by Diane Rufino, May 24, 2017
“No free man shall be debarred (denied) the use of arms.” – as proposed by Thomas Jefferson for Virginia’s Bill of Rights, 1776
The Federal Farmer (anti-Federalist author) in 1788: “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught how to use them.”
Patrick Henry to the Virginia Convention to Ratify the US Constitution, in June 1788: “The great object is that every man be armed.”
At the same time it ratified the US Constitution in 1788, the New Hampshire Ratifying Convention proposed this amendment for the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall never disarm any citizen, unless such as are or have been in actual rebellion.”
The Federal Gazette, dated June 18, 1789, described James Madison’s proposal for a Bill of Rights: “The people are confirmed in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”
“We have found no historical evidence that the Second Amendment applies only to members of a select militia while on active duty. All the evidence indicates that the amendment, like other parts of the Bill of Rights, applies to and protects individual Americans.” — The Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit (2001)
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.”
For most of our nation’s history, the Supreme Court has essentially managed to avoid ruling on the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment and that worked out just fine. And that’s probably because for about 150 years, it apparently was universally understood that the amendment protected an individual right to arms rather than a right only when organized in a militia. It wasn’t until the 20th century that a legal debate began in earnest over the characterization of the right recognized in the Second Amendment.
Is the right to arms an individual right or a collective right? Indeed, in the 20th century, federal courts have seemed confused on this question. Some embrace the historical model, which holds that the amendment recognizes the right of people, as individuals, to bear arms. And others embrace the more radical model, the “collective rights” model, which holds that individuals have the right to arms but only when they are members of a militia.
The “collective rights” model was embraced in 1939 in a case called United States v. Miller. The case arose after two men, Jack Miller and Frank Layton, were arrested for transporting a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun across state lines and in interstate commerce. They were charged with violating the National Firearms Act (“NFA”). Miller and Layton argued that the NFA violated their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and therefore it was unconstitutional as it applied to them. The federal district court agreed and dismissed the case. The government appealed and it went to the Supreme Court. The issue at the heart of the case was whether the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms? The Supreme Court concluded that it does not. It reasoned that because the possession of a sawed-off double barrel shotgun does not have a reasonable relationship to the functioning or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, the Second Amendment does not protect the possession of such an instrument.
Although the right to arms became an increasingly heated topic as the 20th century went on, the Supreme Court refused to hear cases to re-address the amendment. And so, the Miller decision defined the position of the federal judiciary from 1939 for almost 70 years. The Second Amendment did not recognize an individual’s right to have and bear arms for self-defense – only the defense of a State. But then in 2008 and then in 2010, the Supreme Court, with the late great Antonin Scalia on the bench, agreed to hear two cases, each addressing the same issue and each directly asking the Court to re-address the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment. The 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, addressed a federal gun control law, and the 2009 case, McDonald v. Chicago, addressed a state gun control law. [The first was a direct challenge to the Second Amendment and the second was a challenge under the incorporation clause of the Fourteenth Amendment].
In Heller, at issue was a gun ban in the District of Columbia (hence, it was a federal gun law) which regulated firearms in several ways: (1) It made it illegal to carry an unregistered firearm; (2) It prohibited the registration of handguns; (3) It required owners of lawfully-registered firearms to keep them unloaded and disassembled, even in the home, or bound by a trigger lock or other similar device unless the firearms were located in a place of business or being used for legal recreational activities. Dick Anthony Heller was a D.C. special police officer who was authorized to carry a handgun while on duty. He applied for a one-year license for a handgun he wished to keep at home, but his application was denied, and so he brought suit to challenge the gun ban as violative of the Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court agreed with Officer Heller (5-4 majority, of course). It held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. Therefore, the ban on registering handguns and the requirement to keep guns in the home disassembled or nonfunctional with a trigger lock mechanism was inconsistent with the intent of the Second Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion. The Court held that the first clause of the Second Amendment that references a “militia” is a prefatory clause that does not limit the operative clause of the Amendment. Additionally, the term “militia” should not be confined to those serving in the military, because at the time the term referred to all able-bodied men who were capable of being called to such service. To read the Amendment as limiting the right to bear arms only to those in a governed military force would be to create exactly the type of state-sponsored force against which the Amendment was meant to protect people. Because the text of the Amendment should be read in the manner that gives greatest effect to the plain meaning it would have had at the time it was written, the operative clause should be read to “guarantee an individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.” This reading is also in line with legal writing of the time and subsequent scholarship. Therefore, banning handguns, an entire class of arms that is commonly used for protection purposes, and prohibiting firearms from being kept functional in the home, the area traditionally in need of protection, violates the Second Amendment.
