An eighteenth century text in the twenty-first century

The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document for many reasons.  One of these is its stability.  It has been amended twenty-seven times, mostly to clarify its original provisions or to expand the protections for the exercise of rights.  As a nation, we made one disastrous error in the Eighteenth Amendment, an experiment that showed the practical limits of government power over individual decisions.

But can a document that is over two hundred years old still have relevance in today’s world, especially considering the accelerating pace of technological change?  This is the question that advocates of gun control pose in relation to the Second Amendment.  Of course, they also answer a definitive no, and whether this is because of their commitment to the cause of reducing the exercise of gun rights or due to a dislike of rights generally is an unpleasant thought to ponder.

Times do change, and new inventions expand the range and scope of power that can be brought to bear, both by governments and by individuals.  Could the founders of our nation have imagined what is possible for human beings of even limited means today?

The story about Benjamin Franklin’s kite is famous, but less well known is the fact that he gave us the terms “positive” and “negative” for charges and was one of the first to figure out that an electric current is a single fluid—we now know that to be a flow of electrons—rather than two fluids, one for each charge.  He and his fellow rebels didn’t have a conception of the radio waves that we use to transmit data around the globe, but they did understand that they lived in an age of discovery, and I can see Franklin or Jefferson learning of our communications devices with a sense of wonder but not altogether of surprise.

But what would they have thought of the AR-15?  The time of our nation’s founding was also a period of innovation in personal weapons.  The Lewis and Clark expedition was equipped with the Girandoni air rifle, capable of sending twenty .46 caliber balls downrange at 900 ft/sec in rapid shooting—this mission being Jefferson’s idea, of course.  Other examples of designs that were advances on the single-shot muzzle-loaders are the Ferguson rifle, a breech-loading, rifled weapon that allowed twelve men to fire some seventy aimed shots a minute—and reload in the prone, instead of standing, position.  This rifle saw limited use in the American Revolution.  And then there’s the Lorenzoni Pistol, first built in the 1680s, a flintlock lever-action handgun with a seven-round magazine and powder chamber.

There is another problem with the argument that gun rights cover only such things as muskets.  I’m always amused at the irony of someone tweeting at me—using twenty-first century technology—that our rights protected under the Second Amendment are limited to what was available in the eighteenth century.  I’ve yet to find an expiration or sell-by date in the Bill of Rights.  But if our rights are tied to the inventions extant in 1791, publishing such a demand can justly only be done with a hand-cranked and hand-inked press with type laid out by hand, printing one sheet at a time.

What’s really going on here is a fundamental distrust of American values.  We have many rights, some enumerated specifically for protection, and the document which restrains government power over those rights doesn’t say that they may be curtailed if they become inconvenient.  We still speak our minds; we still vote—and insist that more of us today have the opportunity to do so—despite or perhaps because of all that has happened since our beginning.  To single out gun rights from all the others is an example of special pleading that doesn’t fit with who we are.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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