The Second Amendment (Amendment II) to the United States Constitution protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms and was adopted on December 15, 1791, as part of the first ten amendments contained in the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the right belongs to individuals for self defense, while also ruling that the right is not unlimited and does not prohibit all regulation of either firearms or similar devices. State and local governments are limited to the same extent as the federal government from infringing this right, per the incorporation of the Bill of Rights.
The Second Amendment was based partially on the right to keep and bear arms in English common law and was influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Sir William Blackstone described this right as an auxiliary right, supporting the natural rights of self-defense and resistance to oppression, and the civic duty to act in concert in defense of the state.
While both James Monroe and John Adams supported the Constitution being ratified, its most influential framer was James Madison. In Federalist No. 46, Madison wrote how a federal army could be kept in check by state militias, “a standing army … would be opposed [by] a militia.” He argued that state militias “would be able to repel the danger” of a federal army, “It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops.” He confidently contrasted the federal government of the United States to the European kingdoms, which he contemptuously described as “afraid to trust the people with arms.” He assured his fellow citizens that they need never fear their government because “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”.
By January 1788, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut ratified the Constitution without insisting upon amendments. Several specific amendments were proposed, but were not adopted at the time the Constitution was ratified. For example, the Pennsylvania convention debated fifteen amendments, one of which concerned the right of the people to be armed, another with the militia. The Massachusetts convention also ratified the Constitution with an attached list of proposed amendments. In the end, the ratification convention was so evenly divided between those for and against the Constitution that the federalists agreed to amendments to assure ratification.
In United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that, “The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendments means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government” and thus limited the scope of the Second Amendment’s protections to the federal government. In United States v. Miller (1939), the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment did not protect weapon types not having a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”.
In the twenty-first century, the amendment has been subjected to renewed academic inquiry and judicial interest. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision that held the amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a gun at home for self-defense. This was the first time in American history The Court had ruled the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun. In McDonald v. Chicago (2010), the Court clarified its earlier decisions that limited the amendment’s impact to a restriction on the federal government, expressly holding that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment against state and local governments. In Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016), the Supreme Court reiterated its earlier rulings that “the Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding” and that its protection is not limited to “only those weapons useful in warfare”.
Due to these decisions, the debate between various organizations regarding gun control and gun rights continues.
There are several versions of the text of the Second Amendment, each with capitalization or punctuation differences. Differences exist between the drafted and ratified copies, the signed copies on display, and various published transcriptions. The importance (or lack thereof) of these differences has been the source of debate regarding the meaning and interpretation of the amendment, particularly regarding the importance of the prefatory clause.
One version was passed by the Congress, and a slightly different version was ratified. As passed by the Congress and preserved in the National Archives, with the rest of the original handwritten copy of the Bill of Rights prepared by scribe William Lambert, the amendment says:
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.
Here is the amendment as ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State:
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 right to bear arms in English history is regarded in English law as a subordinate auxiliary right of the primary rights to personal security, personal liberty, and private property. According to Sir William Blackstone, “The … last auxiliary right of the subject … is that of having arms for their [defense], suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is declared by statute, and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 emerged from a tempestuous period in English politics during which two issues were major sources of conflict: the authority of the King to govern without the consent of Parliament, and the role of Catholics in a country that was becoming ever more Protestant. Ultimately, the Catholic James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, and his successors, the Protestants William III and Mary II, accepted the conditions that were codified in the Bill. One of the issues the Bill resolved was the authority of the King to disarm his subjects, after James II had attempted to disarm many Protestants, and had argued with Parliament over his desire to maintain a standing (or permanent) army. The bill states that it is acting to restore “ancient rights” trampled upon by James II, though some have argued that the English Bill of Rights created a new right to have arms, which developed out of a duty to have arms. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court did not accept this view, remarking that the English right at the time of the passing of the English Bill of Rights was “clearly an individual right, having nothing whatsoever to do with service in the militia” and that it was a right not to be disarmed by the Crown and was not the granting of a new right to have arms.
The text of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 includes language protecting the right of Protestants against disarmament by the Crown. This document states: “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” It also contained text that aspired to bind future Parliaments, though under English constitutional law no Parliament can bind any later Parliament. Nevertheless, the English Bill of Rights remains an important constitutional document, more for enumerating the rights of Parliament over the monarchy than for its clause concerning a right to have arms.
