The Winners Write The History

I get Heather Cox Richardson’s daily letter. Richardson is a history professor, and one of the voices trying to restore accuracy to the largely incomplete lessons we’ve been taught about how and why we find ourselves where we are.

A couple of days ago, her letter made me think of the old adage about history being written by the victors–something that is evidently as true of policy arguments as it is of warfare.

Richardson was reacting to the mass shootings in Boulder and  Atlanta, and she proceeded to lay out a history of gun control in the United States, much of which I had not known.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is one simple sentence: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” There’s not a lot to go on about what the Framers meant, although in their day, to “bear arms” meant to be part of an organized militia.

As the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in 1840, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”

So how did the “original intent” of the Amendment get twisted into a personal right to own weapons? Evidently, thanks to a similar twisting of the NRA.

The NRA was established in the late 1800s “to improve the marksmanship skills of American citizens who might be called on to fight in another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting.”

By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular American sport. “Riflemen” competed in the Olympics, in colleges and in local, state and national tournaments organized by the NRA… In 1925, when the secretary of the NRA apparently took money from ammunitions and arms manufacturers, the organization tossed him out and sued him.

Times have certainly changed.

The early NRA distinguished between law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns, and criminals and mentally ill people who should not. In 1931, it backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons, prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children, to require all dealers to be licensed, and to require background checks before delivery. It endorsed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and other gun control legislation.

But in the mid-1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee (PAC) in 1975, and two years later elected an organization president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”

Richardson tells us that the NRA “embraced the politics of Movement Conservatism,” a movement opposing business regulations and social welfare programs. Movement Conservatives also embraced the myth of the heroic American cowboy, a White man standing up to the “socialism” of the federal government while dominating Black and Native American people.

In 1972, the Republican platform had called for gun control to restrict the sale of “cheap handguns,” but in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Movement Conservative hero Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control. In 1980, the Republican platform opposed the federal registration of firearms, and the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate—Reagan– for the first time.

After Reagan was shot, the  NRA spent millions of dollars fighting the Brady Bill; after it passed, the organization financed lawsuits in nine states to strike it down.

Richardson also points out that until 1959, every single legal article on the Second Amendment concluded it wasn’t intended to guarantee individuals the right to own a gun. In the 1970s, legal scholars funded by the NRA began arguing that the Second Amendment did exactly that.

The organization got its money’s worth. In 2008, the Supreme Court declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.

The unfettered right to own and carry weapons has come to symbolize the Republican Party’s ideology of individual liberty. Lawmakers and activists have not been able to overcome Republican insistence on gun rights despite the mass shootings that have risen since their new emphasis on guns. Even though 90% of Americans—including nearly 74% of NRA members— recently supported background checks, Republicans have killed such legislation by filibustering it.

The good news is that the NRA is currently imploding. Perhaps the loss of its ability to spend mountains of money will allow Congress to pass responsible gun control legislation–and if it’s no longer the policy “winner,” we may get a more accurate history.


  1. One thing that Professor Richardson did not mention was that the Supreme Court decision legalizing owning weapons pertained to keeping them in one’s home, for self defense. In his decision, Justice Scalia added some comments, apparently to get Justice Kennedy’s vote, which stated that like all rights, the right to bear arms is not unlimited, and that jurisdictions might well decide, legally, to restrict carrying guns on one’s person in public.

  2. It is a sad state of affairs when 90% of the people support background checks for gun purchases but then don’t vote that way. Must be a lot of the same people who oppose abortion but vote for their imagined “freedom”.

  3. Well I always thought that all these legal arguments that changed over decades, just convoluted the entire argument.

    The 2nd amendment was obviously talking about the ability of the governing body of the United States, Congress, to raise, fund, and equip the militia! This doesn’t seem to indicate state laws overriding federal laws.

    It actually seems fairly cut and dried. Because looking through the Constitution, the militia is held in the same regard as regular military forces. The same rules and regulations afforded towards regular Army, also apply to militia.

    Posse comitatus would refer as stated in the posse comitatus act 18 US code section 1385, the use of state militia such as National Guard to take the place of federal troops i.e. Army regular to quell violence within this country’s borders.

