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To Keep and Bear Arms: Gun Rights Throughout American History

In my previous blog post, I discussed why I think America should revise its gun laws by adding more comprehensive background checks and limiting access to assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.

In this post, I will discuss one of the most prominent arguments against gun control: that the Founding Fathers passed the Second Amendment in order to prevent all gun regulations and defend against tyranny.

There are several practical difficulties with this argument. For one, America’s political system may be dysfunctional in various ways, but it is not (and is in no danger of becoming) tyrannical. America has strong civic institutions, watchdog groups, and an independent media. It spreads governmental power across various branches and levels. And for as much as some people complain about the lack of choice in elections, America still has a generally competitive system of free elections in which citizens can select their representatives.

Actually, many common complaints heard today are more indicative of democracy than any nascent tyranny. Tyrannies, by their very nature, rarely have trouble acting. In contrast, today’s American government seems caught in an almost constant stalemate. Even the health care bill, which many Americans dislike, was only passed after Congress had considered the issue for more than 60 years.

But assume for a moment that America is, somehow, teetering on the edge of tyranny. There is no way that assault weapons are going to protect people against the world’s largest and best-equipped military. If the Second Amendment is meant to protect against tyranny, then Americans should have the right not only to purchase assault weapons, but all manner of military weapons, such as rocket launchers and nuclear missiles. Anything less would put the civilian population at a distinct disadvantage against the American military.

This is, of course, fairly ridiculous. Society draws reasonable lines detailing acceptable behavior all the time, such as limiting access to military-grade weapons to the military. I would suggest that we similarly limit access to assault weapons in order to help stop mass shootings.

Far from endorsing violent uprisings against an elected government, some of the Founding Fathers spoke out vigorously against it. In 1794, President George Washington marched to western Pennsylvania to put down a tax revolt. The American Revolution was over and the Constitution had been adopted, guaranteeing a republican form of government. Now that Americans were represented in their government, political struggles had to replace armed conflict. As Washington proclaimed before he led several states’ militias out to confront the rebels:

And I do moreover exhort all individuals, officers, and bodies of men to contemplate with abhorrence the measures leading directly or indirectly to those crimes which produce this resort to military coercion… and to call to mind that, as the people of the United States have been permitted… to elect their own government, so will their gratitude for this inestimable blessing be best distinguished by firm exertions to maintain the Constitution and the laws.

Additionally, gun laws are not unprecedented expansions of governmental power. They have existed throughout most of American history. During the Founding Era, gun laws allowed government to track gun ownership, regulate gun powder storage, prohibit gun use in certain areas, deny gun ownership to certain individuals. A Boston law, for example, prohibited people from bringing loaded guns indoors. Other laws prohibited black people or people who refused to swear allegiance to the revolution from owning guns. In the years following the War of 1812, some states even banned carrying concealed weapons.

That guns were regulated during the Founders’ lifetimes should not be surprising. The Second Amendment frames gun rights in terms of trained militia service, rather than in terms of an absolute right:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens meticulously documents the legal and historical context for a military framing of the Second Amendment in his District of Columbia v. Heller dissent. He notes, among other things, that the Second Amendment’s drafting history discusses gun rights in terms of military service, not in terms of an individual right. At the time, the Framers’ main concern was that Congress would disarm the militias. The Second Amendment prevented that.

Stevens also points out that James Madison was working with numerous proposed amendments while crafting the Second Amendment’s final wording. Some of these proposed amendments were much broader and more clearly established an individual right to own a gun. Madison instead chose the wording that placed gun rights in terms of military service.

So the Founding Fathers were aware of existing gun regulations and also couched the Second Amendment in terms of military service and states’ rights.

However, the history of gun laws in the United States does not end there. Americans continued to pass gun laws where and when they deemed necessary. Take the “Wild West,” for instance. Although films often portray the American West as a lawless place plagued by gunslingers and outlaws, the truth is actually quite different. Gunfights were rare, but gun laws were not. Frontier towns often banned concealed carry and required visitors to leave their guns with the town marshal until they departed.

In fact, according to Adam Winkler, a Constitutional law professor at UCLA:

Frontier towns in the west — places like Deadwood, S.D., and Tombstone, Ariz. — had the most restrictive gun laws in the nation… And these laws were enforced. The illegal carrying of a firearm was the second most common basis for arrests in the old west — right behind drunk and disorderly conduct. Gun violence was also rare, and gunfights extraordinary. Frontier towns averaged less than two homicides per year.

The infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral actually broke out because law enforcement sought to enforce a Tombstone ordinance banning people from carrying firearms in the town.

Americans have passed gun laws throughout history when they felt the situation demanded it. It seems that pragmatic gun regulations are as American as the right to bear arms.


Nation’s founders balanced gun rights with public safety,” Adam Winkler, UCLA Today.

The Secret History of Guns,” Adam Winkler, The Atlantic.

District of Columbia v. Heller: Stevens Dissent,” Justice John Paul Stevens.

Gun laws were tougher in old Tombstone,” Bob Drogin, LA Times.

Breyer: Founding Fathers Would Have Allowed Restrictions on Guns,” Fox News.


The New Republican Dream

Once upon a time, the Republican Party in America stood for balanced budgets, efficient government, and private enterprise. No more. To be sure, you will still hear many Republican candidates give lip service to such ideals, but their actions in office tell quite a different story. The GOP of today does not stand so much for small government as it does for no government at all, and it hopes to achieve this new American Dream through a systematic wrecking of the nation’s finances.

But before I delve into the details, I should first say that I want the Republican Party to succeed. Not the Republican Party of today, of course. I would prefer not to ruin the lives of countless Americans just to prove an ideological point. Rather, I would like to see the party welcome back the pragmatic centrists it has expelled — the Eisenhower and Rockefeller Republicans. The GOP seems to have wholly abandoned the legacy of the first post-New Deal Republican president. With a unified government (the presidency and both houses of Congress controlled by Republicans), many rightwingers wanted to see President Eisenhower attempt to roll back the New Deal. Instead, he launched a massive infrastructure project (the interstate highway system). A true believer in balanced budgets, he actually sought to pay for his initiatives by cutting military spending and keeping tax rates at levels that would sustain his administration’s expenditures.

The heart of Old Republican dogma — the balanced budget — predates Ike. Actually, it was not exclusively Republican — it was the general consensus, before John Maynard Keynes revolutionized economic theory and described how running deficits during recessions (and surpluses during booms) could help smooth out economic cycles. Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt (in the earlier part of his presidency) both sought to balance their budgets, as did Coolidge and Harding before them. Tax cuts were good, if they could get them, but secondary to managing the nation’s finances responsibly. Put another way, when faced with a choice of either chronic deficits or a balanced budget, members of the Old GOP chose the latter.

Things started to change in the late 1970s, however. In California, citizens passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 13, that made it virtually impossible to raise taxes. The Reagan revolution added to the momentum, as the president called for and received massive tax cut legislation. One would (rightfully) conclude that such large tax cuts, even if spending remained flat, would result in huge deficits and increasing debt. But emerging New Republican orthodoxy placed less emphasis on balancing budgets and maintaining fiscal responsibility than at cutting the size of government and slashing taxes, at all costs.

The argument was that balancing budgets would necessarily follow cutting taxes. At a 1980 debate, Reagan framed it like this: “Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.”

The problem is, drastic tax reductions necessitate similar spending decreases to balance budgets. Although some revenue from the cut can be recouped thanks to increased economic activity, the ultimate effect is a net loss of revenue. (This economic consensus — that tax cuts do not “pay for themselves” — stands in stark contrast to the talking points of many GOP politicians). A huge loss of revenue, when coupled with the fact that any sizable cuts would necessarily affect politically popular programs like Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending, leads to an untenable situation in which tax cuts are not followed by spending cuts.

Whereas American appetite for tax cuts is voracious, neither citizens nor politicians have had much appetite for cutting programs that comprise the bulk of U.S. spending: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and defense spending. To the contrary, spending in these areas has trended upward while taxes have trended down. Reagan, for instance, ramped up military spending to bankrupt the Soviet Union while simultaneously slashing income tax rates. The result was huge, chronic deficits, and the Reagan Administration subsequently signed off on numerous tax increases. In fact, the Reagan Administration presided over largest peacetime tax increases in American history, as well as a tax reform that broadened the tax base and removed many deductions from the tax code, effectively raising revenue. The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton Administrations similarly increased taxes and cut spending. These actions were driven by the very real need to address budgetary issues.

As this graph from Wonkblog shows, spending cuts were dominant in the Bush and Clinton deficit reduction packages (and were likely made easier due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War).

