Mike O’Shea has thoughts on tomorrow’s argument in D.C. v. Heller below; here are my own. Despite my recent posts on original understanding, I recognize that it’s often the most important interpretive method actually used by courts in constitutional cases; and even non-originalists like me might fall back on the original understanding for a clause like the Second Amendment where there’s nothing else to go on.
So I’m therefore a little puzzled by the way the D.C. v. Heller briefs downplay what the Framers would have regarded as the paradigmatic case of the confiscation of arms by the government: the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the events that started the Revolutionary War. It’s a bit as if briefs on a 1950s statute protecting ports from surprise attacks made only a passing mention of Pearl Harbor.
Briefly, by 1775 the conflict between Britain and Massachusetts was coming to a head. Parliament passed increasingly restrictive acts, and transferred British troops from Nova Scotia to Boston to enforce them, but they had little impact outside of the confines of Boston itself. In 1775, the Massachusetts legislature was meeting in Concord, and had built up a store of arms there to arm colonial militia. General Gage in Boston, under orders from London to do something, sent an expedition to Concord to round up the leaders of the legislature — people such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock — and confiscate or destroy the hidden caches of arms. Starting at Lexington, local militias assembled to block the troops’ progress, shots were fired, and the war began. In Concord, the British regulars searching the town did in fact destroy cannon and supplies and threw shot into the river.
Surely this story of national government troops being sent to confiscate arms held by people now recognized as heroes would have been prominent in the minds of those proposing that “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.” (Indeed, the whole tale of 1770s Massachusetts probably inspired the Third and Fourth Amendments as well.)
The Heller brief focuses the most on this story, detailing the history of pre-war Massachusetts, and noting that the Revolution began with the raid on Lexington and Concord. But what I’ve described as the “paradigmatic case” of arms confiscation is a little muted. Lexington and Concord in the Heller brief stand, not as the evil that is itself to be prevented by the Second Amendment, but as the occasion for various Framers to indicate their displeasure at the gun confiscation that resulted afterwards in Boston under General Gage:
Americans reacted strongly to the disarmament of Boston. Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson drafted a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775. Gage’s disarmament scheme figured prominently among the “Causes” for armed revolt [listed in the Declaration].
It seems an odd way to characterize the importance of “the shot heard round the world.”