A major point of contention at the Constitutional Convention and shortly afterwards related to the relative powers of the national government and the states. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, self-designated Republicans in contrast to the Federalists of George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, favored a weak national government and relatively strong states.
While Hamilton believed that a strong national government was essential for defense and the protection of liberty, Madison and Jefferson believed, along with many today, that the counterweight of strong states was necessary.
Among those powers best left to the states, Madison and Jefferson included the national defense. They believed that American liberty could be safely trusted to state militias and a small navy rather than a standing army, which they viewed as a forerunner of tyranny. In Madison’s view, shared by Jefferson, “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies and debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” (Ron Chernow, “Alexander Hamilton,” p. 553)
Thus, the key phrase in the Second Amendment, as intended by its author (Madison), is “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State ... .” The founders would be appalled by the rhetoric used today, ascribing to them the unregulated proliferation of high-powered weapons in the hands of just about anyone.
The Supreme Court has been on both sides of the issue. Contrary to the rhetoric of self-described “conservatives,” current interpretations of the Second Amendment can rightly be considered politicized judicial activism of the worst sort. Those libertarian interpretations definitely do not hold to the “original meaning” standard enunciated by Justice Antonin Scalia. And, as the 10,000 and rising Americans killed by guns not in their own hands every year might testify — if they could — guns definitely did not protect their lives and liberty.
The court once enunciated a doctrine of “clear and present danger” as an exception to protected speech under the First Amendment. It is well past time for semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns, especially those that can be easily modified for full automatic firing, to be so viewed, and banned. There is the view that criminals kill, not guns. Such may be true as rhetoric. But you can know them only after the fact, a bit too late for the victims.
Madison’s notion of a state militia, composed of volunteers called up in times of danger, but not otherwise a standing military force, has been long since abandoned. Far from it, today the standing military is not just respected but glorified as a defender of our liberty, not as a principle threat. However, as Madison foretold, it consumes well over half of discretionary spending, with recent wars being responsible for most of the national debt.
Richard Slaughter is a political scientist and economic consultant, former chief economist of the state of Idaho, and chairman of the Boise Committee on Foreign Relations.