Of late, due to the horrific events surrounding the mass murders that took place in Las Vegas, there has been a renewed call regarding the restriction and outright banning of semi-automatic firearms. One of the primary arguments for this position is that our Founding Fathers never considered semi-automatic firearms when our Constitution was written.
Obviously, semi-automatic firearms had not been invented at the time of the writing of the US Constitution. However, before one dismisses this one should look more broadly and consider what the issues are and compare them to what was known at the time of the creation of our Constitution.
What is it about semi-automatic firearms that get some people so concerned about their presence and distribution? Namely, it is the fact that they can fire more rapidly than a single shot firearm. The thought is that if one were to fire a shot in a criminal manner, that at most one person would be shot before others would have a chance to flee or take appropriate action. This would therefore limit potential damage that could be done. The foundation for this argument is typically that as the writers of our Constitution only had muskets and flintlocks, they couldn’t have conceived of rapidly firing arms, that the 2nd Amendment never meant to include our modern firearms.
There are numerous problems with the approach of believing that our Founding Fathers were so limited in scope and education. First, let’s look at the type of people that wrote our Constitution. These were men that were exceptionally well educated for the most part. They were well schooled in Ancient and “modern” history, many read and spoke multiple languages including French, Latin, and Greek, many had extensive mathematical training, some were doctors, most had very significant legal schooling, some were inventors and scientists, … the list goes on. These were people that had education that was well rounded and much broader and more practical than most well educated people found today in universities. People today don’t have a good reference point for the schooling and educational level of these individuals, as almost no one today is similarly schooled. It is easy for people today to project and consider that these people only had the level of schooling that they had themselves. A person today that had a decent high school education and say a four year liberal arts degree, which is either the person themselves or someone that they closely know, is a poor comparison. It is easy to assume that they had similar educations to these people as the late 1700’s was “such a backward and ignorant time” in their minds and “, I know so much more than they ever did.” This view would be incredibly incorrect. I present this information as many people dismiss the Founding Father’s ability to anticipate changes, understand technology, and deal with a changing environment.
One major feature of our Constitution was the incorporation of a patent system. I ask you to please take a look at the nature and quality of inventions presented in patents from the early part of our country (say 1791 to 1805). I dare say that you will not find these people as primitive as many make them out to be. For the Founding Fathers to have included a patent system meant that they anticipated changes and developments throughout all areas of technology, including firearms.
Next, it is important to look at what type of firearms technology was known at the time of the writing of our Constitution. Addressing the concept of only knowing muskets or flintlocks, the history tells a very different picture. A number of repeating firearms were known to the colonists. Although they were not in common usage, some were available. Let’s look at the history of repeating or rapidly firing guns.
The earliest found firearm that could fire in rapid succession appears to be the Ribauldequin. This was a multi-barreled cart mounted small caliber gun that had up to 144 firings, in one configuration, before they had to be reloaded. The typical such gun would have 8 to 12 barrels, but had firing rates that would approach that of a machine gun, although, each firing had its own barrel. These guns came into existence during the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe. Many might argue that this is not really different than having lots of individual firearms tied together and it might be a fair argument if not for the ability of it to be under the control of one person to fire rapidly.
I recommend that you view the operation of this firearm on the above YouTube channel as many will likely be surprised with the rate of fire. Remember that this is technology from the 1300 and 1400’s.
True multi-shot firearms are seen around 1580, where a 16 shot pistol was developed that had multi-stacked rounds in a barrel. Later, the British issued multi-shot shotguns to their military in 1658.
There were multi-shot firearms developed by Kalthoff and Lorenzoni during the early part of the 17th century. These were found as both long guns as well as pistols and were capable of up to 6 shots between reloadings. This design was improved upon in 1662 by Abraham Hill in London. These guns were widely available and found use in the American Colonies where they were known as Cookson Guns after the gunsmith of John Cookson. Cookson’s relatives had emigrated to the colonies and these firearms were being produced in the mid-18th century on our shores. Newspapers in Boston advertised 9 shot and 7 shot rifle versions.
