Guns in early America and in the present day

As I understand my brief for the Huffington Post, I’m to bring my knowledge of early American history and the history of religion to discussions about contemporary events. When a news story strikes me as having some resonances with the past, I write a post. I envision my audience as the mostly liberal readers of Huff Post, and I don’t aim to persuade them so much as to illuminate for them some connection between past and present. When it comes to guns, however, I am at a loss. Our current moment is so far removed from the past and the politics of our founding so thoroughly misunderstood, that I find myself flummoxed about what to write.

A few aspects of the divide separating now from then are well known. Guns then were relatively inefficient tools, not remotely capable of the mass murder that current technology allows. Money in politics and the role of the gun lobby are nothing like the world the founders knew or hoped to create. Certainly the fact that lawmakers need the permission of the NRA to consider any sort of gun legislation (as recently become painfully clear when that organization’s approval of a possible ban on one gun accessory opened the way to discussion of a modest reform) completely flies in the face of the founders’ expectation for how government should work.

Another drastic change since the time of the passage of the Second Amendment has to do with why a “well-regulated Militia” was thought “necessary to the security of a free State.” Colonial America and the early United States relied on its militia for defense. Every able bodied man between 16 and 60 had to report to training days and bring his weapon to be inspected and his skills tested. Militias were led by officers approved by the government and drawn from the local elite. Men sometimes resented the expense of having to buy and maintain a weapon, especially when the officers (who were their wealthier neighbors) could fine them for failing to do so. The closest equivalent to the old militia today is the National Guard (which considers itself descended from those earlier militias); but the National Guard does not include every adult male, nor do the people in it have to supply their own weapons.

The early American reliance on a militia arose because the society could neither afford to support, nor did it want, a standing army. A permanent military structure was thought to concentrate too much power in the hands of the few and to degrade the society that did not need to defend itself. Needless to say, we currently have a standing army, the largest and most sophisticated in the history of the world (not to mention the other branches of the armed forces). In other words, our nation is much more militarized than the founders could have possibly imagined, and whatever fears they had about standing armies have either long since been realized or have been proven unfounded.

Our society, our guns, the way we conduct our politics, our reliance on a massive military infrastructure are so very different: how do we relate then to now?

At least some of the most heavily armed private citizens in the U.S. believe that the proper response to these changes is to arm themselves to fight that standing army or that National Guard if necessary to defend their liberties. Hence they stockpile ever more fearsome weapons, sure the day will come when they will need to come out like the militias of old, not with flintlocks but with automatic weapons. That is one reading of the past, arrived at by glossing over a few centuries of change in everything from weapons’ technology to social organization. A frightening vision, it is also the reason we have three percent of our population owning huge weapons caches, and occasionally turning them on the rest of us.

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