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You cannot understand the Second Amendment to the US Constitution without some practical experience firing a muzzle loading musket in the context contemplated by a “well regulated militia.”

I’ve owned and fired a Model 1983 Enfield Rifled Musket, the primary tool used by the British Empire from the end of the Napoleonic Wars until the late 19th Century.  It was imported and used by both sides during the American Civil War.  It’s the rifle used by the troops in the Movie Glory.  The Springfield rifle used by most Federal soldiers during the American Civil War is similar.  It weighs about nine pounds.  It’s five feet long.  It comes with a bayonet and it’s solid and heavy enough to serve as a club.

While your history book may tell you that a well trained soldier can get off three aimed shots a minute with such a weapon, my personal best was 34 seconds for a properly seated, aimed and fired round.  I might have improved with practice, but actually historic reports tell us that the number of rounds fired by military units in the American Civil War never seem to reach the theoretical three shot per minute rate, which requires the soldier to be standing still, which isn't a way to live very long on a battlefield.  Civilian hunting weapons of the period, which were more accurate, took longer to load.  The reenactor in the video here isn't firing bullets, which adds a lot of time to the process.  He's just pouring loose powder down the barrel, which is the only safe way to do such demonstrations.

I was a Civil War reenactor for several years, Confederate and Federal.  Our reenacting unit functioned much like a traditional colonial militia.  We had day jobs.  Most of us were over 30.  The organization had social and political issues.  However to get anything done, we had to get together.  We had to work out where and when.  We had to pack up and transport equipment and supplies.  We spent a lot of time waiting around and walking.  I never fired more than 20 rounds in a day.

Most importantly we had to drill and apply the tactics of the period.  Even without bullets, muzzle loaders are dangerous things.  You can’t just run around shooting at things with them by yourself.  It’s easy to burn or injure other people.  Any hope of accomplishing anything important required massed firepower and coordinated action.  You can’t wander off and be a loner.  There were no cell phones, radios or PA systems to advise people at a distance that the unit needed to form line and march off somewhere.  You had to stay connected to the group.

In the Civil War if you wandered off and didn’t get back, you could be shot for desertion.  If you discharged your weapon without orders, you would be punished.  In many circumstances, individual soldiers had no ammunition and marched with empty guns and cartridge pouches.  Paper ammunition spoiled easily in wet weather.  During the Colonial and Revolutionary war era, with even crankier Flintlocks, all of these things were even more true.

In Towns and Cities of the period, militia units were fully integrated into the social life of the community.  Local leaders often served as offices and were elected.  In the City of Charleston today you can still find several buildings where these organizations met.  Many of the organizations still exist today, largely as hereditary social organizations now.  In the South, these organizations existed to suppress the possibility of slave insurrections.  Charleston had over 20 companies, including an artillery unit.

It is impossible for a person using a weapon like the Enfield or a Flintlock to shoot up a school or theater.  After the first shot and long before the second could be loaded and fired, a solitary, socially alienated gunman would have been wrestled down and brought under control.  If you were obsessed with weapons and killing innocent people and showed up at a muster, your neighbors in the militia would have figured out something was wrong with you.

Even in the “wild west” people didn’t walk around in town with loaded weapons after an area had been settled for a while.  Shootouts were uncommon.

If the community needed to deal with a threat, such as when Francis Marion led my ancestors in a swamp war against the British, you needed help, coordination and recognized leadership.

The development of fixed cartridge ammunition and repeating rifles such as the Henry (like the Winchester) and the Spencer utterly changed combat and the capacity of a lone person to attack the community as the Civil War drew to a close.  I’ve faced men armed with repeating rifles in simulations. A lone man with a single shot muzzle loader is completely ineffective against them. 34 seconds is a very long time when your opponent can fire two shots a second. It has been over 100 years since ignoring the original meaning and intent of the second Amendment has become dangerous.

