THE December 2013 issue of Guns & Ammo closed with a demand for more regulations on firearms and firearms owners. You heard that right: more regulations.
G&A’s long-time tech editor Dick Metcalf took his viewpoint straight from the anti-gunners’ playbook. Of the Second Amendment he wrote, “Note carefully: Those last four words say ‘shall not be infringed.’ They do not say ‘shall not be regulated.’ Well regulated is, in fact, the initial criterion of the amendment itself.” He then borrowed the anti-gunners’ long-time favorite example, comparing firearms to motor vehicles, using that analogy to advocate government control over our right to bear arms.
The crux of his position was this: “I firmly believe that all U.S. citizens have a right to keep and bear arms, but I do not believe they have a right to use them irresponsibly. And I do believe their fellow citizens, by the specific language of the Second Amendment, have an equal right to enact regulatory laws requiring them to undergo adequate training and preparation for the responsibility of bearing arms.”
Those two sentences are the sort of statements that anti-gunners like to call “reasonable.” And sure enough, guncontrol advocates immediately took to blogs and Twitter to cheer, See? Even a big gun magazine is on our side!
Gun-rights advocates, on the other hand, found Metcalf less than reasonable. Not to mention ignorant. They said so. Loudly. Most statements involved the word “boycott.” Within an eyeblink, Guns & Ammo did the right thing. They fired Metcalf. One can’t help but wonder, though, how many staffers at G&A read his column and deemed it fit for print. Because it did indeed make it past however many pairs of eyes and into the finished product. All those who didn’t raise the alarm and say, “Do we really want this in our magazine?” share some responsibility too.
The big question still remains: How can someone as deeply involved with firearms as Metcalf, someone who (according to his own published bio-blurb) is “a former faculty member of the history departments at Yale and Cornell Universities,” be so ignorant about the Second Amendment and the nature of the battle we’re in for our rights?
There are so many rebuttals I’m itching to make to Metcalf. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on one thing: that compound adjective “well-regulated” and how it relates to “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”
Metcalf and the hoplophobes he aided think “well-regulated” means this: A legislature can pass a vaguely worded law; unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats fill in the details; and once these faceless ‘crats have come up with their faceless rules, their enforcers can bust us, fine us, even kill us if we don’t obey.
That’s what modern regulation is. When people like Metcalf call for it, that’s what they’re asking for, whether they admit it or not.
But that concept of “regulation” is strictly 20th century. It’s been in heavy use only since World War II. The men who composed the Bill of Rights would have scorned such police-state nonsense.
Now, if you’re a long-time Second Amendment supporter, you (like I) are probably saying, “I know what well-regulated really means. It means well-ordered, well-drilled, running like clockwork.” And it does. It meant that to the framers of the Bill of Rights, as these 18th- and 19th-century examples from the Oxford English Dictionary show: “a liberal Education has formed in us wellregulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations” (1709). “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sundial” (1812).
But in historical context, the meaning goes much deeper.
It all began with Machiavelli. Today when we think of that 16th-century Italian political theorist, we think “Machiavellian” as in diabolically conniving. In fact, Machiavelli was a poet, statesman, patriot, critic, loving husband, solid citizen, and eventually a passionate advocate of (small r) republican government. His ideas had a huge influence on the founders of the United States. The phrase “well-regulated” as applied to the Second Amendment originated with him (that is, with translations of his works into English).
And how did Machiavelli use this term that’s lately become so misinterpreted? Fortunately, the Italian language has hardly changed since his day, so it’s easy to check. Take two examples: in his “Discourses on Livy,” he wrote of “well-regulated laws” (leggi ordinate) and of successful republics being “regulated by most excellent laws” (ordinate di ottime leggi).
Notice that laws don’t generate “regulations.” On the contrary: the laws themselves must be ordinate—orderly, well-thought-out, serving the cause of justice and the needs of a peaceable citizenry. One online translator even reads the phrase leggi ordinate as meaning tidy laws.
Does anybody here think today’s laws and regulations are any of the above?
Machiavelli didn’t only give us the term “well-regulated.” He gave his home city of Florence the Militia Ordinance of 1506. Florence, for all its glory, had suffered humiliating military defeats using mostly mercenary soldiers. Machiavelli disliked mercenaries. He called them “disunited, ambitious, without discipline, faithless, bold amongst friends, [and] cowardly amongst enemies….” He thought they corrupted society. Furthermore, he saw the obvious: that any standing army strong enough to win a war would also be strong enough to crush the country that hired it. Such an army would also need to be kept busy— that is, the nation or city-state would be in perpetual wars.
Machiavelli called instead for a militia to come from the peasantry (il contado)— that is, from the people. He envisioned it being led by a wise and popular prince. Ordinary men, well-trained but working daily at their own labors, would be the most effective—and least tyrannical— soldiers. They would be armed and skilled, but would fight from patriotism and only due to great need. Prince and pauper would fight side-by-side, not for personal gain but out of common interests.
In The Art of War, Machiavelli observed: “[T]he arms carried by [the prince’s] citizens or subjects … never do him harm, but rather are always of some usefulness, and preserve the City uncorrupted for a longer time by means of these (arms), than without (them). Rome remained free four hundred years while armed: Sparta eight hundred: Many other Cities have been disarmed, and have been free less than forty years….”
Machiavelli didn’t have the founders’ concept of natural rights. He thought arms would be provided by law and government to selected individuals.
For the realization that free individuals have an inalienable right to keep and bear arms, we move to 17th-century England. I’ve written about this tumultuous period before (ENEMY AT THE GATE, Habeas Corpus: A Tale of Freedom, April 2007 S.W.A.T.). The Stuart kings asserted their “divine right” to rule. A new and growing middle-class responded with a deepening conviction that legitimate political power came not from above, but from below—from the people, and not just the mass of them, but every individual.
Individuals, they concluded, have many inborn rights that no legitimate government would ever disrupt. It was not a happy century in England. One Stuart eventually got beheaded. Another was deposed. In the end, the people’s view won out.
It was during and from this tumult that the North American colonies were founded. By the time the Bill of Rights was written, Enlightenment ideas of individual rights had taken firm root and grown here. And a war of the people against a tyrant had reinforced those concepts.
So from the wisest of the founders we got, “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.”
Here’s how those words boil down:
Grammatically, that sentence assumes that the individual right to own and use weapons exists. Such a right is a given. (If you doubt it, visit www.constitution. org/2ll/schol/2amd_grammar. htm.) Our right does not depend on the militia, on “regulation,” or any external factor.
A militia, a part-time army of armed citizens, can exist only because the right already exists.
Such an army of individuals is the optimal way to ensure the “security of a free state.” Note: a free state. Millions of armed individuals wouldn’t be so healthy for an unfree, tyrannical state.
That part-time army should be “well regulated,” meaning well-trained. Well-trained certainly means skilled and responsible using firearms. (Contra Metcalf, no sensible person ever proclaimed a “right” to be irresponsible and careless with weapons.) It also means we should be getting together on a state and local level and practicing military tactics under the leadership of officers we elect ourselves. Although militias can be called upon and “regulated” by government for defense of property and rights, constitutional militias were not top-down governmentrun operations like today’s National Guard.
Dick Metcalf fails to understand many things. Grammar. History. The real intentions of the anti-gun crowd. But above all, he fails to understand this: government “regulation” of our fundamental rights is tyranny. And a free state can exist only when the people regulate themselves—and have both the will and the ability to regulate those who want to claim power over them.