The issue is what kind of society we want

In a farewell salvo after his forcible retirement (Herald, Jan. 2), former state Rep. J. Paul Brown offered to keep up the good fight on our collective behalf, saying: “We must also continue to fight for the right to own guns to protect ourselves from the tyranny of government, or from the invasion by another country.” No hunting. No defense of hearth and home.

J. Paul is, of course, not alone in his zeal to defend our constitutional rights. In a recent appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, offered this historiography concerning our right to possess so-called assault weapons: “Well, for the same reason George Washington said a free people is an armed people. It ensures against tyranny of the government.”

By my reckoning, the last time we took arms against a foreign invader was 1812. The last time a significant portion of our population took arms against our own government was 1861. Yet for the insurrectionist fringe, the crux of the Second Amendment rests in an apocalyptic vision of overthrowing our freely elected government by force of arms. Just in case these seditious designs are not transparent enough, the NRA’s kid brother, Gun Owners of America, has been muttering darkly about “resorting to Second Amendment remedies” against the depredations of the Affordable Care Act.

The Second Amendment to our Constitution has a clear history that belies latter-day revisionism. Its very language offers the first hint: “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.” Given the grammar of adverbial clauses in 18th-century English, the only possible interpretation of the first clause of the Second Amendment is: “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.” As any grammarian will tell you, “because” clauses are presupposed, i.e. taken for granted; they supply the justification for the asserted main clause that follows. The current interpretation by our “originalist” Supreme Court notwithstanding, the Second Amendment is thus about communally regulated armed militias.

But why militias? An immense amount of research on this issue was summarized by Carl T. Bogus in the UC Davis Law Review. In the 18th century, state militias were primarily the preoccupation of the South, where they were raised to suppress slave rebellions. In his objections to the section of the Constitution that vested war powers in Congress (except in case of foreign invasion), Patrick Henry, during the deliberations of the Virginia Convention in Richmond in June 1788, spelled out this fear: “Not domestic insurrection, but war. If the country may be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress insurrections. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded.”

In the context of mounting Southern fears that the North harbored abolitionist intents, and that Washington’s standing army would supplant state-sanctioned militias, the Virginia Convention promulgated the first version of what eventually became the Second Amendment: “That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free state.”

Latter-day revisionist historiography about militias defending us against foreign invaders, or against the coercive power of a democratically elected federal government, is largely a post-Civil-War Southern concoction. As Bogus said: “The militia was, first and last, protection from the omnipresent threat of slave insurrection and vengeance.”

At the outset of the War of Independence, the hastily gathered militias indeed played an important role. But, by the end of 1776, American fields commanders and politicians alike conceded the ineffectuality of the ill-trained, undisciplined, desertion-plagued militias. As historian Charles Royster said: “One year’s experience convinced most American officials that they needed a standing army to fight the war.”

It is this sobering experience with the militias that prompted Alexander Hamilton to write: “The project of disciplining all militias is as futile as it would be injurious if it were capable of being carried into execution. (Federalist No. 29).

A friend of mine told me before the last election: “Tom, we are well armed. If Obama is re-elected, there will be blood in the streets.” What I think my friend meant is: “If our candidate wins, peace and quiet will prevail. But if your candidate wins, there’ll be blood.” It is not an accident that he and his Freedom Works comrades keep saying “democracy sucks.” In a way, it does, being a rather messy two-way street.

The absurdist hue of the Colorado gun debates is hard to miss. A recent report (Herald, Feb. 14) quoted the new speaker of the Colorado House, Mark Ferrandino: “Since I started here, I think I have always known that members had guns on the floor.”

This is further amplified by the shameful saga of concealed guns on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus (Herald, Feb. 13). Where exactly will CU students and faculty use their guns? In tenure-denial vendettas? Avenge a C grade?

I had better own up – I don’t have the magic bullet. So I pass on the following without comment. The same day as the Newtown massacre (Dec. 14), The New York Times reported an incident in China. A deranged man attacked a school, injuring 21 children. Not a single one died. He attacked them with a knife.

At the bottom of our communal predicament is neither the type of guns we may license, nor magazines, nor universal background checks. What this is all about is the kind of society we are and would like to be. Ruled by courts of (impartial, fair, just) law or down the barrel of the gun? Governed by replaceable elected representatives or by anonymous lobbies of the rich and powerful? Ballots or bullets?

As a veteran and life-long gun owner, I have learned what guns can do to people. And I remember the Old Testament’s atavistic injunction: “He who comes to kill you, kill them first.” But I am also mindful of Christ’s haunting query: “What profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Tom Givón ranches near Ignacio. His latest novel is Downfall of a Jesuit (www.whitecloudpublishing.com). He can be reached at tgivon@uoregon.edu.