The right to bear arms in the USA 1791-2017

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. The second amendment 15th December 1791

Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms (see above). The second amendment says, “A well regulated militia…” from which I infer organised training takes place. The 18th century American milita was based on the British template. The second amendment promotes access to weaponry to defend the nation-state. This is as an obligation of citizenship. The concept militia has disappeared with the introduction of police forces, national guard and the federal army. There is a residual sense that although militia is an anachronism it’s part of American identity and has a role, no matter how tangential, in the 21st century

The classic role for the militia was in the Revolutionary War* By the summer of 1775, the Virginia Revolutionary government had established a three part military establishment consisting of regular full-time soldiers, a militia composed of most free white males, and a smaller, elite militia group to be called “minutemen” who were to be given extra training and provided with hunting shirts and leggings. The militia was ineffective when called on to resist external threats. The 1791 second amendment was a sentimental nod to a myth rather than a statement of military reality. The militia’s painfully inadequate and cowardly response to the British invasion in 1812 culminated in Washington being burned down. This destroyed the myth of the citizen, amateur army.

The 1878 Possee Comitatus Act** revived militia style arguments for an armed citizenship, “a county sheriff, or other law officer, conscripts any able-bodied man to assist him in keeping the peace.” The ‘posse’ was ineffective despite being a much loved trope of film-makers. Later in the 19th and early 20th century there were racist lynch mobs*** in the Deep South whilst in the ‘wild west’ whites were the usual victims of ‘rough’ justice. This reflected the sense of entitlement, by non-authorised citizens, to mete out extra-judicial murder. The second amendment can’t be held responsible but it provided a fig leaf of respectability for citizens’ rights in matters related to perceived ‘threats’. The infamous Ku Klux Klan acted on the belief they had a right to enforce their opinion of law. The Ku Klux Klan perceived as threats black-Americans, Roman Catholics, Jews and anyone else who gave them offence and who broke the ‘peace’ by virtue of existing. Having broken the peace they suffered extra-judicial murder.

In the present day the militia has disappeared. The 5th November 2017 Texas church massacre was halted by armed civilians who behaved as a sort of possee. Johnnie Lagendorff and an unnamed other man chased the assailant who crashed and killed himself. At the other end of the scale is George Zimmerman – a self-appointed community safety officer – who shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in the back. (Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defence****.) Zimmerman was an unappointed freelance vigilante, or, in his eyes, a community safety officer. Zimmerman didn’t meet the criterion for a possee in the Wild West unlike Lagendorff. Possees operated under rules where their actions were defined by the sheriff. The possee’s role ended when the sheriff said so. Interestingly Zimmerman was found not guilty of both murder and manslaughter despite the fact that he provoked the original interaction. The racist possibilities of that judgement didn’t escape notice and became part of the Black Lives Matter, campaign.

The current interpretation of the American constitution on gun laws seems odd. The justification for the second amendment was specious in 1791, never mind the 21st century. Nonetheless powerful commercial interests and lavish support for politicians has retained the right of the population to bear arms. As a sovereign state the USA can make whatever laws it wishes but it seems a quaint way of conducting affairs in the 21st century. The line from the 18th century militia to George Zimmerman is intellectually flawed but is now part of the institutional fabric of the USA.

Addendum~ ‘open carry’ in the USA

‘Open-carry’ Texas 2013

“Forty-five (45) states allow open carry of firearms….Varying restrictions on open carry in some states does not alter the fact that 45 states allow open carry.”




**** If you want a comprehensive list of shootings in the USA during 2017 go to the site below. Page 10 on that site for 7th April 2017 has a total of 10 dead and 6 injured in three shootings in Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas i.e. one days casualties. This is normal shootings and not the spectaculars such as Las Vegas, October, with 58 dead and Texas church shooting, November, with 28 dead.


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