The Universal Notebook: About that well-regulated militia …

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Now that the U.S. Senate has made sure there is no chance that Americans will ever get the gun controls we want and need, I’m sure the victorious gunslingers of America won’t mind a little look back at what the Second Amendment was originally all about.

A good buddy – an Army veteran, not a liberal, but definitely a strict constructionist – likes to say, “The Second Amendment only guarantees you the right to keep and bear a musket.”

While gun rights advocates whine about restrictions on their right to bear arms, there has actually been a massive expansion of Second Amendment rights to cover thousands of firearms unforeseen by the drafters of the Constitution. I find it curious that Second Amendment advocates tend to ignore the actual language of the amendment:

“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 Second Amendment is the only one of the Bill of Rights amendments to provide its own rationale. Our right to bear arms is predicated on the need for a well-regulated state militia. The amendment only prohibits the federal government from infringing on the right to bear arms, not the states. And it was passed not to protect private gun ownership, but to prevent the federal government from disarming state militias.

So tell me about this well-regulated militia of ours.

I know about the Second Maine Militia, that band of contemporary dissidents led by novelist Carolyn Chute and her husband, who does, in fact, keep and bear a musket. Beyond this fanciful turkey shoot, however, what was the First Maine Militia? Gun rights advocates like to argue that “militia” meant all citizens. Well, not quite.

About 50 pages of the 1,000-plus page Laws of the State of Maine (1821-1834) were devoted to well regulating that militia. And there we read that Maine at statehood adopted the 1792 federal military law such “That each and every free able-bodied, white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the Militia, by the Captain or commanding officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside and that within twelve months after the passing of this act.”

Every militiaman was required by law to provide his own musket or firelock or “a good rifle, knapsack, shot pouch, and powder horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutered and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service.”

Talk about an infringement on personal liberty. The militia wasn’t some voluntary association of aggrieved patriots, it was compulsory government service. Imagine the protests today if all those folks complaining about losing their Second Amendment rights were told they had to show up to drill every month.

The 21st century is witnessing a perversion of liberty by individuals who seem to get everything backwards. Militias were supposed to defend the government. Now they threaten it. The so-called tea party is filled with “patriots” who aren’t. They don’t complain about taxation without representation, they just complain about taxation. They are represented by a popularly elected government, but because they are in the minority they have come to define majority rule as a form of tyranny.

Freedom isn’t free. It requires sacrifice. America will be a lot better off when people stop fussing about their mythical rights and start behaving like responsible citizens. Stricter gun control laws would not, in and of themselves, end the epidemic of gun violence in America, but neither would they in any way infringe on anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

Never have so many Americans been so free. The original constitutional freedoms only extended to white, male land owners. Now women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and gay and lesbian Americans enjoy some of the rights once reserved for the white bulls. We have a black president and the next president may very well be a woman. That’s progress.

The largest minority in America not granted equal protection are children. If first graders could vote, you can be damn sure we would have had universal background checks years ago.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.