Saul Cornell: The Constitution's gun-control pledge

Historians in the News

First, a calming caveat: Saul Cornell doesn't want to take away your guns. He's neither antigun nor progun. He really isn't a gun guy at all. His thing is history.

Cornell, a professor at Ohio State University, passed through town the other day with much to say about regulating guns. Yet his aim isn't to take sides in the modern gun-control debate -- a squabble he thinks has strayed rather off-topic. It's far more interesting, he thinks, to look back to learn what this country's founders actually thought about gun regulation.

They couldn't imagine life without it, says Cornell. That's the point of his new book, "A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America." In it, Cornell excavates the foundations of the ! Second Amendment and offers some startling conclusions.

"As long as we've had guns in America," says Cornell, "we've had gun regulation." In fact, the Second Amendment's chief purpose is to assure such regulation. Without it, the founders feared, anarchy might take hold.

The amendment was born of the founders' desire for "a well-regulated militia." Having opted against a standing army, the Constitution's cobblers determined that every able-bodied man would serve as a member of a local militia -- prepared to respond in unison against invasion.

"It would have been impossible to muster the militia without a scheme of regulation," says Cornell -- and the early Americans had one. "Muster rolls" kept track of militia members and their firearms. And every hamlet in the land had its own de facto gun registrar: the local gunsmith, who knew every gun and gun-owner in town.

There's one right the Second Amendment wasn't written to confer: an entit! lement to take up arms against the government. "The founding f! athers d rew a distinction between a well-regulated militia, which operates under the authority of the state, and an armed mob," says Cornell. History couldn't be clearer about this point: "Once you have constitutional government," Cornell points out, "you have no right of revolution anymore."

Indeed, "All these things that the gun-rights community has championed in the name of the founding fathers -- opposition to registration, promotion of concealed-carry and stand-your-ground laws, the notion that individuals have a right to take up arms against their government -- are antithetical to the original understanding of the Second Amendment."

They also contradict today's legal understanding of the amendment. "The reason the high court hasn't heard a case regarding the meaning of the Second Amendment in so long," says Cornell, "is that it's considered one of the most settled issues in American law." In other words, laws meant to curb gun violence are usually ruled con! stitutional. ...
Read entire article at Editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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