From Muskets to Madness

My fifth great-grandfather, Valentine Ephraim Wheeler, was born February 14, 1725, in Rehoboth, Massachusetts.  On April 19, 1775, he fought the British at Lexington in the first battle of the Revolutionary War, going on to serve as a Captain in the New York Regiment of Militia.  Valentine Wheeler, an American patriot, died October 12, 1791, and is buried in the Valley View Cemetery, Dover Plains, New York.

On December 15, 1791, two months after Valentine died, the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, along with nine other articles of the Bill of Rights.  And though we can’t know for certain, I have a feeling that given the time in which he lived and the part he played in the War of Independence, he would have looked kindly upon legislation ensuring a well-regulated militia and his right to keep and bear arms.

For the purpose of this discussion, though, an understanding of the times in which the 2nd Amendment was crafted is important, especially since “arms” from that era bear no resemblance whatsoever to the vast array of powerful weaponry available today.  Simply put, the guns known to those deliberating this important amendment consisted of the various muzzle loading rifles, muskets and flintlock pistols used in combat against the British and, needless to say, none among those early legislators could have envisioned the plethora of armament now available for both military and civilian use.

Assuming, for a moment, that Valentine Wheeler was skilled in the  use of a muzzle loading rifle, the multi-step process for firing required that he pour measured powder down the barrel, place a patch and ball on the muzzle, push the ball into the barrel and then using a ramrod, force the ball all the way down.  Following these steps in the heat of battle meant that, at best, he would be able to fire only three rounds per minute, each with a muzzle velocity of 1,000 feet per second and a maximum effective range of 50 meters.

In contrast, the typical modern-day AR-15 holds 30 bullets in a standard magazine, and can fire 45 rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity of 3,260 feet per second and a maximum effective range of 550 meters.  As we know, arms of this sort have become today’s “weapon of choice” for mass murderers, especially since they can be equipped with extended magazines and further modified to fire in fully automatic mode. 

Clearly, the 2nd Amendment was created in and for a very different period of time, but it is not the only antiquated portion of the Bill of Rights.  The 3rd Amendment, for example, assures us that soldiers may not be quartered in private homes without the owner’s consent.  That is good to know, but while I celebrate the fact that an army platoon cannot bivouac in my living room, I find myself conducting a risk assessment every time I venture out to the mall, a musical presentation, or even a 4th of July parade.

It is important to pause here and emphasize that I am not among the absolutist anti-gun crowd … much to the contrary.  I am a retired police officer who qualified with a range of sidearms and long guns over the course of my career … my grandfather was a gunsmith, a prison armorer, and a Life Member of the NRA … and my mother was captain of her high school rifle team.  In other words, I grew up around firearms and am both comfortable and competent in their use.

My personal familiarity with guns aside, there is no rational reason for assault weapons to be in the hands of civilians.  Those sorts of arms, which are designed and intended for the battlefield, pose an extraordinary public safety risk which, as evidence has repeatedly shown, make it easier for shooters to kill more people more quickly.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like for one of our ancestors to return, briefly, to our present-day world for a visit. What, for example, would Valentine Wheeler – who fought for “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” – have to say of our preposterous failure, as a people, to ban a device that has contributed to so much carnage and misery.

Amanda Gorman, the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate, captures the essence of this argument perfectly:

It takes a monster to kill children, but to watch monsters kill children again and again and do nothing isn’t just insanity – it’s inhumanity.

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