The statement in the English Bill of Rights concerning the right to bear arms is often quoted only in the passage where it is written as above and not in its full context. In its full context it is clear that the bill was asserting the right of Protestant citizens not to be disarmed by the King without the consent of Parliament and was merely restoring rights to Protestants that the previous King briefly and unlawfully had removed. In its full context it reads:
Whereas the late King James the Second by the Assistance of diverse evill Councellors Judges and Ministers imployed by him did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion and the Lawes and Liberties of this Kingdome (list of grievances including) … by causing severall good Subjects being Protestants to be disarmed at the same time when Papists were both Armed and Imployed contrary to Law, (Recital regarding the change of monarch) … thereupon the said Lords Spirituall and Temporall and Commons pursuant to their respective Letters and Elections being now assembled in a full and free Representative of this Nation takeing into their most serious Consideration the best meanes for attaining the Ends aforesaid Doe in the first place (as their Auncestors in like Case have usually done) for the Vindicating and Asserting their ancient Rights and Liberties, Declare (list of rights including) … That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.
The historical link between the English Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment, which both codify an existing right and do not create a new one, has been acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The English Bill of Rights includes the proviso that arms must be as “allowed by law.” This has been the case before and after the passage of the Bill. While it did not override earlier restrictions on the ownership of guns for hunting, it is subject to the parliamentary right to implicitly or explicitly repeal earlier enactments.
There is some difference of opinion as to how revolutionary the events of 168889 actually were, and several commentators make the point that the provisions of the English Bill of Rights did not represent new laws, but rather stated existing rights. Mark Thompson wrote that, apart from determining the succession, the English Bill of Rights did “little more than set forth certain points of existing laws and simply secured to Englishmen the rights of which they were already posessed [sic].” Before and after the English Bill of Rights, the government could always disarm any individual or class of individuals it considered dangerous to the peace of the realm. In 1765, William Blackstone wrote the Commentaries on the Laws of England describing the right to have arms in England during the 18th century as a subordinate auxiliary right of the subject that was “also declared” in the English Bill of Rights.
The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute 1 W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
Although there is little doubt that the writers of the Second Amendment were heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights, it is a matter of interpretation as to whether they were intent on preserving the power to regulate arms to the states over the federal government (as the English Parliament had reserved for itself against the monarch) or whether it was intent on creating a new right akin to the right of others written into the Constitution (as the Supreme Court decided in Heller). Some in the United States have preferred the “rights” argument arguing that the English Bill of Rights had granted a right. The need to have arms for self-defence was not really in question. Peoples all around the world since time immemorial had armed themselves for the protection of themselves and others, and as organized nations began to appear these arrangements had been extended to the protection of the state. Without a regular army and police force (which in England was not established until 1829), it had been the duty of certain men to keep watch and ward at night and to confront and capture suspicious persons. Every subject had an obligation to protect the king’s peace and assist in the suppression of riots.
Early English settlers in America viewed the right to arms and/or the right to bear arms and/or state militias as important for one or more of these purposes (in no particular order):
Which of these considerations were thought of as most important and ultimately found expression in the Second Amendment is disputed. Some of these purposes were explicitly mentioned in early state constitutions; for example, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 asserted that, “the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state”.
During the 1760s pre-revolutionary period, the established colonial militia was composed of colonists, including many who were loyal to British imperial rule. As defiance and opposition to British rule developed, a distrust of these Loyalists in the militia became widespread among the colonists, known as Patriots, who favored independence from British rule. As a result, some Patriots created their own militias that excluded the Loyalists and then sought to stock independent armories for their militias. In response to this arms build up, the British Parliament established an embargo of firearms, parts and ammunition against the American colonies.
British and Loyalist efforts to disarm the colonial Patriot militia armories in the early phases of the American Revolution resulted in the Patriot colonists protesting by citing the Declaration of Rights, Blackstone’s summary of the Declaration of Rights, their own militia laws and common law rights to self-defense. While British policy in the early phases of the Revolution clearly aimed to prevent coordinated action by the Patriot militia, some have argued that there is no evidence that the British sought to restrict the traditional common law right of self-defense. Patrick J. Charles disputes these claims citing similar disarming by the patriots and challenging those scholars’ interpretation of Blackstone.