Today, however, New Republican dogma is to avoid any and all tax increases. Republican candidates clamor to take tax activist Grover Norquist’s “no tax pledge,” effectively tying their hands once in office. Break the pledge, and prepare to be bludgeoned by political adversaries in your next campaign. This, of course, sets the stage for a frozen Congress — how can you hope to govern if one side of the aisle is completely unwilling to yield any ground?

Note that every  Republican presidential candidate in a 2012 debate indicated they would walk away from a debt deal that cut spending $10 for every $1 tax increase. Now read this, from the Economist:

Put simply, no fiscal consolidation that the IMF has judged to be successful relied on public spending cuts for more than 83% of its impact. In successful fiscal consolidations, tax rises accounted for between 17% and 33% of deficit-reduction measures.

Deficit reduction is generally more successful when spending cuts are more numerous than tax increases. Reducing the deficit wholly through spending cuts is unprecedented, not to mention impossible, politically. There is a reason why Social Security, Medicare, and defense are known as “third rails” — you touch them, you die. Even were it possible, it is not clear that such a solution would be desirable or advisable. And, indeed, polls have shown that large majorities of Americans recognize the need for both tax increases and spending cuts.

Still, even tax increases to help balance the budget are anathema to the New GOP. Their primary goal, despite what they might say, is not to get America’s fiscal house in order. It is, in Grover Norquist’s words, to get government so small that you can “strangle it in a bathtub.” And to do this, they have employed a strategy known as “starving the beast” — cutting revenues to force a budgetary crisis, and then demanding that tax increases play little to no role in the fiscal consolidation.

This is the party that wants to claim the mantle of ‘fiscal responsibility.’

Three words: I like Ike.

Band-Aid Plan To Fix Health Care Won’t Work

(Published in the Main Line Times and the Delco Times)

As the attempt to reform our health-care system crescendos, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the debate lost its way. Perhaps it never truly began in the right direction.

Between the fear-mongering and the screaming, it seems some of the most pressing issues – medical inflation and warped incentives – have been sidelined. And why? Perhaps because they are more complex. These issues require quite a bit of explanation and historical context, which doesn’t always fly too well in a sound-bite culture.

One of the main problems regarding our health-care industry is its lack of any organization. There was no grand design in its creation; it is a Frankenstein monster, cobbled and patched carelessly together since its birth in the wage controls of the World War II era, with little regard for consequences.

Yet, any grand design is practically doomed from the beginning, as the only two viable options – a single-payer system or a complete overhaul of incentives and the creation of a truly free market – are both met with opposition. Consequently, we receive a bill that is the worst of both worlds.

True, the House bill does work at creating a marketplace in the health insurance exchanges (an important, but underplayed, provision), but it also includes a public option. Supposedly, the public option is meant to control prices by adding a more virtuous competition into the marketplace, but when you look at the details – its limited eligibility, and the fact that prices will be set by negotiations with health care providers – it doesn’t seem as if it will control prices at all. After all, medical inflation has not left Medicare and Medicaid, two government plans, unscathed.

So, who is to blame? The Democrats or the Republicans? Both. To their credit, the Democrats have actually gotten the ball rolling on health-care reform and have put forth a bill, though their proposal remains flawed.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are too busy trying to give President Barack Obama his “Waterloo” (this can be seen in the misnomer “Obamacare,” which would be more accurately titled “Congresscare”) and preaching about fictional provisions such as nonexistent “death panels” to actually provide legitimate criticism and a legitimate alternative.

Both accept money from the big health insurance and pharmaceutical giants and allow them to actively craft the bill as well.

We, the citizens, are also to blame. We are too easily led by the talking heads to one particular conclusion. A single-payer system is not the devil, and it does not ration care any more than our current system does. Any system we adopt will require a give-and-take.

A single-payer system will cover everyone, unburden businesses that pay for employees’ health care (and thus help small businesses). It will purge the system of waste, but everyone will be required to pay through taxes and waiting lines — secondary, optional care will be a bit longer (though primary care may very well be shorter, as it is in Britain).

Remember, the government is already inextricably involved in our health-care system. A complete rebuilding of the health-care free market, hand in hand with other reforms (like tort reform), can control prices through innovative market forces and reshaped incentives. Both plans are bold and both have their strong and weak points. What we can’t afford is another plan that simply slaps a Band Aid on the issue and kicks it along to the next generation.