by D.J. McGuire
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. – United States Constitution, Amendment II
The Las Vegas carnage has reopened the debate on gun rights. This should neither surprise nor disappoint (the reopening of the debate, that is; the carnage should – and I’m sure does – sadden all of us). Also completely expected is the focus on the constitutional amendment cited above, part of the Bill of Rights passed by the First Congress over two centuries ago.
Strangely enough, the entire amendment never gets the attention it should, in particular the opening phrase.
To the extent that “A well regulated Militia” is discussed at all, it’s usually as an argument from the left to declare the amendment as overcome by events. The right responds usually by avoiding the phrase entirely, insisting that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own guns, period, as if the founding generation threw the rest in as something between a rhetorical flair and a 1790s political afterthought.
I, for one, am far too admiring of James Madison to think he didn’t have something in mind when he put that phrase in. Moreover, I humbly submit we consider bringing back the institution Madison cited. At the time, the American military was practically non-existent – and state National Guards were completely non-existent. State militia were a vital part of collective self-defense – especially on the “frontier” regarding hostile Native American tribes (this is not to say said hostility was unjustified, only that it existed) or in northern states that bordered Canada (colony of a hostile foreign power). President Washington called for the militia to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, and when President Madison (yes, James Madison) fought the War of 1812, it was militia that largely took part in the two most well-known battles to Americans: Baltimore and New Orleans. Lincoln himself used a militia call in 1861 to begin building the Union Army.
Of course, to expect a militia to do that in 2017 would be insane. The threat of invasion from a foreign state is remote. The notion that a militia can overthrow a tyranny from Washington (a favorite line of the far-right’s attempt to resurrect them in the 1990s) refuses to take into account that the Revolutionary War was more about protecting governments on this continent (especially the elected colonial legislatures).
But lone wolf attacks? Terrorist cells? That’s not a bad analogy to what militias faced on the frontier.
Our institutions (and our Constitution) have evolved since 1790. Militias can, too. They can become – among other things – an additional first-responder layer to disasters (natural or artificial), a reinforcement of a sense of community, an opportunity to make us (and yes, I’m including myself in that) more vigilant and more able to protect ourselves and each other. Moreover, and contrary to that 1990s rhetoric, militia can be part and parcel of institutional responses to various emergencies. Again, militia were restoring order in this nation in the eighteenth century. There’s no reason to believe they can’t be cooperative with local police, state armies (National Guards), and the federal government.
Oh, and militias can place a cooperative organization around guns and gun owners in America.
Could militia have stopped Stephen Paddock? No. Would a militia-trained populace be more able to help minimize body counts in San Bernadino or Orlando? I think it would have.
Americans don’t just leave helping our fellow Americans to government agencies. We take it upon ourselves to do what we can. There was a time when that included public safety, too. I refuse to believe it can’t happen again.
D.J. McGuire is the conservative Democrat on More Perfect Union podcast – and sometimes feels like he is the lone conservative Democrat in the country.