A Comprehensive History of the Second Amendment

Iam sure that by now many of you have seen a multitude of postings on various social media sites detailing contentious debate surrounding the Second Amendment, from the recent March for Lives gatherings to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’s call to repeal the Second Amendment. It is not with an inclination to discount or disparage the opinions of those who participated in the march or former justice Stevens, but I find that these individuals, along with many others in today’s contemporary society, don’t fully and completely understand the history of the Second Amendment and why it is such a critical component to our Bill of Rights. I will attempt in my following discourse to provide instructive historical context from three sources: the Supreme Court case of DC v. Heller, the historical work of Jackson Turner Main entitled, “The Anti-Federalists,” and the Prager University video debuting UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, entitled, “Is Gun Ownership a Right.” Although the academic discourse surrounding the Second Amendment is quite extensive and detailed, my purpose is to supply you with key historical context and political facts that will reveal the significance of the Second Amendment.

I would first like to direct everyone’s attention to the landmark Supreme Court case of DC v. Heller, which from a summary standpoint effectively upheld the right of individuals to keep and bear arms. The first notable aspect of the Second Amendment that the assenting justices noted was the explicit mentioning of the “right of the people.” It also must be acknowledged that a similar phrase is utilized in the First Amendment, when the drafters wrote, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The use of the phrase “the right of the people” was clearly intentional, and embodied a meaning that was analogous between the two amendments. All United States citizens have the right to peaceably assembly and petition the government, and therefore, if we are examining the linguistic similarities between the two amendments, all United States citizens also have the right to keep and bear arms. The Founding Fathers were pragmatic individuals who were fully competent and aware of what they were doing, and they clearly meant to prescribe the Second Amendment to allow ordinary American citizens to keep and bear arms for their own protection. The Second Amendment had the potential to be phrased in an incalculable number of ways, such as the following: “the right of the militia to keep and bear arms,” “the granted/bestowed right to the people to keep and bear arms,” or “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed, unless altered or impacted by congressional legislation.” Any of these phrasings, along with their infinite modifications, could have been written into the Bill of Rights. But they weren’t, and instead the Second Amendment read simply and concisely, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” In terms of a purely grammatical and semantics analysis, the Second Amendment couldn’t have been construed to be any clearer. Furthermore, many people have contended that at the time the Second Amendment was written, people only had the technological capacity to own antiquated rifles and pistols, which immediately excludes a vast majority of weapons present on the market today. Firstly, we must analyze how reasonable individuals during the time period of constitutional ratification understood the word “arms.” In 1773, the definition of arms was, “weapons of offense, or armor of defense… any thing that a man wears for his defense, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.” Clearly these early definitions construe the word “arms” extremely broadly, and seemingly don’t provide any contingency for restrictions. The Second Amendment was written with a particular caveat, mainly that the arm has to be borne (or carried) by the owner. The Founding Fathers clearly understood that technological progress would occur over time, and this would explain why the Second Amendment employs the use of the word “arms” instead of “rifle” or “pistol.”

In addition, today the First Amendment has been interpreted to apply not only to printed material from a printing press or verbalized speech, but rather has been expanded to protect speech on the internet, social media platforms, and video content. To allow for the omnipresent protections of the First Amendment while constraining the Second Amendment to arms solely present at the time of ratification would be dubious, duplicitous, and quite frankly, hypocritical. Finally, I’d like to close this paragraph with a brief, but nonetheless important, elucidation of historical disarming policies and the malevolence behind them. In the 1760’s and 1770’s, King George III of England began disarming the inhabitants of the most unruly and rebellious areas in the colonies. This made insurrection against the British Crown increasingly difficult, and was in reality a brilliantly devised scheme by George III to subject to colonies to his arbitrary will and authority. This can reasonably be interpreted as a tyrannical abuse of power. Additionally, the original attempts to establish gun control in the United States were made by Democrats after the Civil War to propagate racism. Gun control, from their ignorant perspective, was a discriminatory means by which they could disarm the African American population, and therefore place these American citizens in harms way without affording them their constitutional protections. I will conclude this paragraph with a quote from John Ordronaux: “The right to bear arms has always been the distinctive privilege of freemen. Aside from any necessity of self-protection to the person, it represents among all nations power coupled with the exercise of a certain jurisdiction… [I]t was not necessary that the right to bear arms should be granted in the Constitution, for it had always existed.”