The piece of legislation addressed in the McDonald case was Chicago’s gun registration law, which: (1) Prohibited the registration of handguns, thus effecting a broad handgun ban; (2) Requires that guns be registered prior to their acquisition by Chicago residents; (3) Mandated that guns be re-registered annually, with another payment of the fee; and (4) Rendered any gun permanently non-registrable if its registration lapses. 76-year-old Chicago resident Otis McDonald, a retired maintenance engineer, had lived in the Morgan Park neighborhood since buying a house there in 1971. He complained about the decline of his neighborhood, describing it as being taken over by gangs and drug dealers. His home and garage had been broken into five times. An experienced hunter, McDonald legally owned shotguns, but believed them too uncontrollable in the event of a robbery, and so he wanted to purchase a handgun for personal home defense. Due to Chicago’s requirement that all firearms in the city be registered, yet refusing all handgun registrations after 1982 when a city-wide handgun ban was passed, he was unable to legally own a handgun. So he and some of his neighbors challenged the Chicago gun registration law as violative of the Second Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment’ right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense applicable to the states. With Justice Samuel A. Alito writing for the majority, the Court reasoned that rights that are “fundamental to the Nation’s scheme of ordered liberty” or that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” are appropriately applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court recognized in Heller that the right to self-defense was one such “fundamental” and “deeply rooted” right, and so, the Second Amendment’s protections and prohibitions apply to the States.
As you read the body of this article, consider what liberal justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor argued in their dissent. They wrote that there is nothing in the Second Amendment’s “text, history, or underlying rationale” that characterizes it as a “fundamental right” warranting incorporation through the Fourteenth Amendment. Keep that in mind.
Heller and McDonald were decided after a deep look into the historical roots of the Second Amendment, something that the Court should have done in the Miller case. The current understanding is that the Second Amendment recognizes and protects an individual’s right to arms for self-defense and equally recognizes the right to have and bear arms for the purpose of a state militia.
The opinion makes sense. According to the Declaration of Independence, and natural law, we have the right to life and liberty. These rights are inherent with our humanity. They are inalienable. We never surrender them. Therefore, by extension (by corollary), we must have the right to defend them. Otherwise, the rights are meaningless; there are merely parchment pronunciations.
The desire to live and survive is innate; we reflexively act to protect our lives and to thrive. And when we can’t, we feel violated. Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a violent crime, of a robbery, an assault, a break-in. Ask someone who has the experience of a stranger breaking into their house in the middle of the night. I had that experience. And I have a gun today because I never want to feel helpless and vulnerable and the victim of predation again.
From a simple reading of the Bill of Rights, one notices that the First Amendment and the other amendments as well, address individual rights. If the Bill of Rights identifies individual rights – as did the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights – shouldn’t one sense pressure to view the Second Amendment similarly?
Historically, the “individual right” view is the best proven one, and so the Supreme Court rightly decided the Heller and McDonald cases. But what is that history that so grounds our Second Amendment and so secures its meaning as an individual right?
The DVD “In Search of the Second Amendment” explains this history very clearly:
THE HISTORY of the SECOND AMENDMENT –
[This section is lifted, in part, from the DVD “In Search of the Second Amendment (A Documentary),” produced and directed by David T. Hardy (2006)]
The 1930’s through the 1970’s was a time period when Americans were embracing their gun rights, but lawyers weren’t paying much attention to the Second Amendment – one way or another (that is, on either side of its interpretation). There wasn’t much thought given to it. But as the years went on, there was growing evidence for the “individual right” view. Law reviews were publishing articles on the topic and books on the Constitution were taking notice of this meaning. Momentum was slowly building for a show-down in the Supreme Court to address this building consensus.
One of the leading Constitutional Law treatises of the later 20th century, American Constitutional Law, was written by Laurence Tribe, professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. His first edition was written in 1978. Attorney Leonard Levy wrote a subsequent book, Essays on the Making of the Constitution, in which he attacked Tribe’s textbook for failing to acknowledge the growing the evidence of the “individual right” view of the right to have a bear arms. Tribe immediately published a second edition accepting this evidence.
