On October 19, 1856, someone at the Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall in London falsely shouted “Fire!” and in the panicked rush to escape, seven were killed. On December 5, 1876, a fire broke out in The Brooklyn Theater. Employees didn’t want to panic people by shouting “Fire!” and so pretended it was a just a part of the show until it was too late for everyone to get out safely. The delay killed nearly 300 people.
America’s Founding Fathers were the leaders of the revolution against English rule. To formally establish their independence, elected officials of the 13 original colonies took a clean piece of paper and set about writing a collection of laws and regulations for their new nation, calling it the Constitution of the United States.
They considered what they were doing as a work in progress, not tablets brought down from a mountain.
These guys were smart enough to know they’d make mistakes, so they came up with a way to make adjustments over time as societies and attitudes evolved. The nation’s founders believed it was essential for a democracy to guarantee its citizens a number of inalienable rights, one of them being freedom of speech. This was a really hot topic of the times and so became the first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
The first ten Amendments were bundled and called the Bill of Rights
There have been 17 amendments since the original ten, some tacked onto others and most unknown by the general public.
Courts have ruled that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater to cause a panic is not the freedom of speech they meant to protect
This amendment was never meant to be a forever law that anyone could say anything anytime about anybody. The courts have debated what is permitted and what is not ever since, but what remains is the belief that citizens should be guaranteed the right to speak freely about the government and the people who run it.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gave citizens the right to keep and bear arms
No other amendment divides people into such sharply opposing factions.
What are arms?
The word dates back 700 years and comes from the French armes, meaning “weapons of a warrior.” Above are the weapons used by the French at the onset of a war with the British that lasted 117 years. Historians rounded it down and called it the Hundred Years War – you know, the one with Joan of Arc, the one who heard strange voices in her head and was burned at the stake. When arms began to use explosive charges to fire projectiles, they were called fire-arms.
What were arms like when lawmakers were writing the Second Amendment in 1791?
The U.S. armies relied on muskets, swords and determination to defeat the British in their 8-year war for independence. Back then, most of America was wilderness. As rugged woodsmen, hunters and trappers explored new territories and blazed new trails, settlers and farmers followed.
The people who pushed their new nation westward were pioneers
They were bold and daring adventurers who lived off the land, shooting wild animals for food and defending themselves against foreign armies, outlaws and native people who didn’t like losing their lands. Most frontiersmen, trappers and farmers had long single-shot guns called muskets. They were essential survival tools on the frontier, especially for those far away from the protection of armies stationed in log forts.
Loading a musket took 13 separate steps
Musketeers stood the weapon upright and poured loose gunpowder from a hollowed-out cow horn into a wad of paper. They crumpled the paper, inserted this wadded-up packet into the gun barrel and jammed it all the way in with a long metal rod. Next they shoved a lead ball down the barrel and used their ramrod to pack the projectile tightly against the gunpowder wad. Done with the barrel now, they poured more gunpowder into a small pan on top of the firing mechanism, pulled back the frizzen, aimed the fire-arm and ignited the powder by sparking flint with steel. The explosion propelled a marble-sized lead projectile out of the shooting end at high speed and with lots of noise and smoke.
Skilled soldiers were able to load and fire two or three rounds a minute with a musket, but the average citizen took a minute or more to fire a single bullet
One loads a rifle today by popping in a pre-loaded magazine filled with pre-made bullets. Now shooters can load ammo clips that hold 100 bullets and fire them all in just seconds. In the United States, 45,000 people a year are killed by firearms, half of them shooting themselves. Criminals, street thugs and jilted lovers favor pistols, while terrorists and drug dealers go for machine guns.
The pistols of the Revolutionary Era were large bulky things that operated like muskets
There weren’t many pistols around because they were no good for hunting. About the only men who used pistols were riverboat gamblers and duelists. These days, twice as many pistols are sold than rifles. The amendment says nothing about the right to keep and bear arms that can be easily concealed.
Some of the early ones involved armies and police, such as how citizens cannot be made to house soldiers or be forced to submit to unreasonable searches and seizures (imagine for a moment how many times the definition of unreasonable has changed since then). Legal matters came into play when amendments were passed granting speedy trials for the accused and prohibiting defendants from being tried more than once for the same crime. The 6th amendment could use updating: Citizens have the right to a trial by jury for any claim whose value exceeds $20.
The definition of cruel and unusual punishment has changed, too
Prisons were once places for the confinement and punishment of persons convicted of crimes. Back when prisons actually punished wrongdoers, violent criminals were made to do hard physical labor. Now prisoners work out in gyms, play basketball and watch TV.
Today’s prisons operate on the assumption that criminals can be rehabilitated
Believing this requires us to ignore the fact that most violent criminals are career crooks. When they’re released from prison, they go back to their lives of crime until they’re caught and end up back in the slammer again. Did you know:
- Prisons cost taxpayers from $40,000 to $80,000 per prisoner, per year?
- There are more than a million people in prison in the United States?
One of the worst amendments was the 18th
In the 1820s and 1830s a wave of religious revivalism swept the country and groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League were founded to rage against demon alcohol. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, so more Americans now worked in big factories than on small farms. Factory owners supported prohibiting the sale of alcohol because they thought it would reduce accidents and increase worker efficiency.
Short-sighted people imagined banning the sale of alcohol would ban the drinking of alcohol
People have a right to abstain from drinking intoxicating liquors as they see fit, but those who claimed to be working closely with the Almighty to rid America of all alcoholic beverages thought it proper to force their personal choice on everyone else.
This backfired badly, as it always does when people try to legislate morality
People still wanted to drink and so liquor, beer and wine went underground and illegal and unregulated suppliers took over. American have always felt justified in disobeying what they consider to be unjust laws since they threw all that tea into Boston Harbor. And so they drank bootleg liquor in speakeasies.
Crooks became celebrities and organized crime was born
Both were the unintended consequences of do-gooders trying to legislate morality. Criminals made so much money that paying off politicians and bribing police to turn a blind eye was just the cost of doing business. The 18th was such a bad amendment that they had to make the 21st to overrule it.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee was an eccentric baseball player whose counterculture attitudes made him a colorful interview subject. As the story goes, he was once asked for his thoughts on mandatory drug testing. His straight-faced answer was that he had chosen to try most illegal drugs personally but did not think there should be a law making everyone take them.
The writer was an expert marksman in the military
He’s not asking you to take a position on an issue. He’s interested in helping readers take a closer look at things they take for granted.