John Wilkes Booth arrived at Ford’s Theatre armed with a single round in his .44-caliber Derringer pistol. He assassinated President Lincoln with a single pull of the trigger and fled on foot. None of the other patrons had the foresight to carry a single firearm with which to stop him.
Across the Potomac River in Alexandria, co-conspirator Lewis Powell was less successful in his attempt on the life of Secretary of State William Seward. Powell’s pistol jammed when he entered Seward’s residence, forcing the would-be assassin to beat one man and stab seven more, including the Secretary. All the injured recovered. Powell was hanged.
No newspapers debated gun control or mental health in 1865. The president was simply dead.
153 years later, I walked past Mr. Lincoln as I made my way to the 2018 March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. He was standing a few blocks from the site of his assassination carrying a sign the read “Victim of Gun Violence” on one side and “Standing Tall With Students” on the other.
What was so remarkable about this presidential activist’s sign was its revolutionary simplicity: Lincoln was indeed a victim of gun violence. And yet we rarely use this sort of language to describe the past. Somehow the phrase seems too modern. Too political.
I made my way down to Pennsylvania Avenue, blending into the crowd of some 800,000 protestors (and nearly as many signs). I stood among college instructors (“I’m a good professor, but a bad shot”) and grade school teachers (“I’d rather be grading papers than protesting this crap”). Black Lives Matter activists led the marchers in a chorus of “This is what democracy looks like.” A young woman held a sign reading, “As a Hispanic girl I hope to have as many rights as your gun.” This diverse coalition united against gun violence and demanded justice in one voice.
And then there were the students: the high schooler clutching a desperate, sardonic sign (“There are better ways to reduce class size”), the elementary school child who broke my heart (“Help me feel safe”), her young peer who helped mend it (“Pokemòn Don’t Like Guns”), and a middle school historian (“18th century laws cannot regulate 21st century weapons”). All offered up a piece of themselves. It was inspiring and tragic.
This last sign stood out to me as a historian of the early U.S. republic. While I agree with the sentiment of this young scholar, the messy realities of the past rarely make for the pithiest of signs. And the reality of private gun ownership in the United States is not that it enjoys the support of an eighteenth-century amendment, but that it enjoys the support of twenty-first-century legislative and judicial interpretations of that amendment. The reality is that contemporary affirmation of centuries-old law is what grants firearms so much legal power.
This June marks the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia vs. Heller, a 5-4 decision that guarantees a private individual’s right to possess firearms regardless of their participation in an organized militia. The late Justice Scalia wrote the majority decision, which declared unconstitutional a D.C. law restricting handgun ownership. In doing so, the Court overturned nearly seven decades of legal precedent affirming the right of local and state governments to regulate private gun ownership—to enact sensible, democratic gun control measures. This was the primary object of Justice Stevens’ dissent, in which he was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer.
In his decision, Scalia acknowledged that the Supreme Court has the weighty responsibility of shaping how constitutional rights evolve over time, rejecting the argument that “only those arms in existence in the 18th century are protected by the Second Amendment.” In this he is correct. We expect that the First Amendment right to free speech follows us on Twitter, and that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure extends to digital surveillance. Of course, hateful, organized Twitter bots and massive online data breaches remind us that these are imperfect systems, but it is undeniable that the Founders did not anticipate these specific contemporary problems. This is why they included a mechanism to amend the Constitution, including the repeal of egregious and outdated provisions.
Scalia was adamant that his decision not be misconstrued as forbidding all gun control measures, writing: “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” It is frustrating that the national conversation seems fixated on his first set of conditions, which not only stigmatizes an already vulnerable group of people, but also cuts off several avenues toward increased public safety.
The United States Constitution is an imperfect document written by imperfect men and subject to the imperfect interpretations of imperfect justices. We should not be surprised that this sometimes results in bad policy and anachronistic admiration. What is perhaps surprising is the sheer number of times that Justice Scalia freely admits in his Heller decision that gun ownership has been a privilege of free white men throughout U.S. history. He references the Militia Act of 1792, which sanctioned the gun ownership of every “free able-bodied white male citizen” between eighteen and forty-five. He describes laws which forbade free black Americans from possessing firearms, as well as the widespread attempt to keep weapons out of the hands of freed slaves after the Civil War. These regulations rarely ran afoul of the Second Amendment.
The March for Our Lives also took place just blocks from the site where the Supreme Court breathed new life into a Second Amendment that now protects an individual’s right to possess a handgun in the District of Columbia. The activist dressed as Mr. Lincoln at the corner of F and 9th made plain the historical realities of such a policy as he invited us to consider the possible consequences.
All this was on my mind as I meandered about Pennsylvania Avenue, overwhelmed with what I eventually recognized as tremendous pride in my country. I was proud that Americans of all shapes, sizes, and colors cared enough about one another to demand more from their leaders. Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was when nineteen-year-old Chicago activist, Trevon Bosley, who lost his brother Terrell to gun violence outside a church in 2006, stood up and declared that “everyday shootings are everyday problems.”
“It’s time to start caring about all communities equally,” Bosley asserted. This means recognizing that historical disparities have yielded unequal presents and extending our compassion to those who need it most.
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