Why this growing trend? And what does it mean for the Miller decision? Did the Court at the time not have the evidence? Before coming to the conclusion that the Second Amendment conferred only a collective right (although it appears they only alluded to this viewpoint without coming right out with a bright line rule of construction), didn’t they bother to go back and research the amendment’s history?
What got the ball rolling towards the “individual right” point of view? One article appears to be responsible. The recent boom in Second Amendment legal scholarship that has led to most constitutional scholars to accept the view that the amendment protects an individual’s right to have and bear arms began with an article by Don Kates, published in the Michigan Law Review. That article was titled “Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment.’ [http://www.constitution.org/2ll/2ndschol/57mich.pdf].
Top legal scholars, many of which are liberal, such as Sandy Levinson (of the University of Texas, writing in the Yale Law Journal), Randy Barnett (Boston University School of Law), Bill Van Alstyne (Duke University), and Eugene (Professor at the UCLA School of Law) have made it clear that their research has led them to conclude that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have arms.
The history behind the Second Amendment goes back well before the colonies were even settled. It goes back to the very history of the fore-fathers and founders of our country. It goes back to the history of England, the country that gave us so much of our common law, gave us our Bill of Rights, and gave us much of the foundation upon which we built our Declaration, our Constitution, and our system of government.
In medieval England, there was no royal army. There wasn’t enough money or control to have such a formal army. Instead, the King would have to count on his subjects to fight for him – to fight for the kingdom. And so, by law, the King established a citizen militia. By law – the Militia laws – every male subject, beginning at a certain age, was required to own guns, have ammunition, be trained in their use, and show up for regular training sessions. Citizens could be called up at any time by the King to form the militia and so they had to always be in a state of readiness. Henry VIII lowered the age of the males required to be trained to use guns. Under his rule, fathers were required to train their sons from age 7 and older in the use of firearms. “Bring them up in shooting!”
In 1688, a medieval “duty” to have and bear arms became an “indubitable right.” How did this happen? Dr. Joyce Malcolm, Patrick Henry Professor of Constitutional Law and the Second Amendment at George Mason University School of Law and fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is an expert on this topic. She has been called “the leading historian on the history of English gun rights and English gun control.” Malcolm explains that gun ownership transformed into a “right” during the tumultuous 17th century in England, and for understandable reasons. The transformation arose out of a conflict between King Charles I and Parliament. Eventually, in 1642, civil war broke out and members of Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, brought charges against Charles. He was captured, tried for treason, and beheaded. His sons, the future King Charles II and King James II had fled to France at the time.
After Cromwell died and his son took over, rather than stability in England, there was mass chaos. The people, out of sheer desperation, asked Charles II to come back to England, assert his right to the throne, and rule, which he did. But what did Charles come home to? He returned to a country that turned on his father; a country that beheaded him. He also returned to a country that was very well-armed. Almost immediately, he sought to disarm the subjects and control the bearing of arms. He instituted serious gun control measures, both on individuals and on manufacturers. Gun manufacturers had to report to the King how many guns they manufactured each week and who purchased them. There were controls on the importing of guns, licenses were required for subjects who needed to move weapons around the countryside, and subjects had to report if they were traveling with a firearm. In the year 1660, King Charles II issued a series of orders to disarm those citizens that he deemed were – or would be – political opponents. One particular act that Parliament passed, in 1662, was especially repugnant. It was the Militia Act of 1662 and it gave militia officers the power to disarm anyone they believed was likely to be an opponent of the Crown. And at first, the Act was actively enforced. In 1671, Parliament passed the Game Act, which proved to be the greatest control over ownership of firearms that England ever had. The Game Act listed a whole host of weapons that were prohibited for hunting, and at the head of that list was guns !!
Charles II died and having produced no heirs, he was succeeded by his brother James. King James II would use the Game Act to try to disarm all those subjects who he deemed were not well-enough off. In other words, he tried to limit gun ownership to only those of a certain class of subjects. He sent out mass orders to disarm the citizenry. According to the record, Dr. Malcolm explains, the orders were apparently not carried out. But the actions of the King to disarm his subjects certainly arose concern and fear among the people of England.
