Saturday, August 4, 2012

Constitutional illumination

Rather than burdening readers with a lengthy introduction, I'll get right to the meat of this post. Here's the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
"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."
You and I know that those 27 words guarantee an individual right. Some still insist, however, on the primacy of the first clause -- that is, the necessity of "a well regulated militia" to be armed somehow trumps "the right of the people."

So here we are, 223 years after the Bill of Rights was introduced, applying today's language, culture and politics to our understanding of the Framers' intent. Wouldn't it be helpful to have something resembling a contemporaneous take on this fundamental right?

To that end I present Article VIII, Section 20 of the first constitution of the newly admitted State of Ohio:
"That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State; and as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they shall not be kept up: and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to the civil power."
Adopted in 1802 -- the year before Ohio achieved statehood and just 11 years after the U.S. Bill of Rights was ratified -- that leaves no doubt about the purpose of granting the People an individual right to bear arms: "for the defense of themselves and the State."

Come-lately critics and anti-gun zealots, please take note: There's no mention of "hunting" or "subsistence" in that section -- that's because they were (and are) irrelevant to the right to keep and bear arms.

The 1851 revision of the Ohio Constitution moved the state's Bill of Rights up from Article VIII to Article I -- talk about primacy -- and the section related to arms underwent a slight change at the same time:
"The people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security; but standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and shall not be kept up; and the military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power."
That language remains in force today, underscoring that every citizen of The Great State of Ohio rightfully may bear arms "for their defense and security." It also reminds us why military forces must be "well regulated" -- because "standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty."

I could leave it there, certainly, but Ohio's constitution has much more light to shine.

Returning to our nation's founding documents, here's the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The first Constitution of the State of Ohio (1803) incorporated similar principles, addressing "natural, inherent and unalienable rights" in Article VIII, Section 1:
"That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights; amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety; and every free republican government, being founded on their sole authority, and organized for the great purpose of protecting their rights and liberties, and securing their independence; to effect these ends, they have at all times a complete power to alter, reform or abolish their government, whenever they may deem it necessary."
In the 1851 revision, which saw Ohio citizens' enumerated rights given proper prominence, the "inalienable rights" passage became more concise. This is Article I, Section 1:
"All men are, by nature, free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety."
Notice that both versions of this section -- the second of which is still in force, by the way, 161 years after its adoption -- codify two fundamental rights before all others: "enjoying and defending life and liberty" and "acquiring, possessing, and protecting property."

Legal scholars continue to argue over whether the Declaration of Independence represents law or merely principle, but the Constitution of the State of Ohio carries the force of law. Fortunately, the early Ohioans who crafted their state's governing document -- during the same formative era in which the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were written and ratified -- saw fit to incorporate the inalienable human right to defend life, liberty and property.

That's because they understood our nation's founding principles. Their understanding is my understanding -- and a legacy of Liberty.