Bill of Rights II.


The Articles of Confederation provided a poor sort of national government. The “United States” received scant respect either from foreign or state governments.  The men who authored the Constitution were determined to correct this fault.  However, they knew that the great majority of Americans feared the power and ambition of any central government.  Like the British monarchy, even the most “liberal” government might become tyrannical.  For example, a government might seek to abolish slavery in the Southern states merely because a numerical majority found it abhorrent.

Consequently, James Madison designed a government based on the separation of powers.  The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary would be co-equal branches of government.  Each branch would work to hold in check the pretensions of any over-mighty individual branch.[1]

Some delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia worried that these provisions did not go far enough in insuring individual liberty.  Elbridge Gerry and George Mason proposed addition of a bill of individual rights.  This was rejected.  Later, Richard Henry Lee proposed that a bill of individual rights be added to the Constitution.  This, too, failed.

James Madison had argued against any bill of rights.  He believed that such a bill would do no good against a “republican” government based on popular sovereignty.  That is, the “people” would brook no opposition from a minority.  Furthermore, a government might interpret a Bill of Rights as stating the maximum, rather than the minimum, liberties of the people.  However, during the ratification process it became apparent that many ordinary citizens shared the reservations of Gerry, Mason, and Lee.  Essentially, they believed that even the most “liberal” government might become tyrannical over time.  Madison had argued that no bill of rights need be included because the division of powers and the conflict between interest groups would hold tyranny at bay.  This argument failed to persuade many of his readers.  The promise to add a Bill of Rights then became a bargaining chip in the effort to persuade state conventions to ratify the Constitution.  Six states recommended that a Bill of Rights be adopted once the Constitution had come into effect.  There were only 13 states then, so…

Madison abandoned his opposition to a Bill of Rights.  He wrote his own.  He offered these to Congress in June 1789.  He proposed to splice-in Amendments One through Five within the Constitution itself in Article I, Section 9, between Clauses 3 and 4.   Clause 3 bans Bills of Attainder.  Clause 4 bans direct taxation except equally according to the census.  In short, Madison intended that the Bill of Rights be individual rights.

Added instead as an appendix to the Constitution, they were adopted by Congress and ratified by the required number of states by December 1791.  Critically, the Ninth Amendment stated that “The enumeration of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  In this way, Madison responded to his fear that a tyrannical government might treat a Bill of Rights as a maximum statement of the rights of individual citizens.

Subsequently, the courts, including the Supreme Court, held that the “right of the people” referred to the rights of individuals.  Freedom of religion is an individual right.  Freedom of speech is an individual right.  The freedom to petition for redress of grievances is an individual right.  The right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure of papers is an individual right.  The right to not be compelled to testify against oneself in a court of law is an individual right.  The right to trial by an impartial jury is an individual right.  The right to not suffer cruel or unusual punishments is an individual right.  God save the United States of America.

[1] Although that left the danger that two branches might, for their individual reasons, gang-up on the third branch.


Bill of Rights I.

English people, including the Anglo-Americans, understood their history as the product of a bitter struggle between tyranny and freedom.  Stuart absolutism had sought to restrict the rights of Englishmen.  This led to the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and the republican Protectorate.  The Stuarts had been restored in 1660, but had acknowledged the role of Parliament and the laws as guardians of the rights of Englishmen.  King James II (r. 1685-1688) had tried to tip the balance toward French-style absolutism during his brief reign.  This had triggered the Glorious Revolution of 1688, while the constitutional fruits of that revolution had been harvested by the terms of the Hanoverian Succession in 1714.

Britain’s American colonies, and New England in particular, were peopled by the descendants of anti-absolutist Englishmen of the mid-17th Century.  The Englishmen who did not migrate had fought the English Civil War and created the republican Protectorate government.  The two groups shared many ideas.  These ideas were in some respects, pre-Enlightenment, rather than Enlightenment ideas.  John Locke occupied a central position for both strains of thought.  Locke had argued that a “social contract” bound both governors and the governed.  If either party broke the contract, then the other party was not bound to comply with the terms of the contract.  A tyrannical ruler had no legitimate claim on the obedience of his subjects.

That fear of a strong central government had arisen from these earlier experiences.  In the 1760s, the Americans had still seen themselves as Overseas Englishmen.  They still possessed the rights of Englishmen.  Those rights, in their understanding, included the right to be taxed by their own elected representative and the right be tried by a jury of their peers.  Both of these rights had seemed threatened by new taxes imposed by a British parliament elected only by British voters and by the Admiralty Courts appointed by the Crown and operating without juries.  As early as the Stamp Act Crisis, a handful of Americans had seen the measures as the leading edge of an effort to subjugate the colonists to absolute government.