And so, finally in 1688, the English people had had enough. They, together with a union of Parliamentarians, invited William and Mary, of Orange to take over the throne and depose King James II. Mary was the daughter of the king. The people promised they would oust James and offer no resistance to William and Mary if they agreed to sign a Bill of Rights acknowledging the rights of the people and promised to be held to that document. William and Mary agreed. They sailed from Orange and were met with the support of the citizenry, in what would be known as the “Bloodless Revolution” (or Glorious Revolution). James was forced to flee. A new Parliament was formed (one not loyal to James, who was still alive) and this Parliament decided that a Bill of Rights was necessary to re-affirm all the rights that had been imperiled by James. In order to tie the new King and Queen to an obligation to abide by these rights, the same statue that elevated William and Mary to the throne also contained those rights – The Charter of Rights – The Charter of Ancient and Indubitable Rights.” In fact, this Bill of Rights of 1689 was referred to as “The new Magna Carta.” The statue created a contractual obligation, one that tied the right of the King and Queen to rule to an obligation to respect the rights contained in the Charter.
One of those rights was the right of British subjects (“who are Protestants”) to have arms for their defense (self-defense) “suitable to their position and allowed by law.”
Arms seizure weighed heavily during the deliberations in Parliament as it drafted the Bill of Rights of 1689. So incensed that the people, in mass, had been targeted for arms confiscation under the Militia Act (and even some members of Parliament had been targeted), that the people and Parliament felt that the “duty” to have and bear arms was actually a “right.” The ability to arm oneself for self-defense was considered a right.
Indeed, by 1688, and enshrined in the Bill of Rights of 1689, the duty to be armed became a right. One of the rights of Englishmen became the right to have arms for self-defense.
Between 1603 and 1776, the rights of Englishmen became the rights of Americans.
When the first three ships arrived in the New World, in what would become the commonwealth of Virginia, the English settlers encountered hostile French and Dutch settlers as well as hostile Indians. Because of this hostile environment, the arms laws were even stricter than the English ones. English colonists were required to have arms on them at all times and they were required to be trained in their use. “Every male inhabitant shall carry a firearm wherever he goes.” As the colonies were settled, one by one, they established their state militias. They drew from their knowledge of the militia system in England to develop their own military forces. The resulting colonial militia laws required every able-bodied male citizen to participate and to provide his own arms. For example, in the colony of Virginia, in 1623, the Virginia General Assembly commanded, “that men go not to work in the ground without their arms; That no man go or send abroad without a sufficient partie well-armed.” In 1661, its Governor, William Berkeley stated, “All our freemen are bound to be trained every month in their particular counties.” Virginia followed the British county lieutenant system; each county had a lieutenant, appointed as the county’s chief militia officer.
Yes, it was a “duty” to have and bear arms, in order to serve in the militia and help defend the colony, but apart from this duty, the colonists knew, as loyal British subjects (which they were and which they considered themselves), they also had the right to own them and to bear them. For confirmation, they only needed to consult the second most popular book of the day (the first being the Bible), Blackstone’s treatise on the English common law, “Commentaries on the Laws of England” (1765).
In Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” he addressed the right to arms:
“The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject that I shall at the moment mention, is that of having arms for their defense – suitable to their condition and degree, and as such as are allowed by law. It is indeed a public allowance, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain violence of oppression.”
Blackstone says clearly that the right is not only for defense and for protection, but it is also to resist tyranny. The main purpose of the right to bear arms is to resist tyranny – in order that the people in the community, together and with their firearms, could overthrow a dictatorship in the last resort, should none of the other checks and balances work.
By the mid 1760’s, tensions were growing increasingly high particularly in the colonies, and in Boston in particular. It wasn’t long before the redcoats arrived, to live among the people of Boston and to make sure that they stayed “in line.” With the Redcoats came acts of criminality – rapes, robberies, murder. The Boston Gazette published articles warning the colonists that they would soon be disarmed and should they “act out,” they would be taken to England and tried for treason. The colonists began to arm themselves – first to defend themselves against the criminal tendencies of the soldiers and also because it seemed likely that the tensions would escalate into conflict. They cited the English Bill of Rights, the Militia Acts of the colonies, and even Blackstone’s “Commentaries” for their right to arm themselves. “It is beyond sophistry to prove (meaning, it is clearly fallacious) that British subjects, to whom the privilege of necessary arms is expressly recognized by the [English] Bill of Rights, and who live in a province were the law requires them to be equipped with arms, are guilty of illegal acts in calling upon one another to be provided with them – as the law directs!”
