While running for president of the United States, Joe Biden told a whopper about the Second Amendment. The media — surprisingly — fact-checked and refuted his claim in its entirety. On Wednesday, President Biden repeated it again.
After Attorney General Merrick Garland unveiled a series of gun control policies, which he dubbed a “crime prevention strategy,” President Biden offered a legal justification for the measures:
The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people who could own a gun and what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon. … The point is that there has always been the ability to limit — rationally limit the type of weapon that can be owned and who can own it.
He also said that Americans would need to have nuclear weapons to be armed on par with the U.S. government. The constitutional argument echoes another Biden assertion made almost exactly a year ago when the presidential hopeful told Wired magazine:
From the very beginning, you weren’t allowed to own certain weapons. Assault weapons are weapons of death. They have no rationale for being owned by individuals on the street. They should be outlawed. They should be eliminated. We had a 10-year elimination of them. From the very beginning, you weren’t allowed to have certain weapons. You weren’t allowed to own a cannon during the Revolutionary War as an individual. … No amendment to the Constitution is absolute.
Did early U.S. laws ban ‘the type of weapon you could own’?
In a word, no. The first federal gun control law came only in 1934, and it was another 52 years before Congress banned automatic weapons.
Unfortunately for the president, PolitiFact debunked his assertion that the Founding Fathers banned the private ownership of cannons at the time, quoting a universal scholarly consensus:
“It seems highly unlikely that there were restrictions on the private ownership” of cannons, said Julie Anne Sweet, a historian and director of military studies at Baylor University.
David Kopel, the research director and Second Amendment project director at the free-market Independence Institute, agreed. “I am not aware of a ban on any arm in colonial America,” he said. “There were controls on people or locations, but not bans on types of arms.”
PolitiFact also pointed out numerous historical examples of private sailors, known as “privateers,” who owned cannons.
When pressed, Biden’s campaign threw in the towel. “The Biden campaign was unable to point to a specific law” banning the private ownership of cannons, the fact-checking website reported. The Biden campaign issued a statement saying, “The vice president’s point is that to help end the tragic epidemic of mass shootings that is taking so many American lives, we need to ban weapons of war from our streets.” In other words, Biden agreed with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) that Democrats are less interested in being “precisely, factually, and semantically correct than morally right.”
It’s possible that Biden gleaned his strangely stubborn belief in the prohibition of cannons from the fraudulent book Arming America by then-Emory University Professor Michael Bellesiles, which won the Bancroft Award. Bellesiles claimed that the Battle of New Orleans was won, not by musket-wielding militias, but by cannons “manned by members of the U.S. Navy and Army.” His book was later stripped of the award after scholars exposed Bellesiles as basing his anti-gun argument on forged sources.
Have early gun control laws “limited the type of people” who could own a gun?
Biden is actually right about this: Centuries of law barred blacks and American Indians from exercising their constitutional right to self-defense. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675-1676, the colonies began implementing laws decreeing, e.g., that “it shall not be lawfull for any negroe or other slave to carry or arme himselfe with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defence or offence.” After the Civil War, the Black Codes systematically stripped black American citizens — especially those living in the South — of their Second Amendment rights. Nicholas Johnson wrote that fears of a black uprising:
fueled overtly racist gun laws like Mississippi’s Act to Regulate the Relation of Master and Apprentice Relative to Freedmen, which prohibited blacks from owning firearms, ammunition, dirks, or bowie knives. Alabama prohibited “any freedman, mulatto or free person of color in this state, to own firearms, or carry about this person a pistol or other deadly weapon.” An 1865 Florida law similarly prohibited “Negroes mulattos or other persons of color from possessing guns, ammunition or blade weapons” without obtaining a license issued by a judge on the recommendation of two respectable citizens, presumably white. Violators were punished by public whipping up to “39 stripes.”
For this reason, black Americans living under Jim Crow laws clamored for the right to own firearms. Frederick Douglass wrote that “the liberties of the American people were dependent upon the Ballot-box, the Jury-box, and the Cartridge-box, [and] that without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country.”
Did the Founding Fathers allow private citizens to own guns to defend themselves against the government?
The Founding Fathers recognized the right to keep and bear arms allows private citizens to defend their rights against a tyrannical government. This may be best summarized by Alexander Hamilton, who wrote in Federalist No. 28, “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.”