“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.”
Parenthetical asides from a prepared text often trip up presidents, especially Biden. In this case, he repeated a claim — that Americans were prohibited from owning cannons — that has already been fact-checked as false when he made it during the presidential campaign.
The meaning of the Second Amendment — “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” — has long been debated. But experts said Biden especially mischaracterized it.
“Everything in that statement is wrong,” said David Kopel, the research director and Second Amendment project director at the Independence Institute. After 1791, “there were no federal laws about the type of gun you could own, and no states limited the kind of gun you could own.” Not until the early 1800s were there any efforts to pass restrictions on carrying concealed weapons, he said.
“I think what he’s saying here is that the Second Amendment was never understood to guarantee everyone the right to own all types of weapons, which I believe is true,” said Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “As phrased, it sounds like the Second Amendment itself limited ownership, which is not true.”
Kopel noted that some states placed gun-ownership restrictions on Native American tribes, including orders to disarm them, but the tribes under the Constitution at the time were treated as the equivalent of foreign nations.
Interestingly, during the campaign, Biden had asserted that the cannon restrictions happened during the Revolutionary War. “From the very beginning you weren’t allowed to have certain weapons,” Biden told Wired magazine in May 2020. “You weren’t allowed to own a cannon during the Revolutionary War as an individual.”
Historians at the time told PolitiFact there was no evidence this was the case. The Biden campaign could not point to any laws but seemed to suggest Biden’s point was more metaphorical than grounded in reality.
Now Biden has moved the cannon metaphor to some 20 years after the Revolutionary War — and it’s still wrong.
In fact, you do not have to look far in the Constitution to see that private individuals could own cannons. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 gives Congress the power to declare war. But there is another element of that clause that might seem strange to modern ears — Congress also had the power to “grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal.”
What’s that? These were special waivers that allowed private individuals to act as pirates on behalf of the United States against countries engaged in war with it. The “letter of marque” allowed a warship to cross into another country’s territory to take a ship, while a “letter of reprisal” gave authorization to bring the ship back to the home port of the capturer.
Individuals who were given these waivers and owned warships obviously also obtained cannons for use in battle.
The White House did not provide an explanation of Biden’s comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Some readers might think this is a relatively inconsequential flub. But we disagree. Every U.S. president has a responsibility to get American history correct, especially when he’s using a supposed history lesson in service of a political objective. The president’s push for more gun restrictions is an important part of his political platform, so he undercuts his cause when he cites faux facts.
Moreover, Biden has already been fact-checked on this claim — and it’s been deemed false. We have no idea where he conjured up this notion about a ban on cannon ownership in the early days of the Republic, but he needs to stop making this claim.
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