Citing Blackstone, the colonists understood the reason they were vested with the right to bear arms: “It is a natural right, which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the [English] Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defense; and as a Blackstone observer, it is to be made use of when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
Tensions soon escalated and a series of events followed. Under the Intolerable Acts, the colonial legislature was abolished and King George III sent General Thomas Gage, a proven military commander at the time, to Boston to serve as the Royal Governor. British spies tipped off General Gage that the colonists were stockpiling ammunition and artillery at nearby Concord. On the light of April 18, 1775m Gage sent a column of soldiers to Concord to destroy the supplies. Their trip led them through Lexington, where they encountered a small group of colonial militiamen. A shot went off (no one knows how it happened), but the response was immediate. Shots rang out and armed conflict between England and Massachusetts had begun. The revolution had begun. British forces drew first blood.
Despite the skirmish, the troops continued to Concord where they found the ammunition and where they also found several thousand angry townsfolk. The troops proceeded to burn the stockpile but from the vantage point of the townsfolk, it looked like they were attempting to burn down the town. And so, the townsfolk opened fire on the troops, forcing them to retreat. As they were retreating the 15 miles or so back to Boston, more and more members of the militia turned out to fire upon them. The British soldiers suffered over 300 casualties. Not only did they draw first blood, but they were defeated.
The fighting, however, was not to be contained in Massachusetts. In Williamsburg, Virginia, the colonists built an armory to store their gunpowder. Late during the night of April 20, 1775, royal governor Dunmore ordered British sailors to raid the armory and to take the gunpowder back aboard their ships. Dunmore allowed this even as statesmen such as Patrick Henry and William Henry Lee and other Virginians were already pushing to revive the state militia – to put into execution the militia law that was passed in the year 1738 – and to put them in the posture of defense (that is, to prepare them to defend the State against the British).
Just a month prior to that event, there was a general alarm that was spreading among the colonies – fueled, no doubt, by men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine – that the British were removing gunpowder from the public stock in order to render the colonists unable to resist the Crown. Clearly, as was done in Boston, England was intent on disarming them – just as King Charles II had done to his subjects approximately 100 years ago in the mother country. The King (George III) was not depriving them of their right of representation in Parliament this time (no taxation without representation); now he was stripping them of their right to bear arms for defense.
Only a handful of statesmen recognized what was happening and what its significance was. Patrick Henry was one. It was this general alarm, this general fear that England was coming to disarm the colonists, that prompted him, on the night of March 23 at St. John’s Church to propose three resolutions to raise, equip and prepare the militia for conflict.
His resolutions read simply:
Resolved, that a well-regulated militia composed of gentlemen and yeomen is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony would forever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us, for the purpose of our defense, any standing army of mercenary forces, always subversive of the quiet, and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing us for their support.
That the establishment of such a militia is at this time peculiarly necessary, by the state of our laws for the protection and defence of the country some of which have already expired, and others will shortly do so; and that the known remissness of government in calling us together in a legislative capacity renders it too insecure in this time of danger and distress, to rely that opportunity will be given of renewing them in General Assembly or making any provision to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those farther violations with which they are threatened.
Resolved therefore, that this colony be immediately put into a posture of defence: and that Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Carter Nicholas, Benjamin Harrison, Lemuel Riddick, George Washington, Adam Stephen, Andrew Lewis, William Christian, Edmund Pendleton, Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Zane, Esquires, be a committee to prepare a plan for the embodying arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose.
Perhaps the most rousing speech delivered in colonial America was by Patrick Henry and it was in support of these resolutions: [As you read the speech, consider the circumstances to which he is speaking, and keeping in mind that men like Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Lee, Washington were keenly aware of the history of the people England, the continued struggle to assert their rights, to seek assurances, to have them violated, and only to have to try to re-assert them again, and again…..]
“The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.
I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free² if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace²but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
With the raid on the armory at Williamsburg, thus confirming Patrick Henry’s worst fears, the most powerful colony in the South (Virginia) was driven into an alliance with the most powerful colony in the North (Massachusetts). The Boston Revolution soon became an American Revolution.
Thus, the American revolution started over our RIGHT to keep and bear arms. It may have started over the right not to be taxed without representation in the legislature from which such taxing measures arise, but the actual revolution itself erupted over the actions of the Crown to disarm the people.