(images from firearmhistory.blogspot.com/search?q=cookson)
The Cookson Gun - Repeating Rifle
Please refer to a wonderful website that contains much useful firearms history information:
The next significant repeating firearm was the “Puckle Gun.” Developed in England around 1717 and patented 15 May 1718. This firearm had a single barrel that allowed rapid firing by turning a crank. It had many similarities to the Gatling Gun developed in the later part of the 1800’s, but allowed loads of powder and projectiles to be sequenced through the gun. Compare this concept with a more modern machine gun; is there really much of a conceptual difference?
The Lorenzoni/Cookson type mechanism
(from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puckle_gun#/media/File:Puckle_gun_advertisement.jpg)How about one of the very famous guns that helped to map the west that went with Louis and Clark. This gun was first developed by Bartholomaus Girandoni in the late 1770’s. This gun was well known and widely distributed, being used by the Austrian Military. It was a 46 caliber rifle that would hold 20 rounds in a magazine. The rifle would fire at up to 900 ft/sec (on par with many modern 1911 pistols). This gun was an air-rifle and greatly impressed the Native Americans that were encountered by Louis and Clark during their journey. On more than one occasion, it was found to have scared some of them into peace with the traveling entourage as they saw that they would have little chance against such a gun.
The Puckle Gun.
(images from firearmhistory.blogspot.com/search?q=cookson)
A Girandoni Air Rifle
Therefore, it is obvious that our Founding Fathers knew of the existence of rapidly firing and repeating guns as they had been available to the colonists for a significant time. The Founding Fathers were additionally forward looking as they had incorporated a patent system into the Constitution. The Founding Fathers had among them some very technically inclined individuals. This combination makes it almost impossible that our Founding Fathers did not anticipate rapidly firing guns when they wrote the words of the 2nd Amendment. The difference between a rapidly firing gun of the technology available (which by the way did include the concept of magazines) at the time and the semi-automatic firearm is of little value if viewed simply as a black box. If you look at a black box where bullets come out, does it really matter what the mechanism is if the rate of fire is similar?
In view of the above information, it can be very clearly stated that although the Founding Fathers didn’t know of semi-automatic firearms, it was clear that they anticipated their development. They clearly didn’t have any issues with the possibility of having rapidly firing guns as they already existed. The fear that the Founding Fathers had was regarding the potential tyranny that a standing army could impose on a general population.
It should be remembered, that when Paul Revere’s ride took place, he, along with William Dawes and Samuel Prescott rode to tell of the British military’s invasion. For what purpose were the British invading at that time? They were to seize the colonist’s firearms! With the population under direct oppression of the military and without any means of self-defense, the military could do as they wanted. If someone is pointing a gun at you, your family, your friends, your neighbors, and you have nothing that would offer any defense, you are essentially powerless and enslaved. Although there are a few stories of very gentlemanly behavior from some of the British soldiers, it should be remembered that they were sent by the British Crown to really let the colonist know “who was boss!” The British were known for being stiflingly bureaucratic, cruel, and corrupt. The colonists were forced to give up any arms and then have to house, feed, and shelter their oppressors in their own homes. Try to imagine an army marching through your neighborhood and you being ordered to surrender anything that might be used in a defensive manner and then have to give your bedroom over to several of their soldiers along with feeding them. This didn’t sit very well with the colonists and it wouldn’t with almost anyone.
The Founding Fathers put restrictions in place in our Constitution to prevent such abuses. The concept is that the government is forbidden from disarming you, it is forbidden from invading your towns, it is forbidden from forcing you to quarter its soldiers. The concept is that these prohibitions on the government aren’t that the government is giving you the right; it is that you already have the right.
The murder of a person is wrong. Looking at it from the murdered person’s standpoint, “the killer doesn’t have the right to take my life.” This is inherent to the person, that they want to live and no one else has a say in that. The same level of concept exists with regard to theft or robbery. What you have is yours, and no one else has a right to take your property. Again, if someone attacks you, you have a built in right to defend yourself, to, if necessary, use all needed force to stop your attacker. No one gave you that right, you already had it!
The Founding Fathers put these concepts into our Constitution when they forbade the government from telling us that we didn’t have to die because a member of government said so, that we didn’t have to be invaded and have our homes and food stolen from us by government soldiers because they felt like it, that you were allowed to defend yourself, even from the government!
Imagine a large and obviously strong man standing in front of his house with a large club. He isn’t doing anything wrong, but obviously standing guard over his house. All passersby will note that he is prepared to protect his house. But even the ones with criminal intent will notice him and likely consider that his house just isn’t worth an altercation with this man. His show of potential force keeps him safer. But that same club in the hands of a small frail old woman would not evoke much fear from a criminal. If she where to stand guard with a firearm, the same level of fear or respect would likely enter the criminal’s mind; this is not a place to try anything wrong.
The 2nd Amendment is there not for hunting, not for sport, but for some very specific purposes. It is there to give any potential criminal elements that might come along a moment of thought that these people have a means of offering a fully lethal defense. The criminal doesn’t typically fear getting slightly hurt as many live in a world of violence, but lethal responses are permanent. These criminals exist throughout our society, including in government. The 2nd Amendment is there to keep the criminals in government at bay.
As our Founding Fathers saw with the British during the American Revolution, aggressors need to be reminded that we can defend ourselves. They saw that the human mind is flawed and that it is very possible for a flawed mind to control the actions of a multitude of soldiers. How best to curb such actions in the future? By making sure that the people had a distributed power, a power to each individual person that they can wield against such thoughts in others, the Founding Fathers protected our nation. The power of defense, regardless of the person’s size, strength, or capacity, is namely that of “arms.” Here the term is frequently used to describe firearms, but the term is much broader. It means any method or tool that will provide an equalizing means so that the size and strength of the person becomes irrelevant.
What is it that keeps the government from saying, that they have the strength and will simply take what they want from some? The law you say? The government makes and enforces the laws. How easy would it be to order some part of the government to send enforcers (police, soldiers, etc.) under pretense (to get the government people to go along with the action) from just going in and taking some things that they wanted (land, supplies, money, etc.)? What is there to stop them? The final thing that would stop them is knowing that some of the people would fight back with capabilities that would cause great hurt.
It is so easy for people today to say that the 2nd Amendment is obsolete as written, that the Founding Fathers didn’t anticipate our world, that they wrote things that were too uncontrolled for our times. The truth is that the Founding Fathers were extremely astute students of the human mind, spirit, along with its flaws. They were well aware that some people are very motivated by greed, power, lust, and many other human frailties, and that these people would eventually be in power in government. They directly saw the problems that this can bring, especially with centralized power.
Many people today say that OUR government will never again abuse its people. That the 2nd Amendment is too dangerous a thing to have. What they have forgotten (or never learned in the first place for some) is that OUR government doesn’t do the things that these people fear because they still have enough respect (and fear) of OUR people because they know that the people will defend themselves from attack, even if from the government.
Many of these people have also forgotten (or again, never learned) that our laws are there to provide punishment for those that break them. Laws do not prevent crime! Fear within the criminal may prevent crime, but this fear is generally not from the legal consequences of the crime, but of dying on the spot of the criminal act. For the criminal in government, their goal is frequently power. The consequence of overstepping the bounds too far is complete loss of all power, as would happen if the population revolted. The 2nd Amendment is the protective foundation that ensures the rest of the rights. Without it, a government can simply decide to take the other rights away; what would anyone do?
To see that governments can abuse its people even in this day, one only need look at NAZI Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s, at Venezuela right now where people are brutally repressed for wanting the government to change so that they can get food. Many other examples exist throughout the modern world. It still is a risk, as long as people exist that seek power.
The 2nd Amendment is there to keep the government with the thought in the back of their mind of, “is the government going too far / will the people feel a need to defend themselves from us?” This concept was there so that the people would always be able to overpower the strength of the government, to keep the government in fear of overstepping its authority and making the people feel like defense was needed. The Founding Fathers intended for the general population to have similar capabilities of that of the US Military, including the use of semi-automatic firearms (and much, much, more – but that is for later editions).