The right of the colonists to arms and rebellion against oppression was asserted, for example, in a pre-revolutionary newspaper editorial in 1769 Boston objecting to the British army suppression of colonial opposition to the Townshend Acts:
Instances of the licentious and outrageous behavior of the military conservators of the peace still multiply upon us, some of which are of such nature, and have been carried to such lengths, as must serve fully to evince that a late vote of this town, calling upon its inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defense, was a measure as prudent as it was legal: such violences are always to be apprehended from military troops, when quartered in the body of a populous city; but more especially so, when they are led to believe that they are become necessary to awe a spirit of rebellion, injuriously said to be existing therein. It is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defence; and as Mr. Blackstone observes, it is to be made use of when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
The armed forces that won the American Revolution consisted of the standing Continental Army created by the Continental Congress, together with regular French army and naval forces and various state and regional militia units. In opposition, the British forces consisted of a mixture of the standing British Army, Loyalist militia and Hessian mercenaries. Following the Revolution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Federalists argued that this government had an unworkable division of power between Congress and the states, which caused military weakness, as the standing army was reduced to as few as 80 men. They considered it to be bad that there was no effective federal military crackdown on an armed tax rebellion in western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion. Anti-federalists on the other hand took the side of limited government and sympathized with the rebels, many of whom were former Revolutionary War soldiers. Subsequently, the Constitutional Convention proposed in 1787 to grant Congress exclusive power to raise and support a standing army and navy of unlimited size. Anti-federalists objected to the shift of power from the states to the federal government, but as adoption of the Constitution became more and more likely, they shifted their strategy to establishing a bill of rights that would put some limits on federal power.
Modern scholars Thomas B. McAffee and Michael J. Quinlan have stated that James Madison “did not invent the right to keep and bear arms when he drafted the Second Amendment; the right was pre-existing at both common law and in the early state constitutions.” In contrast, historian Jack Rakove suggests that Madison’s intention in framing the Second Amendment was to provide assurances to moderate Anti-Federalists that the militias would not be disarmed.
One aspect of the gun control debate is the conflict between gun control laws and the right to rebel against unjust governments. Blackstone in his Commentaries alluded to this right to rebel as the natural right of resistance and self preservation, to be used only as a last resort, exercisable when “the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression”. Some believe that the framers of the Bill of Rights sought to balance not just political power, but also military power, between the people, the states and the nation, as Alexander Hamilton explained in his Concerning the Militia essay published in 1788:
… it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defence of the State shall require it. This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if circumstances should at any time oblige the Government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the People, while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights, and those of their fellow-citizens. This appears to me the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.
Some scholars have said that it is wrong to read a right of armed insurrection in the Second Amendment because clearly the founding fathers sought to place trust in the power of the ordered liberty of democratic government versus the anarchy of insurrectionists. Other writers, such as Glenn Reynolds, contend that the framers did believe in an individual right to armed insurrection. They cite examples, such as the Declaration of Independence (describing in 1776 “the Right of the People to…institute new Government”) and the Constitution of New Hampshire (stating in 1784 that “nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind”).
There was an ongoing debate beginning in 1789 about “the people” fighting governmental tyranny (as described by Anti-Federalists); or the risk of mob rule of “the people” (as described by the Federalists) related to the increasingly violent French Revolution. A widespread fear, during the debates on ratifying the Constitution, was the possibility of a military takeover of the states by the federal government, which could happen if the Congress passed laws prohibiting states from arming citizens, or prohibiting citizens from arming themselves. Though it has been argued that the states lost the power to arm their citizens when the power to arm the militia was transferred from the states to the federal government by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the individual right to arm was retained and strengthened by the Militia Acts of 1792 and the similar act of 1795.
Note: On May 10, 1776, Congress passed a resolution recommending that any colony with a government that was not inclined toward independence should form one that was.
Virginias Constitution lists the reasons for dissolving its ties with the King in the formation of its own independent state government. Including the following:
* These same reasons would later be outlined within the Declaration of Independence.
