Introduction: This was posted on June 30, 2022. It is part of the general public debate over gun control and Second Amendment rights.
Key Facts: There are a few facts which might have bearing on the (de-)merits of this argument.
1: The Second Amendment reads as follows: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
2: A common argument on this topic suggests that the Second Amendment is essentially a reference to muskets, not the kind of weapons currently available to the American public. See here for example.
3: The Belton Flinklock is certainly not the only non-musket available at the time. They would of course have been familiar with canons. Muzzle-loading rifles had been used for hunting and even saw some use during the American revolution. The Gieardoni air rifle provides one additional example of an experimental semi-automaic rifle. Still, muskets were the predominant form of weapon used in warfare. I believe muzzle-loading rifles may have been more useful in hunting, but I am not entirely sure of this.
4: Much of the current discussion of gun control focuses on the prospect of banning assault weapons, or otherwise subjecting them to some form of stricter-than-usual regulation. What constitutes an ‘assault weapon‘ can be a difficult question. The difficulty is of course compounded by the controversial nature of the debate over gun control.
5: While Washington is known to have ordered 100 of these for his troops during the American revolution, there is no evidence that he received them or that his troops actually used them. By most accounts, the deal simply fell through.
Text: “The Belton Flintlock could fire 20 rounds in 5 seconds. That’s 50% faster than a modern AR-15. George Washington commissioned 100 of these in 1777 — 14 years before the second amendment. Next time a left winger mentions ‘muskets’, remind them how little they know about history.”
Comments: For reasons best explained here, I regard the claim that the Second Amendment refers only to muskets as completely indefensible. The prospect that modern weapons pose problems today that America’s founding fathers may not have anticipated is very real, but that is a political question; it does not point us to a narrow construction of the Second Amendment. If one were to use existing weapons available at the time, there are better candidates for consideration than the Belton Flintlock. Raising the prospect of its use in the revolution without acknowledging the fact that it simply wasn’t is both unethical and intellectually unhelpful.
Statements: There seems to be an unstated intermediate conclusion in this argument. I have presented 2 different variations (5a and 5b), one specific to the issue of semi-automatic weapons which are increasingly controversial in current debate and another, more moderate conclusion to the effect that the framers of the Second Amendment would have been familiar with weapons other than muskets. I do believe the author is going out of his way to touch upon the former, but the latter would provide him with less to prove while still enabling him to challenge efforts to reduce the meaning of the Second Amendment to muskets.
Statement 4 is framed in snarky terms, but it is essentially a rejection of the notion that the meaning of the Second Amendment can be reduced to muskets. I have accordingly suggested a couple variations on this, one which is limited to the modest question of whether or not the Second Amendment is only about muskets and one extending to the specific question of whether or not the Second Amendment can or should be seen as applying to semi-automatic weapons.
 The Belton Flintlock could fire 20 rounds in 5 seconds.
 That’s 50% faster than a modern AR-15.
 George Washington commissioned 100 of these in 1777 — 14 years before the Second Amendment.
 Next time a left winger mentions ‘muskets’, remind them how little they know about history.
[4b] The meaning of the Second Amendment cannot be reduced to muskets.
[4c] The meaning of the Second Amendment extends to semi-automatic weapons.
[5a] The framers of the Second Amendment were familiar with weapons other than muskets.
[5b] The framers of the Second Amendment were familiar with semi-automatic weapons.
Diagram: There are two inferences in this argument. The first is a linked argument (1+2+3 proving 5) and one simple argument (with 5 proving 4).
Because there are a couple variations of statements 4 and 5 (and we could imagine more variations on each), this leads to several different ways of understanding the argument. I would suggest that there are two significant variations to consider; one which focuses on simply countering the claim that the second amendment can be reduced to muskets (thus using statements 4b and 5c) and one addressing the issue of semi-automatic weapons (thus using 4c and 5b). The diagram looks the same either way; it’s just a question of which versions of statements 4 and 5 would be referenced by those numbers.