The militia mustering on a colonial square within walking distance of their homes has little in common with a group of socially marginal nut jobs driving into the woods with automatic weapons, far from their communities and neighbors.  However it's interesting to note that even the extreme, modern version of the right wing militia hasn't been responsbile for many mass shootings.  Most people shot in America are killed by a single person who is making mistakes faster then their weapon is firing.  That's true for most drive by shootings as well.  Even a really bad group of people exercise restraint one troubled person can lack.

The men who framed our constitution understood a well regulated militia and the weapons people had access to in their technical and social context.  The second Amendment they drafted preserved the capacity of the community to defend itself with coordinated action by citizens using the weapons available at the time.  Most communities didn’t have a police force at the time.  

The founding fathers could not possibly have imagined that the purpose of such a law would be to enable a single person, acting alone to fire fifty rounds into a peaceful group of people in less than a minute.  The terror and oppression of such power in the hands of a person acting outside the sanction of the community would have been as offensive to them as masses of Hessian mercenaries ravaging the Pennsylvania countryside.  Confronting such a reality, they would change the second Amendment with the same willingness they applied to changing so many other things.

Originally posted to wjhamilton29464 on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 09:06 AM PST.

Also republished by Shut Down the NRA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (15+ / 0-)

    William Hamilton practices Law and is a writer and community activist in the Charleston, SC area. He can reached through www.wjhamilton.com

    by wjhamilton29464 on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 09:06:25 AM PST

  •  thanks for the perspecitve (4+ / 0-)

    and thanks for bringing a little sanity to the description of "Founding Fathers" times military and militia actions and activities.

  •  Thanks for this (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    exterris, jfromga, Glen The Plumber

    Context like this seems to be what is lacking in the gun debate.  Contrasted with 2 shots per minute of the muzzle loader, an M-16 (the military version of the AR-15 with full auto) can fire 19 rounds per second, and the high velocity round can penetrate multiple people.

    It is a weapon of war, designed to launch a lot of projectiles moving very fast down range to harm people.

    This is more firepower than is needed for security (unless you are in a war zone).  This is more firepower than is needed for "sport" target shooting.  This is more firepower than is needed for hunting anything other than humans who are hunting you back.

    People who worry the 2nd amendment was about retaining the right to overthrow the government by force should read Che and Mao's books on guerrilla warfare.  You don't need a lot of firepower "when the revolution comes".  You capture firepower from the government and then their troops are all carrying your ammunition.

    There is no reason that civilians need assault weapons, machine guns, nukes, tanks, armed drones, missiles, or fighter jets.  Do we agree that there should be SOME limit?  

    If you choose to hunt, great.  Bolt action will support that.  Want to protect yourself?  A pistol or a shot gun are effective choices.  Weapons of war should be reserved for the military.  It would make these weapons less likely to show up at school.

  •  Then help muster the public will to do so. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    exterris
    Confronting such a reality, they would change the second Amendment with the same willingness they applied to changing so many other things.
    It's not like it would be unprecedented.
  •  Thanks for the overview (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GrumpyOldGeek

    of the real reasons for the Second Amendment.  It is hard to think of the Founding Fathers placing in the Constititution an amendment that would allow citizens to bear arms to rise against the very foundation of the government they were creating.  It is the bastardization of this meaning that is the nexus of the mass killings we experience today.

  •  The founders didn't specify firearms (0+ / 0-)

    they said arms.
    That included a fair number of options not limited to black-powder muskets.
    They also say, in the Bill of Rights, "the right of the people" ... which is NOT the same thing as the membership of the militia.

     D'you suppose they didn't intend for men younger than 18 to possess no arms, or men over 50 be left without means to hunt or hold off attack, or women be unable to defend their families and homesteads if the menfolk weren't around?

