Gun Debate Rekindles Old Divisions

To say that the United States is divided today is almost an understatement. Some might say that we are at civil impasse. While our national tension may seem very new and frightening, history shows that its roots extend back to the ratification of our Constitution.

By 1787, our nation had cast off the chains of foreign oppression. The taste of victory was very short lived because Americans immediately found themselves thrust into a crucial debate over how they would govern themselves.

This debate involved two opposing factions, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalist supported the establishment of a strong central government.  Often described as “monied” men, their ranks included;  large land owners, merchants, planters, and creditors. They promised security through a strong national constitution that gave the government the power to raise an army and impose taxes.

Having just experienced the oppression of Great Britain, the Anti-Federalist were suspicious of such a government. Largely comprised of small farmers and debtors, the Anti-Federalist recoiled at the notion of an army.  They feared that the Federalists would use it, along with the power of taxation and the authority of the federal court, to create an aristocracy, resulting in their bondage.

Ratification of our Constitution was never guaranteed. This uncertainty provoked a compromise.  The fruit of that compromise was the “Bill of Rights” .  Ten amendments established explicit rights to freedom of the press, of religion, to assemble, to be secure in person. It prohibited self-incrimination. In short, it banned all the tools of oppression with which our founding generation were very familiar.  It also granted the right to keep and bear arms. Common people could now defend themselves against threats in their daily lives, and if necessary against a government gone out of control.

Today’s supporters of the second amendment trace their legacy back to the Anti-Federalist, and share their concern over centralized government power. Unlike liberals and progressives, they are cautious, if not wary of government authority. To them the history of human society is largely the story of government abuse and oppression. To those who view these reservations as unfounded, they would pose this question?   What has changed about human nature, that would reasonably warrant someone to believe that free people should ever relinquish their right to defend themselves?

– Dennis J. Galvin

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