Our good friend Eric Foner has just published a book, The Second Founding, which gives a concise and compelling explanation for how the Federal Government got into the business of defining our basic rights. Which makes this book required reading for everyone who wants to have anything to say about guns and gun violence, since so much of this debate turns on the issue of gun ‘rights.’ If you don’t believe me, just read any of the news accounts of the demonstration which took place in Richmond, VA on MLK Day to protest a new law that Trump claims is an infringement on gun ‘rights.’
The Federal Government first started defining Constitutional rights following passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments following the end of the Civil War. These Amendments ended slavery (13th), defined citizenship as a birthright (14th) and granted universal suffrage to all male Americans. Foner refers to the passage of these Amendments as a ‘second founding’ because these laws (to quote a Republican Senator from Missouri) “made the liberty and rights of every citizen in every state a matter of national concern.”
Foner points out that none of these fundamental Constitutional changes would have taken place were it not for the fact that Southern legislatures were dominated by Black officeholders from 1867 through 1877 when Reconstruction came to an end. But precisely because Reconstruction ended only ten years after it began, the Civil Rights laws passed in 1866 and 1875 to give some legal teeth to the Amendments, were either watered down in court decisions or simply ignored.
Both civil laws were attempts to define what ‘rights’ would be protected under the Constitution once the founding document contained protections which applied to every male citizen in the land. The 1866 Act enforced the implementation of laws that covered the following rights: “to ‘make and enforce’ contracts, own property, testify in court, sue and be sued, and ‘enjoy the full and equal benefit of laws for the protection of persons and property.’” (p. 64.)
See anything here about self-protection? See anything here about armed, self-defense? You won’t find any reference whatsoever to that terminology in the entire text of the Constitution or any of its Amendments, not even in the blessed 2nd Amendment from which all gun ‘rights’ allegedly spring forth. When the NRA proclaims itself to be the ‘oldest civil rights organization,’ is it referring to the rights embodied in the 14th Amendment and enumerated in the Civil Rights Act of 1866? No. It’s not referring to anything other than what a clever advertising agency figured out would help promote the sale of guns.
In fact, if you take the trouble to read the 2008 Heller decision where our late friend Tony Scalia propounded his view of gun ‘rights,’ you will note that it is not only a very narrow definition of what the 2nd Amendment says a gun owner can do with his guns (he can keep one handgun in his home) but it’s far from being an uninfringeable right because the government has great leeway in determining who can and cannot own guns.
Not only are gun ‘rights’ not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, nor in any of the federal laws that have been passed to define or enforce Constitutional texts, there is also no mention of the other hallowed Gun-nut Nation ‘right,’ i.e., the ‘right’ to self-defense. When the Constitution talks about being protected from harm, the reference is to equal standing in the courts, not to passing a background check so that you can walk around with an AR-15 on your back.
There’s also the non plus ultra for carrying your Glock, which is that self-defense is a ‘God-given right.’ I hear this all the time from my Gun-nut Nation friends and my answer is simply this: If you want to live in a country where laws are first and foremost the handiwork of Almighty God, move to Iran, okay?
Foner’s book isn’t about guns. It’s a solid work about how the word ‘rights’ should be defined and used in any important discussion about current events. In this respect, the way our friends in Gun-nut Nation use the word fails both historical and legal tests.