Thursday, February 2

The historical origins of the Second Amendment, a blank check for the powerful US militias.


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With each new massacre in US schools, a debate reappears in the country, always unresolved, about why the right to own weapons has to be so lax (“right to bear arms”). This right has its source in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which literally reads as follows: “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 be infringed.”

In the absence of an army and a strong State, the different constitutions of the 13 Colonies already included concerns for the safety of their inhabitants and their right to defend themselves against external and internal enemies.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 he expressly stated that “people have the right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state.” Protected by these laws, the existence of armed citizen militias only grew with the War of Independence, where the so-called Continental Army, together with several regional and state militia units, faced the British Army, also backed by militias and mercenaries. The end of the conflict left a militarized country, with a federal structure and very suspicious of central power.

The Bill of Rights in the National Archives.

The standing army was reduced to a bare minimum, with the former militia leaders occupying important positions of power. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Convention (1787) he proposed giving Congress more power to raise and maintain a standing army and a navy of unlimited size. This measure, the first step for the great army that the US would later have, generated, in turn, a reaction against those who defended the need to limit in some way the power of the State and the military. It was necessary, argued the opponents of such a strong state, that the people could also arm themselves in an unlimited way.

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In this context, just when they began to modernize gunpowder weapons, the second amendment emerged, a supposed safeguard against the State that generously regulated the right to possess these artifacts. The 1780 text sought to recognize the historical importance of the militias and, where the State did not yet have a presence, legal coverage was given to private armies or self-defense groups that were in charge of local security. The conquest of the West was nourished by this right to be armed…

A misplaced comma

Since then, the amendment has always been the subject of an interpretive debate between those who consider it an inalienable right of Americans and those who consider it something anachronistic, reserved only for extraordinary situations. There are even those who defend that it is a syntactic misreading of the law derived from a misplaced comma. On several occasions since 1939, this interpretation has been legally debated, the last time being 2008, when the last US judicial instance once again raised whether the possession of a firearm could be prohibited in the federal enclave of Washington based on the outdated text.

Does the text refer to the fact that the militias must be armed or that everyone must be? The Supreme Court judges considered that after the second comma, which in current English would have to be placed elsewhere, there is talk of the “individual” right to bear arms for “personal defense”, although, Dennis Barona linguistics professor at the University of Illinois consulted for the occasion, defended that as it was written “the customary meaning of the phrase to bear arms in the 18th century was linked only to the military context, not to personal defense.”

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