It is perverse that I should have had to move to America to enjoy the right, for it was my countrymen who first recognized it. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone cited the right to bear arms as one of the fundamental liberties enjoyed by all Englishmen. Alas, all have not always enjoyed it. Now, at least, British gun law guarantees the equal sharing of miseries. But it was not always so. The long history of disarmament in Britain tallies grotesquely with the lists of those marked out as second-class citizens: Catholics were excluded from the 1689 Bill of Rights (“the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence”), and the aristocracy, terrified of an uprising of the disenfranchised minority, regularly took it upon itself to disarm the perceived threat. In Canada, the first serious gun-control laws, passed between 1911 and 1913, were contrived to keep guns out of the hands of non-British immigrants, away from people who were regarded by authorities as inferior, uncivilized “disciples of the torch and bomb” whose behavior was disgraced by “bad habits, notions, and vicious practices.”
America’s history is worse. In the 17th century, the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies prohibited the sale of guns to Indians, while the “Black Codes” of 18th-century Louisiana required free French colonists not only to disarm but to beat “any black carrying any potential weapon.” Blacks have had it especially tough. Many post-Revolutionary state constitutions reserved the right to bear arms to “freemen,” which, naturally, meant whites. After the Civil War, the Democratic party’s own “Black Codes,” which were designed to prohibit freed slaves from owning guns in the South, had the same execrable purpose. The first draft of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act rendered it a federal crime to “deprive any citizen of the United States of any arms or weapons he may have in his house or possession for the defense of his person, family, or property.”
As recently as 1968, gun-control measures were a veiled attempt to disarm black people. “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns,” the anti-gun Robert Sherrill contends, “but to control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was that they did neither.” In debates over gun-control measures, tyranny is usually posited as potential, not actual. But what possible resonance could smug assurances that “it couldn’t happen here” have had for these excluded men? It did happen here.
In his “Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution,” published in the Federal Gazette on June 18, 1789, and widely reprinted, Pennsylvania delegate Tench Coxe explained to the reading public that the proposed Second Amendment affirmed the people’s “right to keep and bear their private arms” against “civil rulers” and “military forces” that “might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens.” His article adumbrating the amendment’s meaning prompted its author, James Madison, to write Coxe a warm letter, noting that the process would “be greatly favored by explanatory strictures of a healing tendency, and is therefore already indebted to the co-operation of your pen.”
As Coxe implied, the oft-repeated notion that the Second Amendment exists as an anachronism or was passed to protect “sport shooting” or “hunting” is as defective as the idea that the First Amendment exists to protect Shakespeare or the Beatles. Certainly it does those things, too. But primarily such protections were chiseled deep into American scripture in order to afford the people the perennial scope to take their government to task.