The Moral Universe – Slavery and the Second Amendment


So what does the Second Amendment, which gun rights advocates claim enforces their right to carry their guns, have to do with slavery?

It starts with New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, a passionate advocate of sensible gun laws. Mr. Nocera keeps a weekly tally of shooting incidents on a blog, and the numbers are mind-boggling.

His op-ed column last week was about a new book by Michael Waldman called The Second Amendment: A Biography. The book came out, with horrible irony, three days before Elliot Rodger went on his killing spree in California.

From what Mr. Nocera writes, Mr. Waldman set out to discern how an Amendment that for 200 years was taken to refer to militias has been subverted to refer to an individual’s gun rights since the 1970s. The book pretty much underscores what many gun-control advocates have been saying for years: that the Second Amendment does not have anything to do with private rights to own and carry, openly or otherwise, guns of any kind.

Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun? – Joe Nocera

The amendment, according to Waldman, is strictly about the duty of a state to have “a well-regulated militia” and to be ready to serve when necessary. That was how the Amendment was read until the 1970s when, Waldman claims, the National Rifle Association was taken over by what he calls “Second Amendment fundamentalists.” Mr. Nocera points out that in 1972 the Republican Party favored gun control laws, but that by 1980 the NRA was endorsing Ronald Reagan for President (the first time it had endorsed a Presidential candidate), and the Republican platform was opposed to gun registration laws.

“A surprising discovery that Waldman found and points out in his book is that there was less debate on the Second Amendment by the framers of the Bill of Rights than any other amendment in it. In the little debate that there was, there was no mention of a citizen’s right to keep guns for any reason whatsoever, and the Amendment passed easily,” writes Mr. Nocera.

Here is where slavery comes in, according to a blogger who calls himself Mike the Mad Biologist. The blogger asserts that the Second Amendment arose directly out of the need to maintain slavery.

Mike argues that the Southern delegates were terrified that the new Constitution would do away with slave patrols. Patrick Henry, a Virginian, he says, argued that if there were a slave insurrection, the Southern states would have to go to Congress for permission to put it down. Heretofore those states had all had their own militias organized to keep an eye out for any kind of slave revolt. If the states had no say in the matter, their hands would be tied by free states who wanted to see an end to slavery.

 …slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias. – Mike the Mad Biologist

The reason for so little debate on the Amendment, Mike says in effect, was that without Virginia’s delegates, the Amendment would not have been ratified at all. This is why, he says, it refers to state militias rather than a federal militia. “The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote,” he writes.

Does it have the ring of truth? I think it does, but one can’t help but wonder why Mr. Waldman’s research did not go into this aspect. He is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, which implies pretty good credentials.

Whichever way it goes, the argument that has been stated outright by gun rights advocates that their right to guns outweighs a community’s right to not be shot down is tantamount to the South’s argument that its right to own slaves trumps the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal.”

It is no coincidence that many of the gun rights folks that have been in the news call themselves militia and believe themselves not to be governed by the laws of the land. It is also no coincidence, to me, that most of the Internet postings I see about gun rights are written by members of the Tea Party, which have blatantly shown their racism since the creation of that party after President Obama’s election.

And finally, it is no coincidence that it is the extreme right justices of the Supreme Court who have been disabling gun control as well as voter rights, which hurts minorities most of all, since at least 2008 (hmm, why is that year significant?) in Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in the court’s decision to strike down gun control laws in the District of Columbia.

That’s the bottom line for me. What’s yours?

You can read both Joe Nocera’s column and Mike the Mad Biologist’s blog at these links:


One thought on “The Moral Universe – Slavery and the Second Amendment

  1. One of the things many people overlook is the Bill of Rights are AMENDMENTS to the existing Constitution.

    The powers of the President to call out the Militia and Congress to arm the Militia were laid out in the body of the Constitution. Right?

    So if it was only about the militia then there would be no need to call out the rights of the militia again. Sorry but the fact is the 2nd Amendment and state analogs have always been about the individual right. Amazing how in every other instance; the people (search and seizure, peaceful assembly, etc) refer to individual liberties but in the 2nd Amendment it refers only to a ‘collective’ liberty. Doesn’t make sense.

    As far back as 1876, the Supreme Court (Cruishank) had decided the 2nd Amendment was an individual right:

    The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence”

    If the right isn’t granted by the Constitution; then it can not be limited ONLY to the Militias which were codified into law by the Constitution.

    Bob S.

    3 Boxes of BS


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