    Militias as mentioned in the Constitution are supposed to be controlled, armed, and funded by Congress!

    Article I, Section 8,Clause 15. The Congress shall have power to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.

    Article I, Section 8,Clause 16. The Congress shall have power to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

    But to cut through all of the BS from continuous litigations, especially ones that were initiated in the 70s, you would have to really look at the history of the NRA from its inception, and its support of gun regulation which changed in the 70s.

    Anyway, there needs to be a repeal and replace for all of these different sorts of regulations, some being archaic and not useful today. The more convoluted the the intent of the framers was, by all of this forest for the trees activity, the more confused everyone is concerning every citizen being armed to the teeth if they so desire. Because, that in itself causes a threat to government.

  4. The legal argument didn’t “change”, the hard right’s long-term effort to drive judge appointments via its Federalist Society changed the judges. The left just sat around and watched them do it and still does. “They” own the “judge infrastructure”…the JIC.

  5. The difference between ‘bearing arms’ and ‘hunting’ by various religious groups. Pacifist religious groups(churches) have refused to bear arms during wartime but have shoulder weapons to hunt for FOOD(game if you wish). They consider killing a person a mortal sin but killing an animal to feed their family correct. The idea of killing game for sport not food was a practice of European privileged rich which the NRA advocated in the late 1800s. The photos of huge piles of bison/passenger pigeons were not skeletal remains the under fed farmers provided for their families but what the privileged rich considered ‘sport’.

  6. Yes. Another Reagan-influenced decision that undercuts our nation’s idealism… He was a Republican who also gave us “trickle-down”, Iran-Contra and a host of other disasters. So, why do so many people still revere this destructive administration?

    Another piece of the 2nd Amendment’s history was the wording that the southern, slave-holding states demanded so they could form armed posses to chase down runaway slaves and quell slave rebellions. So, once again, our original sin rears its fetid head to sow the seeds for so much mindless killing by so many mindless people.

    The gun fetish also has a psychological component: Aggrieved white males who question their own manhood MUST have a gun to feel the power of life and death in their hands. Why else would these “militia” people spend thousands of dollars on military and para-military hardware? Why are they arming up for war? The three-percenters (I think that’s the percentile these weirdos scored on their SATs) look reporters straight in the eye and state that what they have in mind will dwarf the Civil War. Really? Delusion much?

    The current gun mentality is a mental disease promoted and fomented by Republicans, yet another reason to eliminate that party from the political landscape. If we expect to survive as a democratic republic, we the 90% better stand up against this rabble of fools. The new voter suppression laws passed in Georgia show what a fascist government will look like.

    Read again “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. But for us, it’s black people, mostly who are the targets.

  7. If you have a subscription to the NY Times, this piece is well worth reading and puts into perspective on how out of control the gun situation is in the US. We rank above Yemen for gun violence. We’re #1, We’re #1.

    Before you think I am an anti-gun nut, I actually own a gun, but it is a flintlock pistol, and I gave away the powder and ammunition years ago.

    We shield gun owners from the true cost of owning guns. I have seen statistics that owning a gun will double the chance somebody in that house hold will die and the reasons are mainly domestic violence, suicide, and accident. Insurance companies should make that a question on any policy, and just like owning a motor-cycle, you should pay more.

    I have had gun conversations around the lunch table with my right leaning co-workers. Every time I would bring up a point, they all would almost simultaneously spout off the same canned counter point that I could go and read right off the NRA web site, or as it turns out in any gun magazine, or from any hunting show. Since no government agency is allowed to collect, study or publish information about guns, there was no way to produce a source of data that these guys would believe was credible.

    There are couple points on the current conservative position on gun control. No new gun laws should be implemented because that puts us on a slippery slope and this is the first step in “TAKING AWAY YOUR GUNS”. The second point on gun control I heard, and Sen Ted Cruz actually said this, is “what ever we do is not going to make a difference, so we are wasting our time taking about it”.

    I personally know or knew 4 people that have been shot and permanently maimed and or killed That is more than people I personally know died from COVID.

