Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Andrew Reinbach Headshot

The NRA's Lie About Guns, the Constitution, and History

Posted: Updated:

At bottom, the National Rifle Association is a marketing shop. They sell guns to America by claiming they stand between us and a government plotting to take away our rights and establish tyranny. In the old days they did their job by emphasizing hunting and gun safety, but I guess that didn't sell enough units for their constituency--gun manufacturers

They've been doing this since Reagan was elected by insisting that only the second and third phrases of the Second Amendment--"...the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed."--mean anything.

If somebody brings up the first phrase--" A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." they insist the militia meant the people at large, and that the idea was to create a counterweight to the central government, so it wouldn't dare infringe on the people's rights.

I'm sorry to have to burst their bubble--well, not really--but the legislative history following the Second Amendment's passage very clearly supports the opposite of what they say. In 1789, the militia was intended to substitute for a standing Army, and to defend the government from insurrection.

Congress passed two Militia Acts in 1792. The first created state militias, each under control of that state's governor, specifically created to resist invasion, and suppress insurrection . The second directed all able-bodied white men between the ages of 18 and 45 to belong to their state militia, own a gun and related equipment for that purpose, and report for duty twice a year. The law even laid out how many bullets each militia member had to bring with him--25 if he owned a musket, 20 if he owned a rifle. After the Civil War the Acts were modified to allow black militia members to belong. In 1903, the state militias were merged with the National Guard.

Aside from frontier fights with the Indian Nations, the militia was used only twice between 1792 and 1814: Once against the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pa. (led in person by George Washington); and then at Bladensburg, Md., to defend Washington DC against the British (the militia ran at the first volley and the day has been called the Bladensburg Races ever since). There was one use of a militia under the Articles of Confederation; in 1787, Shay's Rebellion in western Massachusetts was put down by a private militia after Shay's men attacked the Springfield armory.

There is no record of any legally-constituted militia "defending the people against a tyrannical government" under the Constitution--acts it would construe as treason, under Article 3, Section 3 ("Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.") The only way to claim otherwise is to use the Civil War as an example. Even then, using state armies that way fit the Constitution's definition of treason; it was simply expedient after the war to let the matter go.

Given that, anyone can see that the militia under the Constitution was an instrument of the state from the first, and never meant to safeguard the people from the state. What the NRA is doing is trying to confuse colonial militias--when there was no United States--with militias under the Constitution.

The record likewise makes clear that personal gun ownership was protected by the Second Amendment as a way to arm the militia. Of course, lots of people owned muskets or rifles then anyway. And in general, most people didn't care. But a glance at the historical and legislative record explains why the Second Amendment has three clauses in one sentence and can't be understood without considering all of it--screams from the right notwithstanding.

What's really disturbing about this debate is the fact that the boards of the NRA, the Gun Owners of America, ect. all know the historical and legislative record; I still believe--recent evidence aside--that they're smart guys. Or at least, that they employ smart guys to tell them stuff.

That means they're either pushing this meme knowing it's untrue, or don't listen when they're told stuff. And by using an untrue and easily-dismissed idea to argue for a maximalist position--unrestricted ownership of AR-15s, or accessories like 30-round clips--they're committing honest gun owners who believe them to a losing political proposition. In fact given the mood of the country, it'll get them the opposite of what they say they want, and provoke gun control laws more restrictive than they'd get if they recognized reality and acted accordingly.

And let's face it; they're not going to get no new gun control legislation. What Newtown did was lump all the nation's uneasiness about how we live and where we're heading into a single wound--and focus our hopes that something, some little thing, can be done to make it better. Or at least not ignore it because, say the gun spokesmen, there is no perfect solution that will stop all gun deaths forever and create a perfectly safe society, so that we might as well drop the whole thing.

I'm really befuddled by the posture of the gun lobby. They're trying to distort the debate with red herrings that anyone can see are red herrings, as if they figure they can get away with anything--that any Big Lie will work, if they just stick with it.

Yet no one outside their ranks believes that the alternative to totalitarian government is unrestricted ownership of military hardware--in a recent gun buy-back in Los Angeles, police took in a rocket launcher--or that mass murder is the price of liberty.

Trying to put that over defeats their own agenda and, quite frankly, betrays the trust of their supporters. It's only worse that they probably know what they're doing, and are doing it anyway.

Not that I mind. It was Woodrow Wilson who said, "Never kill a man who's committing suicide."

Register To Vote