Automatic for the People

Armed militias were essential to the creation of America and influential to the framing of the Constitution. But times have changed, and so has the firepower.

Colonial gun culture held together an uncertain American experiment. Guns were a necessity of frontier life—needed for hunting and protecting livestock—and were also used as insurance against human threats. Guns, and the white men wielding them, controlled indigenous peoples who resisted incursions onto their land and the enslaved peoples whose labor was essential for Southern plantations. Bacon’s Rebellion, a revolt of indentured, poor, and enslaved Virginians that was thwarted by colonial elites in 1676, created a “new lexicon for colonial masculinity,” writes historian Kathleen M. Brown in Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, her 1996 book on gender, race, and power in colonial America. “The inherent honor of white manhood became increasingly based on the right to carry a gun.”

In the American colonies, white men with guns made sure the people disadvantaged by the colonial project knew their place.

AR-15, AK-47.

But the first-order purpose of the Second Amendment as it was drafted wasn’t to protect an individual’s right to carry a gun, but rather to ensure that a strong federal government wouldn’t overwhelm the power of the states. It was “ratified by a generation of Americans who feared standing armies, and had witnessed a systematic policy to disarm their militias,” historian Saul Cornell explains in his 2008 book A Well-Regulated Militia, about the origins of gun control in early America.

Over the course of the Revolution, colonial militias made up of every able-bodied white man between 16 and 60, who had been lightly trained at periodic musters, played an essential part in the defeat of the British Army. While some professional soldiers, including George Washington, repeatedly confessed themselves frustrated at what historian Thomas Fleming termed in a 2013 article for the Journal of the American Revolution the militiamen’s “lack of discipline and fondness for plunder,” by the end of the war the militia held their own in several important engagements and proved the importance of the amateur. “The militia would not have won the war alone,” Fleming writes, “but the war probably could not have been won without them.”

AK-47 (left and right), AR-15 (center).

And so the Constitution secured a place for these state-run militias, which satisfied those Americans who worried about overweening federalism. But in the early republic, the question of who had the right to take up arms against the government was far from resolved. The Shays Rebellion of 1787, in which more than a thousand farmers from western Massachusetts protested federal taxation, made the framers of the Constitution nervous, even after the state militia managed to put down the uprising. In 1794, Washington, now president, led an army to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, in which settlers in western Pennsylvania rose up against a tax on liquor, levied to pay for the debt of the Revolution. In an address to Congress that year, the president declared that an insurrection like this could not be tolerated in the new nation: “To yield to the treasonable fury of so small a portion of the United States, would be to violate the fundamental principle of our constitution, which enjoins that the will of the majority shall prevail.” Armed rebellion against a federal policy was not, the government wanted to make clear, a right of citizens of the new nation.

Nor was gun ownership a free-for-all in the colonial period and the early republic. Because of the importance of the militias to public safety, gun registration was mandatory and government officials had the right to come into your home to inspect your musket. The government had opinions as to which weapons you should buy and even as to how you should keep your weapon—mandating, for example, that gunpowder be stored in a safe manner. The men who enrolled in militias in the early days of the nation—and, under the 1792 Militia Act, enrollment was mandatory for all able-bodied free white men between the ages of 18 and 45—had six months to buy themselves “a musket, bayonet, and belt, two spare flints, a cartridge box with 24 bullets, and a knapsack.”


AK-47, AR-15.
AR-15.

The gap between the guns available at the time of the framing of the Constitution and the present day is a technological chasm. Eighteenth-century American firearms were primarily long rifles developed by German gunmakers who settled in Pennsylvania; fashioned from curly maple, and often carved with embellishments, the guns could fire about three bullets a minute.

As present-day gun-rights defenders love to point out, when the Constitution was framed, repeating or rapid-fire firearms were technically available: the Girandoni air rifle—invented in 1779 and carried by Lewis and Clark on their 1804 expedition—could fire 30 bullets without reloading. The Founding Fathers, especially the technologically savvy Thomas Jefferson, were familiar with the existence of these futuristic weapons, but the run-of-the-mill farmer wouldn’t have had access to them, nor would he have been likely to know of their existence. It wasn’t until the 1830s, when industrialists learned to standardize and machine-produce parts for weapons, that the technology was invented that would eventually bring repeating rifles in reach of ordinary Americans.

Armed rebellion against a federal policy was not, the government wanted to make clear, a right of citizens of the new nation.

