Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Guns 'R U.S.

By Shawn Healy
Riley's post illuminates the stark contrast between gun policies in the United States and Great Britain, differences attributed to both American culture and our Constitution. The United States was a nation borne through the rifle as colonists took up arms against the Mother Country and at the end of an eight-year struggle formed the fledgling United States. The original governing document, the Articles of Confederation, said nothing of gun rights, or any other affirmative or negative right for that matter. It was only with the drafting of the Constitution, and the recipient addition of the Bill of Rights as a condition of ratification, that the right to keep and bear arms was institutionalized.

Controversy lies in our contemporary interpretation of the Second Amendment, specifically the enacting clause: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state..." Late 18th Century and early 19th Century America was characterized by the lack of a standing army, whose function was instead assumed by state militias composed of citizens who gathered their arms and assumed the call of duty to defend the nation at home and abroad when called upon.

Fast forward to the present-day United States where there now exists a multi-million member voluntary military flanked by state national guards, state, county, and local police officers and sheriffs, even a legion of private security guards. While most of the latter group are not armed, the level of fortified defense in this country would without doubt shock the Founders.

Some argue that our armed military men and women, when coupled with the multi-level police force, constitute a modern state militia, meaning civilians are without a constitutional right to own a firearm. The Ashcroft Justice Department, however, went so far as to negate the legitimacy of the Second Amendment's enacting clause, relying solely on "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The reality on the ground lies between these two absolutist positions. Although the Second Amendment has never been officially incorporated to apply to state and local statutes and ordinances, most states, Illinois included, have affirmed the right to keep and bear arms. Moreover, reasonable (by my estimation) gun control measures have generally withstood constitutional scrutiny like mandatory background checks and waiting periods, limitations on automatic and semi-automatic gun ownership, even local bans on gun possession (see Chicago). A local ban in the District of Columbia, however, was just struck down on Second Amendment grounds with an appeal looming.

An interesting sidebar to these debates is another goal arguably pursued by the Founders through the Second Amendment. How would citizens themselves overthrow a government they deemed corrupt if all weaponry lay in the hands of the state? The argument follows that ordinary citizens must possess firearms not only to defend the nation from threats both within and without, but also from the body itself.

Back to the all or nothing debate. Those who would curtail private gun ownership are confronted by gun rights advocates with the argument that criminalizing gun ownership would leave them in the hands of social miscreants. Gun control advocates respond by suggesting that guns kill people, escalating physical arguments into violent affairs, often inflicting mortal wounds on the heels of a heat of the moment argument. Gun rights supporters ask for the enforcement of existing laws, coupling this with the alleged deterrent effect of an armed populace.

What we are left with is a culture of gun ownership, use (mostly for recreational purposes), and yes, violence, arguably protected by the United States Constitution. State and local initiatives seek to moderate the excesses propagated by pendulum swings in either direction as our Wild West reputation circles the globe. We need look no further than our historic battle with the Lobsterbacks to pinpoint the roots of our gun culture. Teaching an old dog to do new tricks will thus prove difficult.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at