Original Intent and Purpose of the Second Amendment
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.
The original intent and purpose of the Second Amendment was to preserve and guarantee, NOT grant, the pre-existing right of individuals to keep and bear arms. Although the amendment emphasizes the need for a militia, membership in any militia, let alone a well-regulated one, was not intended to serve as a prerequisite for exercising the right to keep arms.
The Second Amendment preserves and guarantees an individual right for a collective purpose. That does not transform the right into a “collective right.” The militia clause was a declaration of purpose, and preserving the people’s right to keep and bear arms was the method the framers chose to, in-part, ensure the continuation of a well-regulated militia.
There is no contrary evidence from the writings of the Founding Fathers, early American legal commentators, or pre-twentieth century Supreme Court decisions, indicating that the Second Amendment was intended to apply solely to active militia members.
Evidence of an Individual Right
In his popular edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1803), St. George Tucker (see also), a lawyer, Revolutionary War militia officer, legal scholar, and later a U.S. District Court judge (appointed by James Madison in 1813), wrote of the Second Amendment:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government.
In the appendix to the Commentaries, Tucker elaborates further:
This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty… The right of self-defense is the first law of nature; in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Whenever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game: a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. True it is, their bill of rights seems at first view to counteract this policy: but the right of bearing arms is confined to protestants, and the words suitable to their condition and degree, have been interpreted to authorise the prohibition of keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game, to any farmer, or inferior tradesman, or other person not qualified to kill game. So that not one man in five hundred can keep a gun in his house without being subject to a penalty.
Not only are Tucker’s remarks solid evidence that the militia clause was not intended to restrict the right to keep arms to active militia members, but he speaks of a broad right – Tucker specifically mentions self-defense.
“Because ‘[g]reat weight has always been attached, and very rightly attached, to contemporaneous exposition,’ the Supreme Court has cited Tucker in over forty cases. One can find Tucker in the major cases of virtually every Supreme Court era.” (Source: The Second Amendment in the Nineteenth Century)
(William Blackstone was an English jurist who published Commentaries on the Laws of England, in four volumes between 1765 and 1769. Blackstone is credited with laying the foundation of modern English law and certainly influenced the thinking of the American Founders.)
Another jurist contemporaneous to the Founders, William Rawle, authored “A View of the Constitution of the United States of America” (1829). His work was adopted as a constitutional law textbook at West Point and other institutions. In Chapter 10 he describes the scope of the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms:
The prohibition is general. No clause in the constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious attempt could only be made under some general pretence by a state legislature. But if in any blind pursuit of inordinate power, either should attempt it, this amendment may be appealed to as a restraint on both.
This is another quote where it is obvious that “the people” refers to individuals since Rawle writes neither the states nor the national government has legitimate authority to disarm its citizens. This passage also makes it clear (“the prohibition is general”) that the militia clause was not intended to restrict the scope of the right.
(In 1791 William Rawle was appointed United States Attorney for Pennsylvania by President George Washington, a post he held for more than eight years.)
Yet another jurist, Justice Story (appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice by James Madison in 1811), wrote a constitutional commentary in 1833 (“Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States”). Regarding the Second Amendment, he wrote (source):
The next amendment is: “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.” The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.
As the Tennessee Supreme Court in Andrews v. State (1871) explains, this “passage from Story, shows clearly that this right was intended, as we have maintained in this opinion, and was guaranteed to, and to be exercised and enjoyed by the citizen as such, and not by him as a soldier, or in defense solely of his political rights.”
And yet, though this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights.
Story laments the people’s lack of enthusiasm for maintaining a well-regulated militia. However, some anti-gun rights advocates misinterpret this entire passage as being “consistent with the theory that the Second Amendment guarantees a right of the people to be armed only when in service of an organized militia.” (See Arms, Anarchy and the Second Amendment for an example of reaching that conclusion by committing a non-sequitur.)
The need for a well-regulated militia and an armed citizenry are not mutually exclusive, nor was the right to have arms considered dependent on membership in an active militia (more on that later). Rather, as illustrated by Tucker, Rawle, and Story, the militia clause and the right to arms were intended to be complementary.
More Evidence Supporting an Individual Right
After James Madison’s Bill of Rights was submitted to Congress, Tench Coxe (see also: Tench Coxe and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, 1787-1823) published his “Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution,” in the Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789 He asserts that it’s the people (as individuals) with arms, who serve as the ultimate check on government:
As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow-citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.
A search of the literature of the time reveals that no writer disputed or contradicted Coxe’s analysis that what became the Second Amendment protected the right of the people to keep and bear ‘their private arms.’ The only dispute was over whether a bill of rights was even necessary to protect such fundamental rights. (Halbrook, Stephen P. “The Right of the People or the Power of the State Bearing Arms, Arming Militias, and the Second Amendment”. Originally published as 26 Val. U. L.Rev. 131-207, 1991).
Earlier, in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788, while the states were considering ratification of the Constitution, Tench Coxe wrote:
Who are the militia? are they not ourselves. Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American…The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.
The Federalist Papers
What plan for the regulation of the militia may be pursued by the national government is impossible to be foreseen…The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be injurious if it were capable of being carried into execution… Little more can reasonably be aimed at with the respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped ; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.
