Would the Founding Father Still Support the Second Amendment in the Age of AR-15s?
The argument typically made by gun control advocates is that at the time that the Second Amendment was written when the average soldier was armed with smoothbore muskets that fired a single shot. It is often noted that a skilled solider could fire only about three rounds per minute.
A common tactic among supporters of "gun control" is that the Founding Fathers would not have approved of today’s modern semi-automatic sporting rifles such as the AR-15. The argument typically made by gun control advocates is that at the time that the Second Amendment was written when the average soldier was armed with smoothbore muskets that fired a single shot. It is often noted that a skilled soldier could fire only about three rounds per minute.
However, there are three key points that should quickly debunk this line of thinking.
Number 1: Rapid Fire Guns Were Available
It is absolutely true that smooth bore, black powder muskets were the norm for the day in the late eighteenth century—but there were some innovative weapons that were able to fire far more quickly. Around the time that the Constitution was being written firearm designers were working on pepper-box pistols that featured multiple barrels and could fire multiple shots in just a few seconds.
More importantly, there were also long guns that existed that could certainly fire more than three rounds in a minute.
Among these was the Kalthoff Repeater, which was in fact developed in the seventeenth century, so more than one hundred years before the drafting of the Second Amendment. While it was a complex weapon that only a specialized gunsmith could repair, it was capable of holding upwards of thirty rounds that could be fired in quick succession.
Then there was the Belton flintlock, which was among the earliest true repeating muskets. It could fire up to sixteen consecutive shots in as little as 20 seconds. What is especially noteworthy about Joseph Belton's design is that he actually offered it to the Continental Congress, which certainly meant that those Founding Fathers at least understood the concept of rapid-fire weapons!
Interestingly, neither the Continental Army nor the British Army showed any interest and it would be nearly another century before the armies of the world began to adopt repeating firearms. However, there is no denying that multi-shot weapons were available when the Second Amendment was drafted while no effort to preclude such weapons from civilian ownership was even considered.
Number 2: Military Vs. Civilian Firearms Understood
Despite serious misconceptions presented by the media and gun control advocates, the AR-15 is not a weapon of war. It may resemble the military’s M16/M4 rifles externally but the operation is completely different. Where the military versions offer fully-automatic or burst fire; the civilian sporting rifles are strictly semi-automatic.
Then there is the fact, that in almost all regards today the military can truly outgun the civilian population when it comes to small arms—yet this was far from the case at the time the Second Amendment was written. In the late eighteenth-century civilian merchant vessels were often armed with the same types of cannons on military warships. Civilian ownership of cannons was not illegal.
As far as small arms go, it should be noted too that such weapons as the Kentucky, Tennessee or Pennsylvania long rifles were vastly superior to the standard-issue muskets of the day. As The National Interest previously reported, “The original rifles were fairly heavy and of very large caliber, ranging from .45- to .60-caliber. As they were taken to other colonies, including the backwoods of Virginia and Kentucky, the old country rifle evolved into something lighter and smaller, between .40- and .45-caliber.”
These rifles helped ensure America’s independence and for the first decades of the new nation, those civilian weapons remained superior to what the military had in its arsenal.
Only by the early twentieth century were new firearms such as the first models of the Colt M1911 .45 pistol and later the Browning Automatic Rifle banned for commercial sales or civilian ownership. Firearms such as the Thompson submachine gun were actually offered for civilian sales—and Auto Ordnance, the maker of the Thompson, even marketed it to ranchers to defend their herds! It was only with the passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934 that placed restrictions on what firearms the general populace could purchase—and it wasn't even until the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 that even banned the production of new machine guns for civilians.
Thus it wasn’t the Founding Fathers but rather modern politicians that have been the ones who have a problem with the public owning anything close to what is now reserved only for the military.
Number 3: Let’s Compare the Amendments
Perhaps the biggest point of discussion should be how the Founding Fathers might have viewed the other amendments to changing technology—and most notably this would include the First Amendment, which reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Now the First Amendment is also largely misunderstood today and any time Facebook bans a type of discussion there are those who claim it is a “First Amendment issue,” which it is not. That is because the First Amendment only ensures that the government doesn’t censor free speech or the freedom of the press—but private companies can still determine what they believe can be posted on their respective platforms.
However, what is more important to understand in the context of technological innovation is that the Founding Fathers sought to abridge the freedom of speech, or of the press, but didn't specify the platform just to mean the “printed word.” Today we accept that the First Amendment applies to radio, television and even the Internet. That means the government can’t censor what is posted on Facebook and instead allows the platform to determine what can or should be shared on the platform.
What is notable about this fact is that it would have been impossible in the 1780s for those Founding Fathers to have envisioned any of it.
It also is doubtful that those framers of the Constitution would have approved of some of the content we’ve seen over the years or notably of today’s content. Even one hundred years ago concepts that we believe are norms would have been taboo subjects—but this is because society has progressed, views have changed and culture has adapted.
If we accept that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech is in fact valid today to include TV and the Internet, then by the same logic modern semi-automatic sporting rifles such as the AR-15 should be granted equal protection by the Second Amendment.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Image: Wikimedia Commons