The country is in the middle of a fierce debate regarding gun control. Pro-gun activists point to the second clause of the Second Amendment as if it were a holy writ that serves as a sacred canon without understanding its foundation. Any historian will tell you that when looking at the past to inform the future, context is always important. What the prevailing social, political, economic, or racial considerations are of a given period must be considered when making a historical argument. This is true regarding the Second Amendment.
The Second Amendment specifically starts, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state …” This phrase has implications directly related to the current debate.
First, regarding the mention of a militia one needs to consider Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. It specifically articulates that militias “execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.” Furthermore, Section 8 specifies that Congress is responsible for “organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia.”
Here is where context is important. In the late 18th century, standing armies were expensive and seen as a threat to a nascent democracy. Militias were seen at the time as the answer to these problems. Using people to “bear arms” in militias served that purpose.
Furthermore, the myth that guns are needed to protect from federal government overreach is a false narrative. If someone thinks they need arms to prevent overreach, look up Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion, which were both quelled by military action. These events in context are often missing from pro-gun arguments.
The 1792 Militia Acts required men to possess weapons for martial use. However, during the 19th century the U.S. built a trained standing army. The 1903 Dick Act allowed the federalization of the National Guard and made provisions for the training of these soldiers. This, combined with the authorization for federalizing the National Guard, made militias as prescribed in the Constitution archaic.
Regardless of that short historical analysis, guns are indeed a staple of the social landscape in this country. Americans have a strong tradition for hunting, marksmanship and competitive shooting. Additionally guns provide a tool for the inherent right of self-defense. Confiscation is not the answer. However, given the historical framework outlined above and our nation’s tradition, it is indeed time to review constitutional frameworks. Since the opening phrase of the Second Amendment mentions “well regulated,” it is time to enforce and enact routine training and competency testing for all firearm purchases.
As a Marine Corps officer of 22 years, I have indeed made the split-second decision to shoot or not to shoot. Prior to that decision, I had to prove my competence with both the M-16 and 9mm pistol each year. I not only had to prove my marksmanship skills, but I also conducted “snapping in” exercises before live fire to reacquaint myself with these guns. Given the nature of firearms, I propose weapons safety and competency tests be mandatory for any gun owner. While I was in the presence of other Marines who were indeed familiar with these weapons, there were still instances of accidental discharges — some resulting in death.
Despite the fact that militias were established for national defense, if a civilian possess or wields a firearm in public, it makes sense this person should be required to prove competency in handling and operating it. Currently, people have weapons in public, we have no idea about their skills or marksmanship capabilities.
The capability to take a life should only be entrusted to those who prove competency to a verifying official. This is a reasonable compromise given the historical context provided, the nation’s traditions with firearms and the current concern over gun safety in our society.
John Curatola is a 22-year veteran Marine Corps officer and a professor of U.S. history at the School of Advanced Military Studies in Leavenworth. The views expressed here are his, not those of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Marine Corps or the SAMS.