Getting Gun History Right

Saul Cornell is Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University. He is the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (Oxford, 2008). This article originally appeared in the National Law Journal.

Captain Jim Williams, a member of the newly created African-American militia in South Carolina, was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. A placard was attached to his body: "gone to his last muster." The newly created Department of Justice adopted a novel theory to prosecute Williams' killers: The government argued that the Klan's disarmament of Williams and other members of the so called "Negro militias" violated the Second Amendment, which was now applicable to the states through the recently ratified 14th Amendment. The two federal judges presiding over the KKK case could not agree over this new theory, which modern courts have dubbed "incorporation." On March 2, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear another Second Amendment incorporation case, McDonald v. Chicago. The question now is not the disarmament of the militia but the private right to have a handgun for self-defense (Chicago's citizens are free to own a variety of long guns, including shotguns.) History will figure prominently in this new case. The looming question for the Court is simple: Will the justices get the history right, or will they be swayed by a potent gun-rights mythology that has distorted the history of Reconstruction and effectively erased the memory and sacrifices of men such as Williams?


Gun-rights advocates have peddled three dubious claims to the Court. First, they argue that, by the time of the 14th Amendment, the militia purpose of the Second Amendment had disappeared. Second, gun-rights advocates claim that the Republican supporters of the 14th Amendment were pro-gun zealots who opposed robust gun regulation. Finally, they claim that there was a general consensus on the idea of Second Amendment incorporation at the time, a notion that they claim is supported by modern scholarship. To resolve these issues, the Supreme Court must choose between genuine history, supported by the best current scholarship, and a gun-rights fantasy masquerading as history.

The tragic fate of Williams belies the claim that the militia purpose of the Second Amendment had disappeared by the era of the 14th Amendment. Although the Southern-dominated militias were disbanded by the Reconstruc­tion-era Congress, Republicans moved to reorganize them by the time the 14th Amendment was being ratified. The division among the judges in the trial of Williams reflected a continuing disagreement over the meaning of the 14th Amendment that had existed from its inception. Current scholarship continues to be divided over how to interpret the amendment.

There are some facts that are beyond dispute. Although there is ample evidence that the 14th Amendment was widely understood to bar the selective disarmament of blacks by Southern governments, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that anyone believed that the 14th Amendment prevented the states from passing neutrally applicable gun regulations designed to promote public safety.

Even John Bingham, the author of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, believed that the amendment would not change state control over matters such as gun regulation. The Court needs to look closely at Bingham's public speeches defending the amendment, in which he clearly stated that, even after the adoption of the 14th Amendment, states would retain control over all matters of "personal security." The Court also needs to pay attention to what Republicans did in the South, as much as what they said in Congress. Republicans enacted stringent gun regulations in the South, an absolute necessity given the pervasive violence in that region, much of it directed at blacks and Republican sympathizers.

The Court also needs to recognize another indisputable historical fact. By the time of the 14th Amendment, gun regulation in America had intensified well beyond anything in place at the time the Second Amendment was adopted. The proliferation of cheap handguns in the 19th century led to the enactment of the first modern-style gun control laws by a number of states and localities. By the time of the 14th Amendment, courts recognized the unique dangers posed by handguns and categorically excluded them from constitutional protection.

Only privately owned weapons related to militia activity and used in some way plausibly connected to the preservation of the militia were constitutionally protected. (All other weapons were subject to the same constitutional protections and regulations extended to any piece of property.) Indeed, in the era of the 14th Amendment, judges ridiculed the notion that a pistol carried for private self-defense had anything to do with the right to bear arms. It would be deeply ironic if the Supreme Court struck down Chicago's law when there were as restrictive laws on the books at the time the 14th Amendment was adopted. Whatever it decides to do in McDonald, the court must reckon with the ghost of Jim Williams.

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More Comments:

John R. Maass - 3/13/2010

Saul: Why do you hate America? XOXO, JM

Michael Davis - 3/12/2010

Welcome to the world of Second Amendment haters.
This bilge of an article by "Professor Saul whatever his name is" is case in point.

David William Nicholas - 3/11/2010

I've always been fascinated by this sort of discussion. It takes an expert in the area of history and Constitutional law, waaaaay above my pay grade, to read an amendment that begins "Congress shall make no law..." and decide that such a restriction applies to state and local government also, and then read another amendment that reads "...shall not be infringed." and decide *that* only applies to the Federal government, when it states nothing of the kind.

I'm not saying that states should be able to restrict freedom of speech or religion; what I am saying is that the First amendment is written such that if it were as unpopular as the second amendment is, among some lawyers and constitutional scholars, they'd have an easy time making such a case. Weird how people can twist the words to mean what they want them to mean.

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