A Declaration of Rights. Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free State; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Article 13. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This is the first instance in relationship to U.S. Constitutional Law of the phrase “right to bear arms.”
It is of relevance that Pennsylvania was a Quaker Colony traditionally opposed to bearing arms. “In settling Pennsylvania, William Penn had a great experiment in view, a holy experiment, as he term[ed] it. This was no less than to test, on a scale of considerable magnitude, the practicability of founding and governing a State on the sure principles of the Christian religion; where the executive should be sustained without arms; where justice should be administered without oaths; and where real religion might flourish without the incubus of a hierarchical system.” The Non-Quaker residents, many from the Western Counties, complained often and loudly of being denied the right to a common defense. By the time of the American Revolution, through what could be described as a revolution within a revolution, the pro-militia factions had gained ascendancy in the state’s government. And by a manipulation through the use of oaths, disqualifying Quaker members, they made up a vast majority of the convention forming the new state constitution; it was only natural that they would assert their efforts to form a compulsory State Militia in the context of a “right” to defend themselves and the state.
Articles XXV-XXVII. 25. That a well-regulated militia is the proper and natural defence of a free government. 26. That standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept up, without consent of the Legislature. 27. That in all cases, and at all times, the military ought to be under strict subordination to and control of the civil power.
A Declaration of Rights. Article XVII. That the people have a right to bear arms, for the defence of the State; and, as standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Article XL. And whereas it is of the utmost importance to the safety of every State that it should always be in a condition of defence; and it is the duty of every man who enjoys the protection of society to be prepared and willing to defend it; this convention therefore, in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State, doth ordain, determine, and declare that the militia of this State, at all times hereafter, as well in peace as in war, shall be armed and disciplined, and in readiness for service. That all such of the inhabitants of this State being of the people called Quakers as, from scruples of conscience, may be averse to the bearing of arms, be therefrom excused by the legislature; and do pay to the State such sums of money, in lieu of their personal service, as the same; may, in the judgment of the legislature, be worth. And that a proper magazine of warlike stores, proportionate to the number of inhabitants, be, forever hereafter, at the expense of this State, and by acts of the legislature, established, maintained, and continued in every county in this State.
Chapter 1. Section XVIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of the themselves and the State; and as standing armies, in the time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
A Declaration of Rights. Chapter 1. Article XVII. The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority and be governed by it.
In March 1785, delegates from Virginia and Maryland assembled at the Mount Vernon Conference to fashion a remedy to the inefficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. The following year, at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, 12 delegates from five states (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia) met and drew up a list of problems with the current government model. At its conclusion, the delegates scheduled a follow-up meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for May 1787 to present solutions to these problems, such as the absence of:
It quickly became apparent that the solution to all three of these problems required shifting control of the states’ militias to the federal congress and giving that congress the power to raise a standing army. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution codified these changes by allowing the Congress to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States by doing the following:
Some representatives mistrusted proposals to enlarge federal powers, because they were concerned about the inherent risks of centralizing power. Federalists, including James Madison, initially argued that a bill of rights was unnecessary, sufficiently confident that the federal government could never raise a standing army powerful enough to overcome a militia. Federalist Noah Webster argued that an armed populace would have no trouble resisting the potential threat to liberty of a standing army. Anti-federalists, on the other hand, advocated amending the Constitution with clearly defined and enumerated rights providing more explicit constraints on the new government. Many Anti-federalists feared the new federal government would choose to disarm state militias. Federalists countered that in listing only certain rights, unlisted rights might lose protection. The Federalists realized there was insufficient support to ratify the Constitution without a bill of rights and so they promised to support amending the Constitution to add a bill of rights following the Constitution’s adoption. This compromise persuaded enough Anti-federalists to vote for the Constitution, allowing for ratification. The Constitution was declared ratified on June 21, 1788, when nine of the original thirteen states had ratified it. The remaining four states later followed suit, although the last two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, ratified only after Congress had passed the Bill of Rights and sent it to the states for ratification. James Madison drafted what ultimately became the Bill of Rights, which was proposed by the first Congress on June 8, 1789, and was adopted on December 15, 1791.
