It’s hard to believe that 27 words penned in 1791 to give strength to the then-emerging United States of America would be ripping the country apart 200 years later.
But, as Walter Cronkite would say, were he still around to enlighten us, “that’s the way it is” south of the 49th parallel where the fight continues over the right to bear arms.
The ink was hardly dry when the new and much-admired USA Constitution was revealed to the world along with a block of 10 amendments to the original – amendments that remain as a solid foundation to democracy, troubled as it is today.
The first of the 10 amendments grouped as “The Bill of Rights” was approved by Congress on September 25, 1789 and ratified two years and three months later on December 15, 1791. It dealt with “freedoms, petitions and assembly.” In 2018, this Bill of Rights continues to provide protection for people who worship other than a Christian God, and for “the press” when it publishes stories a sitting president might find offensive.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Not many words and as easy to understand as they were when written centuries ago.
That lengthy preamble brings me to the now famous “second amendment,” that has created angry debate for decades and burns fiercely today at the heart of the firestorm following the most recent murders of 17 Florida school students and staff by a mentally damaged teenager in ownership possession of an automatic firing rifle.
Amendment Two, the right to bear arms, is a concise 27 words and was clearly understood and supported in 1791: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The National Rifle Association of America, the powerful USA “gun rights” lobby, argues that any attempt to curb gun ownership rights as guaranteed in the second amendment of the Constitution is an attempt to destroy a foundation stone of the USA and a betrayal of the founding fathers. They say even the most modest increase in screening of people seeking to own firearms would be an infringement of the second amendment and violation of a sacred trust.
They do not mention that after the United States had defeated the British army, the USA retained no huge standing army. Its soldiers had gone back to their farms or other jobs – taking their rifles with them and keeping them handy just in case they should again be called on to defend what they now called “our country.”
They were “the militia” the founding father preferred to the standing armies they had so recently defeated in their battle for Independence. As the State of Virginia summed it up in the original debate on the right to bear arms: “A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the proper, safe and natural defense of a free state…..”
With a powerful “standing army” today plus an efficient and well trained National Guard replacing the old militia, it seems to me that some of our more sensible neighbours down south are simply asking their government to make sure that any non-militia civilians owning guns, especially rifles, are “well regulated … people … trained in arms.”
As a Canadian I can’t be too smug about the USA’s failure to tighten their gun culture rules. In 1989, Mark Lepine executed 14 women students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique engineering school, and wounded nine other women and four men before committing suicide.
It touched off a debate on the need for beefed up registration rules and gun ownership fitness. Surveys at the time claimed only 17 per cent of the people supported the government registration program – and the furor died in Canada as it has in the USA following past mass shootings.
Will the current wave of revolutionary anger also fade? I fear so. In the land of the free the cult of the gun remains strong.