    The men who framed our constitution understood a well regulated militia and the weapons people had access to in their technical and social context.  The second Amendment they drafted preserved the capacity of the community to defend itself with coordinated action by citizens using the weapons available at the time.  Most communities didn’t have a police force at the time.
    I submit you can't have it both ways.
    They didn't specifically write in a ban on weapons other than muzzle-loading firearms, because perhaps they did know that there were other weapons (including rifles; and how much later was it that paper cartridges came on the scene than 1789?) available -- and effective.
    The terror and oppression of such power in the hands of a person acting outside the sanction of the community would have been as offensive to them as masses of Hessian mercenaries ravaging the Pennsylvania countryside.  Confronting such a reality, they would change the second Amendment with the same willingness they applied to changing so many other things.
    I doubt that change, given what the 2nd Continental Congress demanded of all male citizens -- namely the furnishment at the citizen's own expense of a suitable firearm, powder, shot, and spares along with a knapsack for the carrying of same, which was exempt from confiscation for sale due to debt (indeed, they expressly detailed provisions outlawing that taking of the specified arms) including taxes -- would have been to leave the people helpless in the face of either a Hessian force or "a person acting outside the sanction of the community".

    We don't know that they never had anybody go berserk. They did face conflict on a regular basis with faster-reloading weapons in skilled and hostile hands: namely, bows and arrows during the Indian wars. That they pointedly did not disavow the inclusion of blades, slings, catapults, or bow-and-arrow / crossbow weapons in the items they sanctioned for the people to keep and bear is telling, IMO.
    Very telling. The men who wrote the Bill of Rights were not bereft of imagination -- and Franklin had experimented to some degree with electricity, IIRC.

    So I don't think they'd've made the changes to the Second Amendment you'd expect.

    Oh, and yes, they did feel that it might be necessary to overthrow the government they'd created someday. It was the 2nd such creation they'd been party to themselves, remember?

    LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

    by BlackSheep1 on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 10:22:15 AM PST

    •  I couldn't disagree more with you. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Buckeye54

      Context matters. The technical capacity of modern military weaponry has completely invalidated the assumptions under which the notional 'founding fathers' were operating.

      Asserting that the second amendment covers mass-murder devices like the Bushmaster or AR-15 is logically identical to asserting that it also covers personal deployment of thermonuclear weapons; after all, you're arguing that the technical features of weaponry are irrelevant. All's fair in the fight against tyranny...and, apparently, innocent school children.

      •  Context does matter. "Arms" does NOT restrict (0+ / 0-)

        the question to firearms, or particular models of firearms.

        Such a catalog could have been written, but wasn't; why do you suppose that is so?

        LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

        by BlackSheep1 on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 12:24:23 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the Comments (3+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the comments.   I would not that the second Amendment never referred to the right to possess artillery, which existed at the time.

    I'll not waste the rest of my life arguing with the gun fanatics here or anywhere else.  We've had multiple shootings nearly every week for a month and a steady stream of shootings and murders.

    It has to stop.  Reducing the number and power of firearms available will do that.  The NRA and the rest of the gun people will be screaming from start to finish no matter what happens. No amount of evidence will make the slightest difference.  Presenting it to them is an utter waste of energy.  They've been piling up weapons and ammo for the past four years in the absence of any proof the Obama administration wanted to take on gun control.  

    Dead elementary school children & firemen won't change their minds.  Neither will I be able to.  The only thing which we can change is what the rest of us do.

    Carefully regulated gun ownership in the US can certainly continue.  

    William Hamilton practices Law and is a writer and community activist in the Charleston, SC area. He can reached through www.wjhamilton.com

    by wjhamilton29464 on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 12:10:44 PM PST

    •  Yes, this MUST stop. Now. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Buckeye54

      The most fearful and ignorant focus solely on rationalizing their desperate need to protect themselves from their own imaginary demons. The 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to own their goddamn guns. They seem to think that the president can just cross that one off the list somehow.

      You are right. Arguing with a doorknob is futile and a waste of time.

      We can ignore the NRA leadership. We can ignore the great unwashed dittoheads. We can ignore the White Supremicists, the racists, the self-righteous right wing Bible thumpers, the conspiracy theorists, and the perpetually paranoid.