The debate surrounding the Constitution’s ratification is of practical importance, particularly to adherents of originalist and strict constructionist legal theories. In the context of such legal theories and elsewhere, it is important to understand the language of the Constitution in terms of what that language meant to the people who wrote and ratified the Constitution.
The Second Amendment was relatively uncontroversial at the time of its ratification. Robert Whitehill, a delegate from Pennsylvania, sought to clarify the draft Constitution with a bill of rights explicitly granting individuals the right to hunt on their own land in season, though Whitehill’s language was never debated.
There was substantial opposition to the new Constitution, because it moved the power to arm the state militias from the states to the federal government. This created a fear that the federal government, by neglecting the upkeep of the militia, could have overwhelming military force at its disposal through its power to maintain a standing army and navy, leading to a confrontation with the states, encroaching on the states’ reserved powers and even engaging in a military takeover. Article VI of the Articles of Confederation states:
In contrast, Article I, Section 8, Clause 16 of the U.S. Constitution states:
A foundation of American political thought during the Revolutionary period was concerned about political corruption and governmental tyranny. Even the federalists, fending off their opponents who accused them of creating an oppressive regime, were careful to acknowledge the risks of tyranny. Against that backdrop, the framers saw the personal right to bear arms as a potential check against tyranny. Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts expressed this sentiment by declaring that it is “a chimerical idea to suppose that a country like this could ever be enslaved … Is it possible … that an army could be raised for the purpose of enslaving themselves or their brethren? or, if raised whether they could subdue a nation of freemen, who know how to prize liberty and who have arms in their hands?” Noah Webster similarly argued:
George Mason also argued the importance of the militia and right to bear arms by reminding his compatriots of England’s efforts “to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them … by totally disusing and neglecting the militia.” He also clarified that under prevailing practice the militia included all people, rich and poor. “Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” Because all were members of the militia, all enjoyed the right to individually bear arms to serve therein.
Writing after the ratification of the Constitution, but before the election of the first Congress, James Monroe included “the right to keep and bear arms” in a list of basic “human rights”, which he proposed to be added to the Constitution.
Patrick Henry argued in the Virginia ratification convention on June 5, 1788, for the dual rights to arms and resistance to oppression:
According to Thom Hartmann, the Virginians James Madison, Patrick Henry, and George Mason were concerned that “slave patrols,” organized groups of white men who enforced discipline upon enslaved African Americans, needed to remain armed and, therefore, the Constitution needed to clarify that states have the right to organize white men in such militias. Also, Patrick Henry argued against the ratification of both the Constitution and the Second Amendment. Most Southern white men age 1845 were required to serve on such patrols. For example, Georgia law required the slave patrol militia, led by commissioned militia officers, to visit each plantation each month, to inspect slave dwellings for weapons and to apprehend and punish slaves who were found off premises. Patrick Henry formulated his concern that: “If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress…Congress, and Congress only [under the Constitution without a Second Amendment], can call forth the militia.”
Legal historian Paul Finkelman disputes Hartmann’s claim that the Second Amendment was adopted to protect slave patrols, arguing that Hartmann’s claim is “factually incorrect and misleading” and that there is no historical evidence for this assertion.
James Madison’s initial proposal for a bill of rights was brought to the floor of the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, during the first session of Congress. The initial proposed passage relating to arms was:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
On July 21, Madison again raised the issue of his bill and proposed a select committee be created to report on it. The House voted in favor of Madison’s motion, and the Bill of Rights entered committee for review. The committee returned to the House a reworded version of the Second Amendment on July 28. On August 17, that version was read into the Journal:
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.
