Houston. -- Amendment II -- " 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" -- as part of the Bill of Rights, was made part of the Constitution on December 15, 1791.
This is perhaps the best-known sentence in the Constitution, dragged out by the owners of the 200 million firearms in private hands in America as an iron-clad bulwark against any efforts to control access to guns. What such owners rarely discuss, however, is the existence, regulation or necessity of a militia -- the Constitutional raison d'etre for the right to bear arms.
The Constitution has remarkably little to say about military institutions. The preamble mentions one reason for adopting the Constitution as "to provide for the common defence," Article II Section 2 states that the president "shall be commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states when called into the actual service of the United States." And Article II Section 3 states that the president will "commission all officers of the United States" (which meant civil as well as military officers). Amendment III of the Bill of Rights forbids billeting soldiers in any house without the consent of the owner, "but in a manner prescribed by law" -- which sounds contradictory. (This is the only amendment, by the way, that has never resulted in a court case.) And that's about it.
Having recently fought their way to independence with volunteer forces pitted against professional British forces, the Founding Fathers, and the infant nation, had a horror of standing military forces. While never spelling out in detail what they had in mind, the Founding Fathers apparently assumed there would be a federal army and navy (and in the event a parsimonious Congress did establish ludicrously small forces). They also assumed there would be militia forces -- part-time volunteers -- to be administered at either local or state level, who might be called into federal service if needed.
The confusion that sprouted from this lackadaisical framework continues to this day. Early rural communities did indeed organize militia -- civilians, in civilian clothing, with their own firearms, mustering for drill once a week or so, under an elected leader. The military value of such forces was virtually nil (even against Indian raids) and in true emergencies, such as the Revolutionary War, state governments cobbled militia forces into volunteer regiments, and provided uniforms, equipment and officers.
They were only raised, and mustered into federal service, when absolutely necessary, and the spectrum of regulations, equipment, leadership and value was staggering. The "volunteer" system reached its height in the Civil War (but continued through the Spanish American War); in the Civil War (with a regular army that hardly expanded) even the volunteer system proved inadequate, and the government turned to conscription.
The original local militias more or less disappeared by the 1850s. But they still exist as well. They still consist of local citizens, bearing their private arms and pointing at the Second Amendment not only for their right to bear arms but to organize as militia as well.
At that point, all resemblance to what the Founding Fathers had in mind vanishes; these people are at cross-purposes with society, and with our government, which they see as a major threat to their "rights" to live as they please. (During the Cold War, they were convinced that communist infiltration would bring down our government, and that the nation -- or at least they themselves -- would only be "saved" by taking to the hills as guerrilla defenders of human rights).
They take many forms, and have little in common with each other except being at odds with the mainstream -- and a paranoid turmoil in the head. They include "survivalists" (convinced society will collapse and leave them to fend for themselves and their families), white supremacists (Charles Manson was a prime example), racists, anarchists and pure Rambo types. Many refuse to pay taxes (at least income taxes; direct sales taxes are harder to avoid), and they are a prime nuisance; prosecuting, let alone jailing, them is infinitely more expensive than the taxes to be squeezed out of them.
Their number is growing -- and they actively proselytize on the Internet. A group calling itself the Militia of Montana set up its own court system and offered a $1 million bounty for the "arrest" of county officials. A dozen or so have been arrested, but they continue to terrorize officials -- threatening one judge with trial in a common-law court if she didn't dismiss a traffic violation against a member. The Militia of Montana has also been in touch with the Aryan Nations -- an umbrella for white-supremacist groups.
Their model seems to be the colonial frontier of 1939's "Allegheny Uprising," in which a buckskin-clad John Wayne confounds and defeats the forces of the Crown, which are interfering in the local liquor trade. Whenever red-coats appear, Wayne ("John Smith") whistles up a batch of local citizenry with flintlock rifles -- at one point with eight men he captures a fort. (The British regiment has left the gate open, posted three groggy sentries, and stacked all its muskets together on the parade ground -- while it snores away the foggy night in a barracks with one door).
We've always had a crank fringe in our society -- and we never have learned how to deal with it.
Donald R. Morris syndicates a column.