      They're not going to stop the rest of us. It will take time, though.

      There are some things we can do to help out.

      We can create a blizzard of cards and letters to our dysfunctional extorted scaredy-cat Congresscritters. Especially the Republican ones. They believe that their constituents are rabidly against gun control because all they ever hear from is other Republicans. We can change that.

      Maybe we can get the TeeVee talking heads to stop inviting the genuinely crazy nutjobs on their shows. All this does is spread the nonsense and gets the publicity the nutjobs desperately want. Why the hell do they keep putting Wayne The Idiot Lapierre on the TV machine? He is definitely a conspiracy theorist and a far right wing waste of time. This excessive exposure promotes the false idea that he represents NRA membership.

      We can flood the TeeVee talkers with complaints about giving these idiots free airtime to spread their bullshit. We did this to get rid of several nutjobs in recent years. Pat Buchanan comes to mind.

      It works.

      We MUST let our Congresscritters know that the NRA threat is a paper tiger. And we will vote for those who promote public safety rather than promote the rights of crazy people to massacre children.

      And we MUST focus on electing more and better Democrats, especially in the midterms and state and local primary, special, and general elections. GOTV is the ONLY way we can keep this shit at bay.

      It's a start.

      It helps if the rest of us gain a better understanding of reality and think and discuss these issues rationally.

      The root cause of all of this is fear.

      Yes. This MUST STOP!

      "Never wrestle with a pig: you get dirty and the pig enjoys it"

      by GrumpyOldGeek on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 01:49:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The 1777 Vermont Constitution makes these points (0+ / 0-)

    a lot clearer than the US Constitution. Remember that the US Constitution was based on the words written in individual state constitutions and the Vermont Constitution. Vermont, prior to 1791, was an independent republic, not a colony or state.

    XV. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State; and, as standing armies, in the time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
    Notice that it clearly doesn't say that it's to defend themselves from the State. It's to defend the State, too. That key phrase about standing armies is found elsewhere in the US Constitution and, as such, is out of context. So this hasn't been directly associated with the 2nd Amendment as it probably should be. That unintentional difference makes a lot of difference when interpreting the 2nd Amendment. Remember, too, that the Bill of Rights (w/the 2nd) are amendments to the previously ratified US Constitution. The standing army concept was there before the 2nd Amendment was added.

    In context of 1775, one in five people living in Boston was an armed Redcoat British soldier. That's the peacetime standing army that was so reviled. The Boston Massacre was one result of that hated standing army. So the new country was going to have trained local militias that could be called up when needed for national or civil disorder events.

    The British soldiers, who were planning on emptying the militia's armory and powder houses as they marched toward Lexington, were thwarted by the citizens. So the right to keep and bear arms was mostly about protecting the right to keep armories and the established local militia members who would bear those arms, not the general population. It was to protect the citizens from the tyranny of a standing British Army. Note that the citizens weren't individually fighting the British. It was the militias. Personally selected citizens formed the militias. They were appointed by the town leaders and the militia officers. Not everyone.

    They had to be at least 16 years old, iirc. No slaves, indentures, women, insane, slow, feeble minded, prisoners, crippled, drunks, addled, clumsy, or loud and obnoxious persons. (those are some of the words used back then in various state constitutions and laws).

    The Bill of Rights was written, rewritten, discussed, altered, edited, etc. The 2nd Amendment probably started out as a combination of provisions in various state constitutions. The wording was altered such that our 2nd Amendment, as adopted, is somewhat ambiguous. Most constitutional scholars agree that a comma would have clarified the meaning. But that comma is missing, so the interpretation can follow a couple of different paths.

    One path focuses on having a well-trained (well-regulated was the 1780 terminology) militia whose members have the right to keep and bear arms.

    The other interpretation separates the 2nd into two separate ideas. One idea is about having a trained militia. A second idea is the individual right to bear arms.