AK-47.

During the Civil War, soldiers used Spencer repeating carbines, which could shoot seven shots in 15 seconds. In the decades right after the war, Winchester rifles were relatively cheap and widely available, and were tremendously popular with Western settlers; the company marketed its lever-action Model 1873, with a magazine that held 15 ready-to-fire rounds, as “The Gun That Won The West.” The 20th century brought more firepower. Hiram Maxim produced the first automatic machine gun in 1884, which could shoot 600 rounds a minute; during World War I, General John Thompson invented the submachine gun, which fired pistol cartridges automatically and could shoot upwards of 1500 rounds a minute.


AK-47, AR-15.
AR-15.
AR-15.

American citizens are no longer only white men, understood to be heads of households and responsible for the defense of their settlements from “insurrection” and attack.

AR-15, AK-47.

As these innovations in weapons technology developed, the legal establishment supported the “collective rights” theory of the Second Amendment, which held that the framers designed the amendment to give states the right to arm militias—not, as the later “individual rights” theory saw it, to allow citizens to keep weapons. In the 19th century, states and localities passed gun ordinances—laws against concealed carry, or laws that disallowed guns in city limits—while the federal government remained silent on gun control. In the 20th century, under FDR, bills imposing measures of federal gun control passed with public support and were upheld by the Supreme Court.

Today, anyone over the age of 18 possessing around $800 can purchase a semiautomatic rifle like the AR-15, capable of shooting 30, 60, or even 100 rounds at a time and able to be reloaded in just three seconds. As radiologist Heather Sher memorably explained in The Atlantic in February 2018 after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, high-velocity bullets shot by AR-15s make organs look “like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer.” In other words, when it comes to the wounds they make, not all weapons are created equal.

But it’s not just the guns that have changed since the days of the early republic. It’s our relationship to the them. Most Americans nowadays aren’t living subsistence lives under constant physical threat. The frontier has been “closed,” according to the US Census, since 1890. In 1933, the National Guard of the United States was officially consolidated as a reserve component of the US Army; the last freestanding state militias are gone. Hunting has largely transitioned from a widespread subsistence activity to a hobby serviced by a huge consumer-facing industry. The average American doesn’t need a gun leaning by the cabin door in the same way the average colonist did.


The “collective rights” theory of the Second Amendment holds that the framers designed the amendment to give states the right to arm militias—not to allow citizens to keep weapons.

MP5.

And American citizens are no longer only white men, understood to be heads of households and responsible for the defense of their settlements from “insurrection” and attack. The Supreme Court eventually affirmed the individual-rights view of the Second Amendment, which had long been unfashionable in the legal establishment, in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008. As historian Caroline Light points out in her 2017 book Stand Your Ground: A History of America's Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, the Supreme Court’s ruling that individuals had the constitutional right to bear arms stripped all social context from our American history of 18th-century gun ownership, “divesting the early emblem of ‘law-abiding citizenship’ of its historic exclusionary connotations.” The white property-owning man looking to defend what Justice Antonin Scalia called “hearth and home” in early America was doing so against Natives, enslaved people, and possible incursions from foreign invaders, but this reading of the Second Amendment didn’t mention that part of the history.


Since the 1970s, the National Rifle Association has transposed this 18th-century vision of armed, defensive, patriarchal citizenship into the present day. The organization was founded in 1871 by two veterans of the Union Army who found the marksmanship and gun savvy of the Northern recruits to be severely lacking in quality. For decades, the NRA functioned as a firearm-safety organization and offered training to those who wanted it; the organization did not intervene to challenge state and local gun control laws, and approved of FDR’s New Deal–era federal gun control legislation.

Over the past 40 years, however, the NRA has morphed from a sportsman’s organization, supportive of gun control legislation and focused on education and training, to a politically active, libertarian-leaning, conservative anti-government group. As a result of its efforts, Americans have the right to carry a concealed handgun in every state. Since 1990, the number of people who have concealed carry permits has gone from 1 million to 13 million. (This right, however, is more dangerous for some Americans to exercise than others; the police officer who shot black motorist Philando Castile in 2016 didn’t care that Castile had a permit to carry his gun.) You can “stand your ground” in 24 states, which give you the right to shoot before retreating—a right, by the way, that the colonists would not have recognized.

MP5, AR-15, AK-47.

Share this story

Loading more