In these circumstances, resistance offered the best path to preserving existing freedoms.  Colonial legislatures had denied the right of Parliament to impose the Stamp Act, then organized boycotts of British goods, and worked-up mobs to intimidate potential stamp distributors.  The organizers of this violent intimidation then went on to create the Sons of Liberty as a continuing resource.

The threat of superior military force added another dimension.  Until the French and Indian War (1756-1763), Anglo-Americans had defended themselves—and occasionally made offensive war—through their militias.  These were call-ups of all able-bodied and self-armed men in every Middlesex village and farm.  Anglo-Americans associated “standing armies” with the expansion of absolutist/tyrannical government like that in France.  Paranoia added another dimension.  After the defeat of the French, the Quartering Act had required the colonists to house British soldiers.  If the foreign danger had passed, why did Britain need to keep troops in America?  Did the Crown intend to impose its will on its American colonists?

In September 1768, two regiments of British infantry were ordered to Boston to support collection of the Townshend Duties.  The “Boston Massacre” (1770) cemented American hostility to regular troops.  The “Boston Tea Party” (1773) demonstrated the uses of violence.   Then came Concord and Lexington (1775).  Then came the Revolutionary War.  In the minds of many Americans, the ultimate defense against tyranny lay in the ability to shoot back.

“Bump Stocks.”

The purchase of fully automatic weapons has been tightly restricted in the U.S. since the 1930s. Outlaws great and small used fully automatic weapons (machine guns and sub-machine guns) against rivals and against the police.[1]  The 1934 National Firearms Act narrowly restricted ownership of fully automatic weapons; a 1986 amendment prohibited most transfers or possession of automatic weapons, except those that had been manufactured and registered with the government in the past.[2]  It would appear that most privately-owned fully automatic weapons are in the possession of licensed gun-ranges.  You can go to a range, pay a daunting fee, and fire a fully automatic weapon at a paper target.  That’s enough for most gun-owners

Still, a small number of gun-owners yearned for the experience of firing a weapon on full-auto at a lower cost.  Then, some physically-disabled shooters wanted an adaptive technology that would allow them to enjoy one of their favorite pre-disability sports.  Admittedly, this is kind of a niche market.[3]  Numerous attempts to design retrofits for semi-automatic weapons failed.  Then, in 2008 or 2009, someone invented “bump stocks.”  The particular technology doesn’t seem to me to matter.  The effect does matter.  “Bump stocks” allowed shooters to “simulate” full automatic fire.[4]

In 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (commonly ATF) considered whether they violated federal law by creating a new form of fully automatic weapons.  ATF concluded that they did not violate federal legal restrictions on automatic weapons.  They did not alter the internal firing mechanism.  They just exploited it to achieve the same effect as a full-auto weapon.  So, “bump stocks” were good to go.  This was two years before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, President Obama said he would “use whatever power this office holds” to prevent a new version of the massacre.  Alas, when he issued 23 Executive Orders in January 2013 to enhance gun-control, these did not include ordering ATF to revisit its approval of “bump stocks.”

Still, “bump stock”-modified weapons have problems.  First, they are Hell on accuracy.  Still if a sniper has 22,000 people penned inside a concert venue, s/he doesn’t need to be very accurate.  Anything within range can become a target.  Second, firing weapons designed to fire as semi-automatic on “simulated” full-auto generates more heat than the weapons are designed to handle.  They tend to jam.  So Stephen Paddock attached “bump stocks” to 12 of the rifles he brought to his room in the Mandalay Bay.[5]  It seems likely that he walked back and forth between the two windows he had broken whenever a weapon jammed, picking another off the bed on the way.

The obvious solution here is to revisit the 2010 ATF decision and declare “bump stocks” illegal.  That won’t do the casualties in Las Vegas any good, but it might help forestall mass shootings in the future.  Still, “mass shootings” as conventionally defined and long-guns (rifles and shotguns) account for a small share of the murders and suicides that still give America a high homicide rate.  Certainly, action on this front is needed.  It should not distract people from the much larger problem of hand-gun killings.  However, it will do just that.  For now.

[1] See: and

[2] Kind of like “legacy” admissions to Ivy League universities.  I don’t mean to suggest that they have equally harmful effects on American society.

[3] One Georgia gun-dealer judged that he had sold a couple in a couple of years.

[4] See:

[5] At maybe $200 each, that cost his about $2,400.