    Our US Supreme Court has made numerous rulings that seem to support the second interpretation. This is what gives individuals the right to keep guns, not arms, in the home. The Heller decision established this narrow, gun only, interpretation as federal law. So far, state and local governments determine the rules about when, where, and how private citizens can bear those guns and which types are permitted. The federal government has jurisdiction for federal properties.

    The Supreme Court tends to separate arms and guns. Arms tend to refer to military weaponry. Laws that restrict certain arms for military use are firmly established and constitutional. Private citizens can't possess cruise missiles, 500 lb bombs, or 50 cal machine guns, for example.

    By the time we get to the Civil War, military weapons were much more accurate, powerful, and deadly. There were rifles, cartridges, powerful cannons, the telegraph, observation balloons, etc. So some 600,000 people died during the Civil War. This was a whole new way of warfare. Never before had war been so devastatingly deadly. Then WW 1 changed the world of warfare again.  

    Obviously, the founders couldn't have imagined the leaps in technology and the devastating power we have today. But this really isn't an argument about muskets vs. semi-automatic magical weapons of today. It's about the twisted misinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment in order to rationalize irrational fears of the big, bad gubmint.

    The fact is that nobody is going to take your guns away. Unless you commit a crime or otherwise through due process. Or your behavior presents a public safety risk. Everyone has a right to domestic tranquility, too. You simply cannot base everything on one provision of the US Constitution.

    Context and the larger historical picture is critical to understand what this is all about.

    Again, nobody is going to take your guns away.

    "Never wrestle with a pig: you get dirty and the pig enjoys it"

    by GrumpyOldGeek on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 12:11:37 PM PST

  •  Thousands of Bodies (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Glen The Plumber, Buckeye54

    I appreciate the positive comments.  If it would help, at all, I would happily hand my Enfield rifle over to the Government to bring this children back to life.

    They are much more than dead.  I am a divorce lawyer.  Many of their families will disintegrate.  Their parents may live out their lives in lonely, old age.  Siblings may be neglected and develop their own problems.  Guilt and shame, even if irrational, will stalk them.

    Hundreds of children will live out their lives certain the their Country and the World are terrible places where death can visit them at any moment.  They will never believe anywhere is safe.  Many will develop their own mental health problems.

    We now know that this shooting had a significant impact on the national economy, depressing retail sales desperately needed to sustain jobs and investment.

    This is not an America I can accept responsibility for, nor do I wish to live in a nation which bristles with loaded weapons everywhere, all the time waiting for a psychotic break to unleash death on the innocent at the mall, theater or school.

    We need to boycott every business in America that sells weapons or ammunition until the stop.  Every hardware store, Walmart or sporting goods store.  I'm sure the hard core gun shops will persist, but we can stop the rest.  We need to make accepting contributions from the NRA be like accepting checks from NAMBLA if you are in Congress.  We need to keep up the pressure until every gun owner in America is licensed and every gun and ammo purchase is registered.  Then we can start cleaning up the millions of guns out there.  It will take years.  The screaming from the NRA and gun lobby will continue forever.  We need to stop listening.

    William Hamilton practices Law and is a writer and community activist in the Charleston, SC area. He can reached through www.wjhamilton.com

    by wjhamilton29464 on Thu Dec 27, 2012 at 12:56:36 PM PST

  •  You missed a bit of context... (0+ / 0-)
    Even in the “wild west” people didn’t walk around in town with loaded weapons after an area had been settled for a while.
    Unspoken here is that people walked around with loaded weapons when the area was dangerous.

    Fast forward a couple hundred years, and while many large areas are no longer dangerous in terms of wild beasts they are yet dangerous in terms of person-on-person attacks. That one danger has diminished does not mean the other danger has not swelled to take it's place.

    It's safe to trust a sane person with the keys to nuclear weapons, but it's not safe to trust an insane person with the stuff in the kitchen.

    by JayFromPA on Fri Dec 28, 2012 at 04:25:51 PM PST

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