For purposes of clarity: I will refer to the different versions of this argument from here forward as the “Muskets-Only” and the “Semi-Automatic” variations. The former construes the argument in terms of statements 4b and 5a, and the latter uses 4c and 5b.
Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Counter-Argument, Meta-Reasoning, Missing Assertions, Poisoning the Well, Suppressed Evidence, Tokenism.
Counter-Argument: Whatever else this argument does, it clearly offers evidence countering claims coming out of the gun control camp. In one version of the argument, the Belton Flintlock is offered in response to claims that the Second Amendment can only refer to muskets and in another, it is offered in response to the claims that the second Amendment should not be extended to semi-automatic rifles. Either way, the fact that George Washington ordered 100 of these muskets could certainly count as evidence against the claims in question. That evidence is, however, seriously undermined by the lack of evidence that the order was ever fulfilled. The author implies that Washington had a hundred of these, but most likely didn’t, and that leaves us with the fact that the weapon was not widely available. So, there is little reason to believe its existence could have been weighed heavily in discussions about the Second Amendment.
Meta-Reasoning: As a counter-argument, this one addresses questions about what is and what is not good reasoning. Rule treats arguments reducing the meaning of the Second Amendment to muskets as unsound in view of the existence of this weapon and its implied use by Washington’s armies. This leaves out questions about the relative significance and availability at the time. It is one thing to say that such weapons did exist; it is quite another to say that their presence was sufficiently significant to shape the thoughts of those framing the Second Amendment.
This does leave me with one interesting question; did anyone bring these weapons up in relevant discussions at the time? I do not know the answer to this question.
Missing Assertions: Insofar as this argument contains a missing intermediate conclusion, it does raise questions about how to formulate a missing statement. Here, the challenge is figuring out how much of this arguments is aimed at simply countering the muskets-only theory adopted by some advocates of gun control, and how much of it is specifically aimed at showing us that semi-automatic weapons were already known to those involved in creation and ratification of the Second Amendment. Rules final conclusion suggests the former is the main point of the argument, but at least some of his comments clearly address the more specific theme of semi-automatic weapons.
Poisoning the Well: Insofar as Rule uses the word ‘left winger’ he might be thought to be poisoning the well. the phrase could be construed as an insult, and indeed, he probably means t as an insult. Rules intended audience probably also sees it as an insult. That said, comparable language is often used for the right and the insult is hardly strong. It’s a trivial concern.
Suppressed Evidence: The biggest problem with this argument is the suppressed evidence. Rule tells us that Washington ordered 100 of these weapons, thus creating the impression that these were used in the American revolution. As the weapons were never supplied, this gambit is highly deceitful. Once we factor this information into the argument, we are left with a claim about a weapon that was known at the time, but not one that was a significant factor in events of the day. So, it’s relevance to the thinking of those developing the Second Amendment is sketchy at best.
Tokenism: The mere existence of this weapon does not change the fact that muskets were the predominant weapon used by soldiers at the time. Those writing the Second Amendment would certainly have been aware of muzzle-loading rifles (as opposed to smooth-bore muskets), but experimental weapons like this were not widely used at the time. The relevance of this unfulfilled order to the thinking of America’s founding fathers is marginal at best, negligible is more like it.
Evaluation: By either construction of this argument, the problems of suppressed evidence and tokenism wreck the inference from statements 1 through 3 to 4. The argument is unsound.
Final Thoughts: This is a good example of a crappy argument thrown out in support of a perfectly good conclusion. Either construction of this argument ends with a conclusion that is perfectly defensible on grounds having nothing to do with the argument Run Rule presents here. Would that settle the larger gun control debate? Not even close. But we could certainly rule out at least one implausible argument in favor of gun control and/or against a meaningful right to bear arms. Nothing in Rule’s post helps us get to accomplish this.