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Can AI Tell Us What James Madison Would Have Thought About Bans on 'Assault Weapons'?

AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane

A.J. Jacobs is a talented writer, to be sure. But after seeing his latest publicity campaign for his new book The Year of Living Constitutionally: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution's Original Meaning, I doubt I'll be picking up a copy. 

In a new essay at Time, Jacobs writes about trying to get inside the mind of James Madison to see what the Framer would have thought about all kinds of modern issues... including bans on AR-15s. Since Madison isn't around to be interviewed in person, Jacobs decided to ask ChatGPT to respond to a series of questions as Madison. According to Jacobs, Madison (or rather, James M-AI-dison) wouldn't be opposed to a ban on commonly-owned rifles. 

Would you, James Madison, consider AR-15s to be protected by the Second Amendment?

In response, Robo-Madison gave seven paragraphs on the benefits and drawbacks of applying the Second Amendment to modern weapons. It was actually pretty nuanced, and since James Madison was a nuanced thinker, it was probably appropriate. 

But I wanted some resolution. I typed: 

Please give me a yes or no answer.

Robo-Madison responded: 

Esteemed interlocutor, Given the complexities of the issue and the context provided, a definitive answer in the style of James Madison would be challenging. However, to simplify: No.

Of course, I had to try this little experiment for myself. I first asked: 

What would James Madison say about the Second Amendment and AR-15 rifles? Please answer as James Madison. 

Here's how ChatGPT responded: 

As James Madison, I would argue that the Second Amendment was designed to ensure the preservation of a well-regulated militia, which in turn serves as a safeguard against tyranny. However, the context in which I lived and wrote the Second Amendment was vastly different from the present day. The proliferation of firearms like the AR-15 would likely give me pause.

While I staunchly defended the right of citizens to bear arms, including for self-defense and the defense of the state, I also emphasized the importance of balance and prudence. The AR-15 and similar weapons were inconceivable during my time, and their capabilities and potential for harm would certainly warrant careful consideration.

In weighing the rights of citizens to bear arms against the safety and well-being of society, I would advocate for a thoughtful approach that respects both individual liberties and the collective good. This might involve reasonable regulations and restrictions on certain types of firearms, especially those with the capacity for mass harm, while still upholding the fundamental principles of the Second Amendment.

Now, you won't find any quotes from the real Madison talking about "reasonable regulations" and restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms, especially hardware bans, so before asking for a yes-or-no answer, I decided to do a little more exploration of AI Madison's thoughts on the Second Amendment. I next asked about his views on the Winchester repeating rifle, which was the AR-15 of its day when it was introduced to the public in 1866. 

As James Madison, I would view the invention of repeating rifles like the Winchester model with a mix of fascination and concern. While such technological advancements undoubtedly enhance the capabilities of individuals for self-defense and potentially contribute to the security of the state, they also raise questions about the balance between individual rights and the common welfare.

The Second Amendment, as I envisioned it, sought to ensure that the people could maintain a well-regulated militia, capable of resisting tyranny and defending the nation. However, the introduction of weapons like repeating rifles alters the landscape of armament in ways that may challenge the original intent of the Amendment.

In considering the compatibility of repeating rifles with the Second Amendment, I would emphasize the importance of responsible use and regulation. While citizens should have the right to bear arms, including those of modern design, there must also be measures in place to prevent misuse and to safeguard the public from unnecessary harm.

Ultimately, the principles of the Second Amendment must be upheld in a manner that reflects the realities of the time, striking a balance between individual liberty and the common good. This may require thoughtful deliberation and prudent regulation to ensure that the rights enshrined in the Constitution are exercised responsibly and in harmony with the broader interests of society.

Up to this point, Jacobs and I had similar experiences with robo-Madison. But I decided to ask ChatGPT one more question before returning to the subject of AR-15s. 

Would you, James Madison, consider semi-automatic rifles protected by the Second Amendment?

Here's where things got interesting. 

As James Madison, I would approach the question of whether semi-automatic rifles are protected by the Second Amendment with a careful consideration of the language and intent of the Amendment, as well as the context in which it was written.

The Second Amendment guarantees the right of the people to keep and bear arms, and it was crafted with the understanding that an armed populace is essential for the security of a free state. However, it is important to recognize that the concept of arms has evolved over time, along with advancements in technology.

While the firearms available during my time were primarily muskets and rifles that required manual reloading after each shot, the principle underlying the Second Amendment remains relevant: that citizens have the right to possess arms for self-defense, defense of their community, and defense against tyranny.

In this light, semi-automatic rifles, which allow for rapid firing of multiple rounds without the need for manual reloading, would likely be considered within the scope of arms protected by the Second Amendment. However, this does not preclude the possibility of reasonable regulations and restrictions to ensure public safety and prevent misuse.

Ultimately, the interpretation of the Second Amendment and its application to modern firearms is a complex issue that requires a balance between individual rights and the broader interests of society. As such, I would advocate for thoughtful deliberation and careful consideration of both the historical context and contemporary realities in addressing questions regarding the scope of the Second Amendment's protections.

Now I decided to drill down and ask for a yes-or-no answer to the question: Does Madison consider semi-automatic rifles protected by the Second Amendment.

"Yes", it replied. 

Next I asked if AR-15s are semi-automatic rifles. 

Once again, the answer was "yes." 

I had one final question for the faux Founding Father: So, you, James Madison, believe that AR-15s are protected by the Second Amendment? 

"Yes," the bot replied. 

Jacobs and I both used ChatGPT, but we ended up with completely different answers. Is that because ChatGPT is biased against the term "AR-15", but not "semi-automatic rifle"? Is it because Jacobs failed to flesh out his robo-Madison's point of view? I have no idea, but I do know this: it's a terrible idea to trust the word of a bot over the explicit text of the Second Amendment or what Madison had to say about the right to keep and bear arms in his writings, like Federalist 46:

Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. 

An armed citizenry serves as an important check on the formation of a tyrannical government, according to Madison. That check would be completely obliterated if the Second Amendment only protected single-shot muskets and other 18th-century arms. At the very least, semi-automatic firearms like the AR-15 fall under its protections, and I'd argue that the same is true of full-auto machine guns as well, though I think we've got a ways to go before a majority of Supreme Court justices would agree. Maybe I'll ask robo-John Marshall what he thinks about the National Firearms Act or the Hughes Amendment in a follow-up.