The other night I had just gone to bed a little after midnight and was lying there about to drop off when I heard an automatic weapon firing just down the hill from my house. There was no mistaking it. The shooter fired off a burst of about 20 shots in two or three seconds. It’s impossible to pull the trigger on a semi-automatic rifle in that brief period.
It didn’t surprise me. I know gun enthusiasts where I live have automatic rifles, though they’re supposedly illegal. It doesn’t take a lot of expertise to convert a perfectly legal semi-automatic rifle like an M16 or a Bushmaster into an automatic weapon, because they were designed to be used as automatic weapons in military situations. Rifles like the Bushmaster have a modular design which makes it fairly easy to adapt them to automatic operation.
Just a few nights after first hearing the automatic fire, I happened to be awake in the wee hours, about two in the morning. Again, I heard someone not far away firing an automatic weapon. This can mean only one thing, one of my neighbors has an illegal automatic rifle and is going out in the middle of the night spraying the countryside with bullets.
This is a painting of the founding fathers at the Constitutional Convention. They wrote the Second Amendment:
Note that the Second Amendment tied the right to bear arms to the right to organize a miltia. The Second Amendment never mentions the right to bear arms for hunting, personal protection or collecting. But the courts have expanded the rights of gun owners to include these uses.
But there’s no question that gun ownership was important to the founding fathers because private gun ownership had been pivotal in the Revolutionary War. The British not only had to contend with the rebel army, they were horrified to find that many farmers were armed and willing to take potshots at the Redcoats. The British were accustomed to fighting rival armies, but they were discouraged to find they were also under attack by an armed populace sniping at them. They had never before encountered that kind of guerilla warfare and it was demoralizing.
Every farmer owned a firearm, but not because they anticipated a war with English soldiers. Farmers had armed themselves to protect themselves from Indians during the colonial era. However, this profusion of arms turned out to be a huge advantage for the revolutionary forces, and it set the stage and tradition for Americans to routinely own guns.
When the founding fathers penned the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing citizens the right to bear arms, the primary weapon in use by the military was the flintlock musket. After being fired, a soldier was expected to be able to reload the musket in 15 seconds, so a trained solider could get off four rounds per minute. After about four minutes, the musket would become so fouled with black powder, it was no longer safe to fire.
Muskets also had no rifling, and the musket balls used were slightly smaller than the bore of the barrel. The result was that the ball usually came out spinning, and traveled in a curve, much like a golfer hitting a slice. Hitting a target at any distance with a musket was difficult. Muskets were so inaccurate, they didn’t even have any sights on them.
During the 1800s, advances in gun manufacturing produced weapons that could fire more rounds more quickly and were more accurate. For example, this is the Colt .45 Peacemaker, called the gun that won the west. It was first manufactured in 1873. When it first came out, it was a single-action revolver, meaning that you had to cock the revolver before firing each shot. It held six bullets, after which you had to pull out the spent brass and reload. So a gunman could fire six rounds in the same 15 seconds it took a Revolutionary War soldier to fire one shot. It had a rifled barrel and sights and would shoot straight. Still, after six shots, it would take you probably about 15 seconds at least to reload.
This is the AR15 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, the weapon used in the killing of 20 school children and 6 school staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Originally designed for military use, it’s a deadly, accurate rifle, capable of hitting targets at up to 600 meters. The automatic version, supposedly unavailable to civilians, is capable of firing 800 rounds per minute. The semi-automatic version is supplied with a clip that holds either 20 or 30 rounds, but clips are available that hold up to 100 rounds. The firing rate of the semi-automatic depends only on how fast you can pull the trigger, but experienced shooters can empty a 30-round clip in the same 15 seconds it took a Revoutionary War solider to reload one round, and still have time left to insert a new clip, meaning the semi-automatic rifle can fire more than 100 rounds per minute if extra clips are available.
Time and again I hear gun proponents citing the Second Amendment and the fact that the founding fathers put the right to private gun ownership in the Constitution. But the founding fathers were thinking of muskets when they included the amendment. And it’s also clear that they were thinking that local militias would provide a check on the power of the federal government. Both of those issues have shifted radically. Militia groups are no longer viewed favorably by the government or the public. Not long ago, the leader of my local militia was sent to jail for buying a machine gun.
The main point is this, it’s impossible to know what the founding fathers would think about private citizens owning the kind of deadly weapons available to them today. The firearms technology of their time was light years from where it has evolved today. So when the NRA cites the founding fathers, they’re claiming the endorsement of a group which only approved of the ownership of single-shot muskets.
And if the founding fathers had been able to magically envision the future and see that crazed killers would be going into shopping malls, movie theaters, and schools to kill innocent men, women and children, it’s hard to believe they would support the profusion of military-style weapons like the one I heard being fired recently in my neighborhood in the middle of the night.