In late August 1789, the House debated and modified the Second Amendment. These debates revolved primarily around risk of “mal-administration of the government” using the “religiously scrupulous” clause to destroy the militia as Great Britain had attempted to destroy the militia at the commencement of the American Revolution. These concerns were addressed by modifying the final clause, and on August 24, the House sent the following version to the Senate:
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
The next day, August 25, the Senate received the amendment from the House and entered it into the Senate Journal. However, the Senate scribe added a comma before “shall not be infringed” and changed the semicolon separating that phrase from the religious exemption portion to a comma:
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed, but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
By this time, the proposed right to keep and bear arms was in a separate amendment, instead of being in a single amendment together with other proposed rights such as the due process right. As a Representative explained, this change allowed each amendment to “be passed upon distinctly by the States.” On September 4, the Senate voted to change the language of the Second Amendment by removing the definition of militia, and striking the conscientious objector clause:
A well regulated militia, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The Senate returned to this amendment for a final time on September 9. A proposal to insert the words “for the common defence” next to the words “bear arms” was defeated. A motion passed to replace the words “the best,” and insert in lieu there of “necessary to the” . The Senate then slightly modified the language to read as the fourth article and voted to return the Bill of Rights to the House. The final version by the Senate was amended to read as:
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 House voted on September 21, 1789 to accept the changes made by the Senate.
The enrolled original Joint Resolution passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, on permanent display in the Rotunda, reads as:
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.
On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) was adopted, having been ratified by three-fourths of the states, having been ratified as a group by all the fourteen states then in existence except Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Georgia which added ratifications in 1939; Vermont ratified them all.
During the first two decades following the ratification of the Second Amendment, public opposition to standing armies, among Anti-Federalists and Federalists alike, persisted and manifested itself locally as a general reluctance to create a professional armed police force, instead relying on county sheriffs, constables and night watchmen to enforce local ordinances. Though sometimes compensated, often these positions were unpaid held as a matter of civic duty. In these early decades, law enforcement officers were rarely armed with firearms, using billy clubs as their sole defensive weapons. In serious emergencies, a posse comitatus, militia company, or group of vigilantes assumed law enforcement duties; these individuals were more likely than the local sheriff to be armed with firearms.On May 8, 1792, Congress passed “[a]n act more effectually to provide for the National Defence, by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States” requiring:
[E]ach and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia…[and] every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear, so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack.
The act also gave specific instructions to domestic weapon manufacturers “that from and after five years from the passing of this act, muskets for arming the militia as herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound.” In practice, private acquisition and maintenance of rifles and muskets meeting specifications and readily available for militia duty proved problematic; estimates of compliance ranged from 10 to 65 percent. Compliance with the enrollment provisions was also poor. In addition to the exemptions granted by the law for custom-house officers and their clerks, post-officers and stage drivers employed in the care and conveyance of U.S. mail, ferrymen, export inspectors, pilots, merchant mariners and those deployed at sea in active service; state legislatures granted numerous exemptions under Section 2 of the Act, including exemptions for: clergy, conscientious objectors, teachers, students, and jurors. And though a number of able-bodied white men remained available for service, many simply did not show up for militia duty. Penalties for failure to appear were enforced sporadically and selectively. None is mentioned in the legislation.
The first test of the militia system occurred in July 1794, when a group of disaffected Pennsylvania farmers rebelled against federal tax collectors whom they viewed as illegitimate tools of tyrannical power. Attempts by the four adjoining states to raise a militia for nationalization to suppress the insurrection proved inadequate. When officials resorted to drafting men, they faced bitter resistance. Forthcoming soldiers consisted primarily of draftees or paid substitutes as well as poor enlistees lured by enlistment bonuses. The officers, however, were of a higher quality, responding out of a sense of civic duty and patriotism, and generally critical of the rank and file. Most of the 13,000 soldiers lacked the required weaponry; the war department provided nearly two-thirds of them with guns. In October, President George Washington and General Harry Lee marched on the 7,000 rebels who conceded without fighting. The episode provoked criticism of the citizen militia and inspired calls for a universal militia. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Vice-President John Adams had lobbied Congress to establish federal armories to stock imported weapons and encourage domestic production. Congress did subsequently pass “[a]n act for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines” on April 2, 1794, two months prior to the insurrection. Nevertheless, the militia continued to deteriorate and twenty years later, the militia’s poor condition contributed to several losses in the War of 1812, including the sacking of Washington, D.C., and the burning of the White House in 1814.
In May of 1788, Richard Henry Lee wrote in Additional Letters From The Federal Farmer #169 or Letter XVIII regarding the definition of a “militia”:
A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves, and render regular troops in a great measure unnecessary.