    For a little bit of historical perspective, it might take a really long time for the ideas the NRA created to change or die. In the early 1900’s, automobiles were just starting to become popular, and deaths on the streets and roads, mainly pedestrians, skyrocketed. For centuries it had been pretty safe for a pedestrian to walk on the street. For the most part horses mostly moved about as fast a man could walk and the ones that were not walking could be heard from a long way off. The AAA was formed as a lobby group for car owners, and they started an “education” campaign. They supplied funds for school crossing guards. They had traffic safety education days in all of the elementary schools, and the main message was that streets were for cars and you need to keep off. It took a generation for this idea to take hold but it took hold with a vengeance. It has only been in the last decade of two where this has been challenged with the idea of “complete streets”.

    So we need to attack gun violence with facts and data and kill false narrative that guns are for protection. When you guy a gun for protection, you need to admit you are willing to kill a person, because there is a good chance that somebody that gets shot is going to die. That somebody is much more likely going be you or a household member that any intruder.

  8. I forgot to mention one other point. True to almost everything else the Republican party has made a platform plank, TAKING AWAY YOUR GUNS, is just another fear and anger manipulation point.

  9. Lester is correct about the “JIC” and the lack of response by the oligarch-owned “opposition party” (DNC).

    Americans are passive news consumers so they are easily manipulated. All it takes is a meme saying Biden is coming for your guns and the right stiffens up. While the Left claims to advocate for common-sense gun control measures, they always lose. Even when they’re in power.

    It’s theater. Just like the FBI claims it didn’t know about the 1/6 insurrection in advance. Based on the prosecutor’s release of communications between militias, being done on Facebook or a surveilled media entity, the IC lied to Congress once again.

    Lots of former military and police in these militias buying lots of guns and ammo. I made two purchases of handguns and ammo and that’s it. Never spent another dime.

    So, who is the gun lobby marketing to??

    Even if the democratic party could pass something in Washington, it would get struck down in the JIC and they know it.


  10. I have wondered if you read HCR, she’s awesome… I wonder if she reads SSK…?

  11. The law and the Constitution are what the Supreme Court says they are, from Marbury and Dred Scott to Brown and Citizens United, and its Second Amendment holdings reflect subtle changes with the different fact situations presented in appeal after appeal. Personally, I don’t remember joining the militia.

    It is indeed theater and I’m not persuaded that the implosion of the NRA will sound the death knell for the gunners who have fallen for that organization’s propaganda.

  12. The interpretation of the 2nd amendment that states owning a gun is an individual right is wrong in my opinion. Of course, many attorneys would argue otherwise.

    It still seems insane to me that when a graduate nurse wants to take the NCLEX, the student is finger printed and then an FBI criminal background check is done to ensure that this person who wishes to be an RN or LPN is not a threat to public safety. These are people who want to SAVE lives.

    I suppose one could argue that a gun saves lives. But often guns take lives to save lives, and they can permanently disable someone. Many suicides especially by men are committed by using a fire arm. Nursing practice ethics require us to save lives without taking them. ( Pro-life people could argue that aborting a fetus to save a mother’s life is an exception.)

    I remain of the counterculture belief that the best way to reduce gun violence is to make individual gun ownership a privilege, not a right.

    Since that is not the case, we need to return to the safeguards with gun ownership that our nation previously had and to ban ownership of semi-automatic weapons that lead to massacres like the one in Las Vegas.

  13. Banning assault weapons is a “whack a mole” game. The last time, gun manufacturers simply changed their specs to work around it.

    The gun used in Atlanta, described as an assault weapon, was actually (per specs) a “pistol” manufactured to use AK47 ammo.

  14. Every time lawmakers propose universal background checks and closing gun show loopholes for NEW gun purchases, the NRA claims this means policymakers are trying to take away the guns ALREADY OWNED. They keep changing the subject and not being called on it.

  15. Now that we have “militia’s” in place, I wonder how many gun owners would be able to meet fitness eligibility requirements, say for example, Ground Combat Air National Guard. Be able to cover 2 miles of terrain by foot in 14 minutes 15 seconds. Betcha the NRA had no fitness requirements. How convenient to omit a key phrase of the Second Amendment clause … lest we forget.

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