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, 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. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it.
Here, like Story, Madison is expressing the idea that additional advantages accrue to the people when the citizens’ right to arms is enhanced by having an organized and properly directed militia.
The Federalist Papers Continued – “The Original Right of Self-Defense”
The Founders realized insurrections may occur from time to time and it is the militia’s duty to suppress them. They also realized that however remote the possibility of usurpation was, the people with their arms, had the right to restore their republican form of government by force, if necessary, as an extreme last resort.
“The original right of self-defense” is not a modern-day concoction. We now examine Hamilton’s Federalist No. 28. Hamilton begins:
That there may happen cases in which the national government may be necessitated to resort to force cannot be denied. Our own experience has corroborated the lessons taught by the examples of other nations; that emergencies of this sort will sometimes exist in all societies, however constituted; that seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body; that the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government) has no place but in the reveries of these political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.
Hamilton explains that the national government may occasionally need to quell insurrections and it is certainly justified in doing so.
If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.
Hamilton clearly states there exists a right of self-defense against a tyrannical government, and it includes the people with their own arms and adds:
[T]he people, without exaggeration, may be said to be entirely the masters of their own fate. Power being almost always the rival of power, the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments, and these will have the same disposition towards the general government. The people by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate. If their rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress. How wise will it be in them by cherishing the union to preserve to themselves an advantage which can never be too highly prized!
Thus the militia is the ultimate check against a state or the national government. That is why the founders guaranteed the right to the people as opposed to only active militia members or a state’s militia. But of course, via the militia clause, the Second Amendment acknowledges, as well, the right of a state to maintain a militia. (For more on militia see: Militia.)
Hamilton concludes, telling us the above scenario is extremely unlikely to occur:
When will the time arrive that the federal government can raise and maintain an army capable of erecting a despotism over the great body of the people of an immense empire, who are in a situation, through the medium of their State governments, to take measures for their own defense, with all the celerity, regularity, and system of independent nations? The apprehension may be considered as a disease, for which there can be found no cure in the resources of argument and reasoning.
Again, it is the recurring theme of the people’s right to keep and bear arms as individuals, enhanced by a militia system, that (in part) provides for the “security of a free state.”
Connecting the Dots…
“The opinion of the Federalist has always been considered as of great authority. It is a complete commentary on our Constitution, and is appealed to by all parties in the questions to which that instrument has given birth. . . . ”
— The U.S. Supreme Court in Cohens v. Virginia (1821)
Although the Federalist Papers were written prior to the drafting of the Bill of Rights (but after the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification), the passages quoted, above, help explain the relationships that were understood between a well-regulated militia, the people, their governments, and the right to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment did not declare or establish any new rights or novel principles.
The Purpose of the Militia Clause
“Collective rights theorists argue that addition of the subordinate clause qualifies the rest of the amendment by placing a limitation on the people’s right to bear arms. However, if the amendment truly meant what collective rights advocates propose, then the text would read “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the States to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” However, that is not what the framers of the amendment drafted. The plain language of the amendment, without attenuate inferences therefrom, shows that the function of the subordinate clause was not to qualify the right, but instead to show why it must be protected. The right exists independent of the existence of the militia. If this right were not protected, the existence of the militia, and consequently the security of the state, would be jeopardized.” (U.S. v. Emerson, 46 F.Supp.2d 598 (N.D.Tex. 1999))
For more information about justification clauses see: Volokh, Eugene, The Commonplace Second Amendment, (73 NYU L. Rev. 793 (1998)).
There are 3 ways the Second Amendment is usually interpreted to deny it was intended to protect an individual right to keep and bear arms:
- It protects a state’s right to keep and bear arms.
- The right is individual, but limited to active militia members because the militia clause narrows the right’s scope.
- The term “people” refers to the people collectively, rather than the people as individuals.
Yet, three jurists, who were contemporaries of the Founders, and wrote constitutional commentaries, read the Second Amendment as protecting a private, individual right to keep arms. There is no contrary evidence from that period (see Guncite’s Is there contrary evidence? ).
Instead of the “right of the people,” the Amendment’s drafters could have referred to the militia or active militia members, as they did in the Fifth Amendment, had they meant to restrict the right. (Additionally, see GunCite’s page here showing evidence that the term, “people,” as used in the Bill of Rights, referred to people as individuals.)
It strains credulity to believe the aforementioned three jurists misconstrued the meaning of the Second Amendment.
The only model that comports with all of the evidence from the Founding period is the one interpreting the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right for a collective purpose. The militia clause and the right to keep and bear arms were intended to be complementary.
Perversely, gun rights defenders are accused of creating a Second Amendment myth, when it is some present-day jurists and historians who have failed to give a full account of the historical record.
(The assertion that the Second Amendment was intended to protect an individual right should not be confused with the claim that all gun control is un-constitutional. However, to read why many gun rights advocates oppose most gun controls, today, please see GunCite’s, Misrepresenting the Gun Control Debate.)
I felt the need to repost this article with corrections to dead links, please see GunCite Article for the original post. Links are provided throughout this article so I did not feel a need to provide a long list of links in this section. I only felt the need to link back to the originating article posted on GunCite.com.