In June of 1788, George Mason addressed the Virginia Ratifying Convention regarding a “militia:”
A worthy member has asked, who are the militia, if they be not the people, of this country, and if we are not to be protected from the fate of the Germans, Prussians, &c. by our representation? I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor; but may be confined to the lower and middle classes of the people, granting exclusion to the higher classes of the people. If we should ever see that day, the most ignominious punishments and heavy fines may be expected. Under the present government all ranks of people are subject to militia duty.
In 1792, Tench Coxe made the following point in a commentary on the Second Amendment:
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.
The earliest published commentary on the Second Amendment by a major constitutional theorist was by St. George Tucker. He annotated a five-volume edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a critical legal reference for early American attorneys published in 1803. Tucker wrote:
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. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 4. This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty … The right of self defence 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. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour 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.
In footnotes 40 and 41 of the Commentaries, Tucker stated that the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment was not subject to the restrictions that were part of English law: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Amendments to C. U. S. Art. 4, and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government” and “whoever examines the forest, and game laws in the British code, will readily perceive that the right of keeping arms is effectually taken away from the people of England.” Blackstone himself also commented on English game laws, Vol. II, p.412, “that the prevention of popular insurrections and resistance to government by disarming the bulk of the people, is a reason oftener meant than avowed by the makers of the forest and game laws.” Blackstone discussed the right of self-defense in a separate section of his treatise on the common law of crimes. Tucker’s annotations for that latter section did not mention the Second Amendment but cited the standard works of English jurists such as Hawkins.
Further, Tucker criticized the English Bill of Rights for limiting gun ownership to the very wealthy, leaving the populace effectively disarmed, and expressed the hope that Americans “never cease to regard the right of keeping and bearing arms as the surest pledge of their liberty.”
Tucker’s commentary was soon followed, in 1825, by that of William Rawle in his landmark text, A View of the Constitution of the United States of America. Like Tucker, Rawle condemned England’s “arbitrary code for the preservation of game,” portraying that country as one that “boasts so much of its freedom,” yet provides a right to “protestant subjects only” that it “cautiously describ[es] to be that of bearing arms for their defence” and reserves for “[a] very small proportion of the people[.]” In contrast, Rawle characterizes the second clause of the Second Amendment, which he calls the corollary clause, as a general prohibition against such capricious abuse of government power, declaring bluntly:
No clause could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to 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.
Speaking of the Second Amendment generally, Rawle said:
The prohibition is general. No clause in the Constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to 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.
Rawle, long before the concept of incorporation was formally recognized by the courts, or Congress drafted the Fourteenth Amendment, contended that citizens could appeal to the Second Amendment should either the state or federal government attempt to disarm them. He did warn, however, that “this right [to bear arms] ought not…be abused to the disturbance of the public peace” and, paraphrasing Coke, observed: “An assemblage of persons with arms, for unlawful purpose, is an indictable offence, and even the carrying of arms abroad by a single individual, attended with circumstances giving just reason to fear that he purposes to make an unlawful use of them, would be sufficient cause to require him to give surety of the peace.”
Joseph Story articulated in his influential Commentaries on the Constitution the orthodox view of the Second Amendment, which he viewed as the amendment’s clear meaning:
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 usurpations and arbitrary power of rulers; and it will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them. 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 burdens, 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 describes a militia as the “natural defence of a free country,” both against foreign foes, domestic revolts and usurpation by rulers. The book regards the militia as a “moral check” against both usurpation and the arbitrary use of power, while expressing distress at the growing indifference of the American people to maintaining such an organized militia, which could lead to the undermining of the protection of the Second Amendment.
Abolitionist Lysander Spooner, commenting on bills of rights, stated that the object of all bills of rights is to assert the rights of individuals against the government and that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was in support of the right to resist government oppression, as the only security against the tyranny of government lies in forcible resistance to injustice, for injustice will certainly be executed, unless forcibly resisted. Spooner’s theory provided the intellectual foundation for John Brown and other radical abolitionists who believed that arming slaves was not only morally justified, but entirely consistent with the Second Amendment. An express connection between this right and the Second Amendment was drawn by Lysander Spooner who commented that a “right of resistance” is protected by both the right to trial by jury and the Second Amendment.
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