I believe, DC v. Heller skirted, was whether the evolution of technology created an expanded right to arms. The efficacy of a single "patriot" with a gun was established by post-1789 advances in weapons technology. By inventing that efficacy, Scalia projects a deely creative interpretation onto the single-clause Amendment without any discussion of the underlying principle.

British forces were emphatically not engaged in a house-to-house confiscation of arms; if it had been, Sarah Palin would have a point that an individual right to gun ownership exists. Her rhetoric and deep misunderstanding of American history call attention to the vast absurdities of 'conservative' and 'originalist' schools of constitutional thought.

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