July 18, 2019 | 74° F

Founders’ intentions on gun control often miscontrued


Last Friday, a 10-year-old boy in Philadelphia was the victim of a murder-suicide. His father shot him, his mother and then himself, though the mother was wounded. The day before, a 12-year-old was accidentally shot by his 15-year-old cousin while the two were playing with guns. The cousin did not know the gun was loaded. Neither event is unique. Since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, there have been over 7,900 reported gun deaths. Almost 400 of those were teens and another 150 were children 12 and under. These are only reported shooting deaths — suicides committed with firearms are not always reported. This raises a question: When are we going to start talking seriously about gun violence in this country?

What I see happening most frequently is an appeal to the past, usually by those with no grasp of history. Weak links are fabricated between the modern gun culture and the founding fathers, often under the guise of critical research. In fact, if the founders’ will on gun control was reinstated, gun rights activists and the National Rifle Association would be very unhappy. 

In Northampton County, the Committee of Safety — who kept logs of whom in the county owned firearms — issued proclamations requiring anyone who was not a part of a government-sanctioned militia or associated group to turn in their privately owned weapons and ammunition in support of the war effort. This was not a matter of choice. If individuals refused to give their guns to local elected officials, the local militia was sent to acquire those weapons by force, if necessary. The county’s minutes book recounts several instances where such force was used. Once the militia was raised to fight the British, only 1/4 of them could be armed.

After the Revolutionary War, a tax rebellion was the catalyst for the Second Amendment. Nearly all of the founders disapproved of these armed mobs. Samuel Adams, in his Riot Act, wrote that anyone who dared rise up against the laws of a republic“ought to suffer death.” George Washington wrote to Henry Lee that he was “mortified beyond expression” at the violence that ensued from uprisings and that he hoped Lee would “employ the force of government against them at once” if they could not be appeased. Washington didn’t back down. He raised a militia of 13,000 volunteer and conscripts to put down the 7,000-strong Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. John Adams saw rebellion against the United States as treasonous, and signed into law the Alien and Sedition Act. As 2nd Amendment historian Saul Cornell, of Ohio State University, wrote, “The founders had a word for a bunch of farmers marching with guns without government sanction: a mob.” 

Notwithstanding these events, no standing army was deemed necessary. In fact, America did not need one until some time after the Constitution had gone into effect in 1789; the founders were notoriously uneasy about having an army during a time of peace and instead opted for a state-approved, but federally-controlled militia force. When the drafters of the Constitution considered gun rights across this new country, they did so with Shays’ Rebellion in mind: It had become clear that armed citizens, unregulated by government, were a dangerous threat to the republic. The goal was to put into effect a better means by which to regulate guns, and the people’s access to them, so that a state-organized militia would be more able and ready to put down insurrection when needed. 

I am not advocating against guns or gun ownership, nor am I suggesting that the liberal-central idea of the founding era is accurate — it is no more accurate than the conservative-centric version. In truth, gun regulation and the 2nd Amendment is far more convoluted and complicated than a talking head on your favorite news station would have you believe. When it comes to gun legislation, I’m unsure whether or not more or less gun control in this country would help. I just don’t know how far down the rabbit hole we have traveled. What I do know is that we cannot keep relying upon the founders of this country to solve our current gun crisis for us. They cannot help us — we live in a different world than the one our founders built. Our solution must consider our circumstance, not those of the past. We should work to do it quickly, before another 7,900 people are unceremoniously slain by the very weapons some claim are protecting us.

Thomas Verenna is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in classics and history.

By Thomas Verenna

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