Secondly, I would like to examine the time period before the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified, and more specifically, Anti-Federalist thought. Here, I will be referencing material from Jackson Main’s work which I referenced in my introductory paragraph. To begin, we must understand the foundations of Anti-Federalist thought and the key values that they adopted. The Anti-Federalists were persistent critics of the Constitution due to its nonexistent enumeration of protected and unalienable individual liberties and rights. The Anti-Federalists believed that without an addition of certain unalienable rights, too much power would become concentrated in the government which would inevitably degrade into a tyrannical dictatorship. The populace would have no written and enshrined document which clearly explicated their rights, and thus they would be at the behest of the despotic regime. A fear of the corrosive aspects of centralized power was at the forefront of Anti-Federalist thought, which can be revealed in the following combined quotation from James Burgh, Thomas Gordon, and John Trenchard: “The love of power is natural… it is insatiable… Power renders men wanton, insolent to others, and fond of themselves… All history affords but few instances of men trusted with great power without abusing it, when with security they could… The people can never be too jealous of their liberties… Power is of an elastic nature, ever extending itself and encroaching on the liberties of the subjects.” Thus, in order to safeguard the populace from centralized power in government, the Antifederalists advocated and proposed frequent and regular public elections in order to hold government officials accountable and prevent the development of an aristocracy. They also sought to deny the government powers which had the inevitable potential of being abused for tyrannical purposes, with such powers being the ability to tax and a STANDING ARMY. The Antifederalists believed that the government should have no control over military forces, but instead that municipalities and towns should create their own militias for protection and policing. In order to establish these local militias, ordinary civilians would have to provide their own weaponry since there was no reliance on the government for financial support in this endeavor. Later implementation of the Second Amendment would allow this idea to reach fruition. To the Antifederalists’ disappointment, Congress eventually implemented a pension system for military personnel, and many antifederalists saw this as a move to create a military caste that would be beholden to the will of Congress and would thus pose a threat to the security of free individuals.  Combine the implementation of a congressional funded military with their delineated power of taxation, and you’ve just created an Antifederalist’s worst nightmare. This massive transference of power from the states to the body of Congress was particularly worrying to Antifederalists, who believed that along with the transference of power was a transference of sovereignty. The Antifederalists refused to ratify the Constitution without the provision of a Bill of Rights, and only after a Bill of Rights was established were the people safeguarded with unalienable liberties and rights. The Second Amendment was undoubtedly important for the subsistence of a free nation. Due to the federal government’s expansive reach and unlimited power (which seems to be granted in the Supremacy clause, the Necessary and Proper clause, and mention of the “general welfare”), the Second Amendment was necessary to provide the populace an escape route, if you will, from tyranny and despotism; it was necessary to afford the populace a means of protecting themselves from abusive government forces; it was a means for the populace to ensure the longevity and survival of their cherished free society. The Anti-Federalists recognized that the government had omnipotent and unlimited power, and thus they believed that the fear of an armed populace, endowed with their unalienable right to self-protection, would serve to discourage the creation of a tyrannized government.

To conclude, I would like to discuss the Prager University video, “Is Gun Ownership a Right.” In my prior paragraphs, I undoubtedly mentioned the word “militia” repeatedly, and many critics today frequently use the mention of this word in the Second Amendment to discount the idea that ordinary men and women can own firearms. This is patently untrue. Eugene Volokh unfolds for us how a militia was defined in the late 1700’s. To accomplish this, he describes the Militia Act of 1792, which succinctly defined what a militia was. To quote the act itself, a militia was composed of, “each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty- five years shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia.” The act was a product of its time, which is why it restricted militia activity to men who were white and who occupied a specific age interval. However, what is important to acknowledge and accept is what the militia truly was. It wasn’t a military body composed of individuals who were highly trained and specialized in warfare; It wasn’t a conglomeration of individuals who were supplied and cared for by the government; It was simply a body composed of average, blue-collar, individuals who supplied themselves with whatever they could muster. Clearly from a definition standpoint, there were no specialized prerequisites to join a militia, thus refuting the claim today that the right to bear arms is restricted to militias. The populace comprises the militia. James Madison, a founding father, provided an insight into how the “militia” was understood, stating, “a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the best most natural defense of a free country.” William Rawle, a prominent lawyer in Philadelphia, wrote in 1825: “In a people permitted and accustomed to bear arms, we have the rudiments of a militia, which properly consists of armed citizens, divided into military bands, and instructed… in the use of arms for the purposes of war.” The evidence is undeniably clear. A “militia” is not a specialized body that has exclusive rights to weaponry, and has never been understood that way over the course of history, until now.

Through a comprehensive examination of past Supreme Court precedent (DC v. Heller), Anti-Federalist thought (which instrumentally contributed to the Bill of Rights), and an understanding of how militias were perceived by those who were tangibly involved in the founding of our country, the Second Amendment should now be quite clear. The problem is that our society neglects history and the valuable lessons it has to offer us. Postmodernism has eviscerated any hope of instructive and edifying meta-narratives. Hopefully by reading this, you can muster much more respect towards the importance of the Second Amendment, and comprehend why it was such a vital amendment to our cherished Bill of Rights.


Follow the author on Twitter and Facebook

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: