Feminists argue (correctly, in my opinion) that laws against witchcraft were really about social control. It was notoriously difficult to even define what a “witch” actually was. Accusations were comparatively rare; successful prosecutions were by no means certain. A witchcraft accusation, on this reading, was the community’s last-ditch effort to rein in a socially noxious woman when all other attempts at reform had failed.
Though less remarked (for obvious reasons), sodomy laws seemed to have had a similar function for men. Unlike witchcraft, sodomy was precisely defined. The penalties were harsher, too — witches might get off with penance; homosexuality was a death penalty offense in Britain until well into the 19th century. But of course you’d search in vain to find someone actually executed for sodomy in modern Britain. Here again, the point of the law seemed to be a last-ditch effort at reining in social deviants (with what everyone knew went on at English public schools, how could it be otherwise?). Even the most famous sodomy trial, Oscar Wilde’s, wouldn’t have happened if Wilde himself hadn’t forced the issue — it wasn’t a “sodomy” suit; it was a libel suit, brought by Wilde himself.
The point of all this is that our forebears well understood a point we’ve forgotten: Black-letter laws are only to be invoked in extremis. They were self-confident in their culture, so they were comfortable with the notions of illegal-but-tolerated (e.g. homosexuality) and legal-but-forbidden (prostitution). We modern Americans, on the other hand, are nearly to mental North Korea — everything not forbidden is compulsory. We can’t handle nuance. We lack cultural self-confidence — indeed, refusal to make value judgments is just about the only principle of modern “morality.” Our first reaction to anything we don’t like is to ban it, for everyone, everywhere (if we like something, we rush to social media to secure external validation of our preferences).
Worse, we’ve applied this to all areas of our life. In education, for example, a high school diploma was — within living memory — regarded as a certificate of mere competence. Having one meant you had the bare minimum of skills and training to be considered “educated” (and “educated” itself was never an unambiguous good). Nowadays, of course, “passed” means “mastered.” I have students saunter confidently into my upper-division university courses, certain they’re going to ace it because they got a C in “history” their sophomore year of high school. When I point out that this is like assuming you’re going to ace vector calculus because you passed 9th grade geometry, it doesn’t compute…
….because, of course, they did pass 9th grade geometry, which means they know math. All of it. They were at grade level on their state-mandated NCLB exam, so “math” has been downloaded to their brains, Matrix-style.
This is the explanation for Millennials’ insolent, invincible ignorance. If they don’t already know it, it’s by definition not worth knowing, because they passed the test. There is nothing more to human knowledge than what’s on the NAEP test. Is it any wonder they can’t grok things like the Second Amendment?