In this era of emojis and “text speak” it should come as no surprise that misunderstanding English is incredibly common and easy. In fact, in some circles, it’s even profitable. One such circle is the anti-gun movement, which has done everything it can to obfuscate the meaning of the Second Amendment despite the fact that the words could not possibly be more specific.
It’s a modern wonder how much effort is being put into intentionally misunderstanding plain English that has lasted for centuries. This week, we break down the Second Amendment. It’s origins, the thought process behind it, and how the two “halves” of the sentence compliment each other rather than cancelling each other out.
By the way, a lot of this also comes from Stephen Hallbrook’s brilliant book, The Founders’ Second Amendment. You owe it to yourself to read that book.
1.) Origins. It isn’t difficult to determine why the Founders saw the need for firearm ownership. After an incredibly difficult fight for independence, very few saw why they wouldn’t need a firearm. Additionally, many did not see the need for a Bill of Rights at all. To many Whigs, the rights of freedom of speech, press, bearing arms etc. were assumed as fundamental and not worth writing down. Gun ownership was so fundamental, that the Georgia delegation to the 1778 Continental Congress “sought to deny citizenship rights to those who refused to pick up a gun in defense of the revolution.” (Halbrook 2008, 149-150)
Chapter 7 of Hallbrook’s book opens with this passage:
IN AMERICA, declared Dr. Richard Price in 1779, “every inhabitant has in his house (as a part of his furniture) a book on law and government to enable him to understand his civil rights; a musket to enable him to defend these rights; and a Bible to enable him to understand and practice his religion.
(Halbrook 2008, 148)
This is a crucial part to understand. The argument is that “well-regulated militia” represents something along the lines of the National Guard or a State Defense Force. Yet, here, we see both that firearms were so crucial to the Revolution that some believed you shouldn’t be allowed citizenship without one and that it allowed for the individual to defend his/her rights. It is impossible, in that context, to argue that the Founders sought to limit the Second Amendment to a centralized government.
2.) Well-regulated militia. So what was the militia? Put simply, at the time, it was anybody who was able to fight. Regulated, Halbrook shows us, meant “adjusted by rule, method or forms; put in good order; subjected to rules or restrictions.” This has been something that anti-gunners have seized upon, attempting to wipe out the second half of the Amendment’s text altogether. In this case, “regulated” meant virtually all “able-bodied” men with training regulated by rules. (Hallbrook 2008, 330)
George Mason, one of the Virginia delegates to the 1778 Continental Congress, made it clear that the militia meant “ the whole people, except a few public officers.” Indeed, in one of his many statements at the Congress, Mason was worried that future governments would try to push entire classes of people out of the militia.
Under such a full and equal representation as ours, there can be no ignominious punishment inflicted. But under this national, or rather consolidated government, the case will be different. The representation being so small and inadequate, they will have no fellow-feeling for the people. They may discriminate people in their own predicament, and exempt from duty all the officers and lowest creatures of the national government. If there were a more particular definition of their powers, and a clause exempting the militia from martial law except when in actual service, and from fines and punishments of an unusual nature, then we might expect that the militia would be what they are. But, if this be not the case, we cannot say how long all classes of people will be included in the militia. There will not be the same reason to expect it, because the government will be administered by different people. We know what they are now, but know not how soon they may be altered.
In short, the milita was seen as essential to the Republic’s security. A well-trained, well-equipped group of men capable of fighting at a moment’s notice. The purpose of the Second Amendment was clear and obvious to all.
One thing that made being ready in an instant easy? Everybody was armed.
3.) Right of the People. The Bill of Rights does not create rights, but rather acknowledges and guarantees them. Indeed, the language of the Amendments shows that the authors of the Constitution already acknowledged those rights. (Recall that some didn’t even believe writing them down was worthwhile.)
For example, consider the language of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
At what point does the Amendment grant a those rights? It doesn’t. It says that Congress shall not create a law that infringes on a right that the people are presumed to already have.
In every Amendment, the individual is protected, and the Constitution lays out what can and cannot be done to the individual. The Fourth Amendment kicks off by saying “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Once again, the Constitution does not grant a right, but rather acknowledges and protects it.
So why, exactly, in a document built on protecting the citizen from harm and protecting the citizen’s rights, would the Founders reserve the ownership of firearms to the government. In other words, why would the Founders put in place a legal system to protect a citizen’s rights, while giving the government a monopoly on force?
Put bluntly, the first portion is the purpose clause. It lays out the rationale for the Amendment, but does not limit the right of the people. There is nothing suggesting that the Founders sought for the national government to have a monopoly on force.
4.) Bottom line. While there were people at the Continental Congress who sought to give the federal government a large amount of power, the Amendments that were added to the Constitution were clearly intended to protect the individual. While the Second Amendment is the only one to kick off with a purpose clause, the purpose is not used to negate the right. Further, it makes no logical sense that a document built on protecting the individual would subject that individual to an authority with a monopoly on force.
The Second Amendment, indeed the Constitution as a whole, is a product of Revolution Era thinking; of the purest expression of individual liberty and the means by which that liberty is defended. To them, the gun represented a way to defend one’s livelihood and, yes, one’s nation if need be.
While the army was meant to be the first line of defense, the militia (that is, the citizenry) was meant to be the last. The Founders set up a system with which to ensure the militia had exactly what it needed to be that last line of defense and to protect the liberty of the individual citizen.
As Patrick Henry noted in one of his many fiery speeches:
Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.
Stay informed. Stay alert. Stay free.
Halbrook, Stephen P. The Founders’ Second Amendment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.