What I Talk About When I Talk About Guns

Campbell Armory at Inveraray Castle
What do ancient struggles of the Scottish clans have to do with today’s debate in America about gun control?

To my mind, everything. In the wake of atrocities against innocents at places like Virginia Tech, the cinema at Aurora Colorado, the slaughter of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the debate about gun control has devolved into Congressional inaction, corporate lobbying and the sniping of special interests, along with bureaucratic and judicial malaise. It’s time to take a look at where the idea of the inalienable right to bear arms comes from and how it should be interpreted in America today.

What seems to be lost in the discussion is what the right to “bear arms” actually means and how the concept came to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Reviewing the Federalist Papers, the writings of the Constitution’s framers on various aspects of what would become the final document, I find there’s reference to the right in English law to bear arms as recognition of the historical rights of Protestants to protect themselves from attackers, particularly Catholic monarchs.

The right to have arms in English history is believed to have been regarded as a long-established natural right to self-protection that supports life. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 emerged from upheaval in a country where tribal grudges and religious violence threatened sovereign rule.

Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquis of Argyll
8th Earl of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell, with his wife Margaret.
He was the de facto head of government in Scotland during
most of the British Civil War (1642-1651). He was a major figure in the
 Covenanter movement that fought for the Presbyterian religion.

According to the history of the Campbell family, Archibald Campbell, the 8th Earl of Argyll and the 1st Marquess of Argyll, was a devoted Presbyterian. This led into conflict with the monarchy. The Earl led (Protestant) Covenanters opposed to King Charles I and was beheaded for treason against the throne in 1661. Efforts were made after his death to disarm the Highland Clans. The fortunes of the House of Argyll were down until the “Glorious Revolution” in 1688.

Ultimately, the Catholic James II was overthrown in the English Civil War and his successors, the Protestants William III and Mary II, accepted conditions codified in the English Bill of Rights, adopted in 1689. Among issues the Bill resolved were the authority of the monarchy to disarm its subjects, after James II had attempted to disarm Highland Protestants, and his desire to maintain a standing (permanent) army.

The English Bill of Rights states that it restores “ancient rights” trampled upon by James II, though some have argued that it created a new right to have arms, which developed out of the sense that it’s a “duty” to have them.

Mentioned as an historic  “Protestant” right in the Federalist Papers during the framing of the U.S. Constitution, the right to bear arms for self-protection and the potential need to form militias in times of national emergency was included in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The U.S. Constitution’s 2nd Amendment reads: “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.”

When the U.S. Constitution was created in 1787, however, the framers of the document were thinkingof the right of persons to protect themselves from attack, historically an attack prompted by a disagreement over personal religious beliefs and fears of insurrection, still a strong concern in a nation founded by religious dissidents. 

Today it’s estimated by Amnesty International, Oxfam, and the International Action Network on Small Arms, that there are more than 639 million small arms in circulation and more than 1,135 companies based in more than 98 different countries manufacture small arms, as well as their various components and ammunition. In the U.S., market research counts about 300 gun manufacturing companies with combined annual revenue of more than $5 billion. That’s a lot of fire power and a lot of money. 
What I talk about when I talk about guns — and the right to bear arms — is this: historically it means a single-shot muzzle loader or a pistol to protect oneself from personal attack. Sticking with the context of history and Constitutional intent, possession by private citizens of high-powered, rapid-fire weaponry capable of indiscriminate mass killing is NOT guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment.

It simply is not and never has been. Just as all speech is not guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, ownership of any and all weapons is not guaranteed by the 2nd.
I can’t figure out why nobody gets this. I call it Constitutional Drift or a Constitution of Convenience. We make up the Constitution as we go along to fit the fashion of the moment or to serve corporate or political interests or conform to self-centered intentions of individuals. Taken to extremes, I suppose a case could be made for the 2nd Amendment guaranteeing personal atomic bombs for children.

We need to grasp the genesis of the 2nd Amendment — what it actually says and what it actually intends — protection of the individual from surprise attack and establishing ready responders in the event of insurrection or foreign assault.
Those simple rights do not guarantee ownership of an AK 47 or a Glock semi-automatic pistol. I say ownership of a revolver and a hunting rifle stretches the 2nd Amendment as far as it will go. Possessing any of the rest of today’s modern assault hardware is NOT guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, is illegal, and, except when this equipment is used by trained professionals for purposes of public safety and military response, is a clear and present danger to modern American life.
No mater what money mongers, political opportunists, or the self-serving adventurer might say, when we talk about guns, let’s stick with the basics — let’s talk about history and the law. As has been amply illustrated, the lives of our children depend on it.

I understand the complexities of this issue, the acrimony in the debate. I get that we aren’t living with technology available three or four hundred years ago. I’m aware that I’ll be dismissed as a crackpot. I also recognize that gun violence in America today is out of control.

I don’t believe there is Constitutional footing for allowing gun violence to continue unrestricted in the name of the U.S. Constitution. Instead we need to insist Constitutional law be upheld. This is not an economic or partisan issue. It’s about social survival. The 2nd Amendment does not guarantee the right to possess an Uzi, whether its continuous-fire mechanism has been disabled or not. I’m sick of splitting hairs and watching people die.

And, once we finish the discussion and confiscate the illegal weapons, let’s get back to gardening.

Gardens at Inveraray Castle, Scotland
Home of Clan Campbell


Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

2 thoughts on “What I Talk About When I Talk About Guns

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