President Joe Biden returned this week to his claim that the Second Amendment was originally understood and applied to ban the private ownership of cannons. It is not just an embarrassing repetition of a false claim but threatens to reduce his own gun control measures to little more than cannon fodder on a historical perspective.
President Biden’s repeated accounts of his Amtrak conductor, truck driving past, and other stories have long been the subject of jokes in Washington. However, those stories (like his showdown with a “bad dude” named Corn Pop) can become an almost harmless signature of a president who seems to implant permanent memories in his own head. However, this is different. Biden has repeatedly defended his plans for banning certain weapon types based on his false understanding of the scope and history of the Second Amendment.
Ironically, in continuing to make the same false argument on cannons, President Biden delivers a blow below the waterline of his own argument for gun control.
Previously, Biden declared:
“And I might add: 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.”
This week, President Biden repeated a false claim that many of us have corrected in the past.
When he was announcing new rules for so-called “ghost guns” and other measures, President Biden renewed his false claim that early Americans could not buy a cannon.
“By the way — it’s going to sound bizarre — I support the Second Amendment. But from the very beginning the Second Amendment didn’t say you could own any gun you want, as big as you want. You couldn’t buy a cannon, when in fact the Second Amendment passed.”
It does sound bizarre because it is factually and legally untrue. I have received calls from media for years about this claim and it does not improve by repetition. Even the Washington Post has declared Biden’s understanding of the Second Amendment to be false.
There were no federal laws barring cannon ownership when the Second Amendment was enacted. Gun laws remained local matters and I do not know of any bans on cannons or other gun types until much later in our history. Early local laws did control concealed weapons, though concealed cannons were not part of those ordinances.
Indeed, the Constitution itself supports private cannon ownership in the case of privateers. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 allows Congress to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal.” That allowed private parties to privateer on the high seas with . . . cannons. (Recently some members of Congress wanted to issues such letters of Marque again to enlist privateers in the fight against Russia).
What is most striking about this implanted memory is that it actually works against the President’s arguments. Unlike the conversations with a dead man or driving some eighteen wheeler, the falsity of the story highlights the constitutional challenge to his calls to outlaw assault weapons or high-capacity magazines.
The fact is that the Second Amendment was not viewed or used as a basis for banning certain weapon types. That does not mean that it cannot be interpreted to allow for such prohibition, but historically it was not used to do so in the early Republic. Most importantly, it was not until much later that the federal government even started to regulate private ownership, sale or possession of weapons.
It is like the Corn Pop story not only proving false, but Corn Pop turning out to be a local anti-violence social worker. The fact that the Second Amendment was not used by Congress to ban certain weapons works against Biden’s argument that he is advancing on the original understanding of the Second Amendment. The historical practice actually supports the opposite point that the Second Amendment was not used for such bans and there is no evidence of a general acceptance of the broad interpretation given by the President. There is not a dispositive argument for gun rights advocates but the President’s continued use of the false argument hardly improves the argument for gun control.
We all have false memories or “big fish stories.” Indeed, it can be charming in the right context. However, this is a story being used to limit the scope of a constitutional amendment. While I disagree with the “militia” theory of the Second Amendment, there are good-faith arguments for gun controls under the Amendment. Those arguments will not be improved through the revision of our constitutional history in a more convenient light.
Arguing such finer points of constitutional law is not nearly as effective as claiming that this question was resolved in 1791. Yet, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (the father of the famed jurist) once said “the sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.” This is an echo that seems to continue to ricochet in the mind of President Biden.