In 1775, the colonies called up the First Continental Congress to seek a peaceful resolution of the growing tensions. That Congress sent a series of petitions to the King to implore him to intercede on their behalf and recognize that their rights were being violated. He laughed at the petitions and likened the colonist to petulant little children who liked to throw fits. [Patrick Henry referenced this effort in his fiery speech at St. John’s: “We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne.”] In 1776, the colonies called up the Second Continental Congress to manage the war effort against the British. General George Washington was put over the Continental Army and on July 4, 1776, the Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring the colonies to be independent from Great Britain and articulating to a “candid world” the list of grievances against Great Britain which would support and justify its decision to separate.
Once the colonies proclaimed their independence, the strongest sign they could send to demonstrate that independence was to assume statehood and adopt state constitutions (the signs of sovereignty). And so, each colony organized itself as a state and drafted and adopted a constitution. Most also adopted a Bill of Rights, in one form or another.
Different states provided different models for the right to bear arms. In 1776, George Mason went to work on the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He introduced the enumerated rights with a statement of nature’s law and a statement of the relationship of individuals and government, in general. He wrote:
THAT all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.
That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of mal-administration; and that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
Then he addressed the right to arms:
That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty….
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted June 12, 1776.
Thomas Jefferson submitted a draft of a Bill of Rights to be taken up at the upcoming convention (to draft a constitution for the first government of the “united” states, which as we know, was the Articles of Confederation). He wrote: “No free man shall be debarred the use of arms.”
The Pennsylvania Bill of Rights, adopted in September 1776, recognized a right to bear arms for both self-defense and in defense of the State.
- That all men are born equally free, and independent; and have certain, natural, inherent, and inalienable rights; amongst which are; the enjoying and defending of life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
XIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state.
In March 1780, Massachusetts adopted its Constitution and Bill of Rights, written by John Adams. It acknowledged a right to keep and bear arms, but added that it was for “the common good.” The MA Bill of Rights read, in part:
The end of the institution, maintenance and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body-politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it, with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights, and the blessings of life: And whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.
The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.
Part the First. A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Art. I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
XVII. The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defense.
Looking at these three Constitutions and Bills of Right, we can see that there were at least three (3) colonial models to address the right to arms.
Again, to compare and contrast them concisely, addressing them in the order they were adopted:
(1) The Virginia model emphasizes the militia. “A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state…”
(2) The Pennsylvania model doesn’t mention militia; it emphases self-defense and defense of the State. “The people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the State.”
(3) The Massachusetts model took the Pennsylvania approach, but added a limitation in the form of the clause “for the common defense, and added the people also have a right to “keep” arms. “The people have a right to keep and bear arms for the common defense.”
These models would become important when our new nation would look to draft a national Bill of Rights.
And that time came in 1787, when after certain leading state leaders – namely, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton – found the Articles of Confederation unworkable for the growing union and took the initiative to call up a new constitutional convention. The Convention was held in Philadelphia from May to September 1787 and rather than heed the constitutional call of the Convention to “amend” the Articles of Confederation, a brand new plan of government was pursued and a brand new Constitution was drafted. Although the delegates from 12 states labored through the hot summer months of that year, engaged in countless debates, and pursued and negotiated through many contentious issues, in the end the final draft, the US Constitution, was not acceptable to many of the delegates. Seven delegates to the Convention walked out and refused to sign it on the last day – September 20, including Virginia’s George Mason. These delegates either complained that it conferred too much power to the federal government (mainly, an unlimited power to tax and spent, and to raise an army) or that it lacked a Bill of Rights, or both. Many of those who did not sign it were anti-Federalists, those who feared a weakening of the States at the hands of the federal government.
Nevertheless, once the Constitution was signed, it went to the States, which, acting in their own conventions, would take up the issue of ratification. If they ratified the Constitution, they would become part of the Union of States and if they didn’t, they would not. Delaware ratified first, by a unanimous vote. Then came Pennsylvania, New Jersey (unanimous vote), Georgia (unanimous vote), and Connecticut (overwhelmingly). In January 1788, Massachusetts called its convention. Samuel Adams, who, although he did not attend the Philadelphia Convention, attended the ratifying convention. Assessing the Constitution, he addressed the Convention:
“And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience, or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceful citizens, from keeping their own arms, or to raise standing armies, unless necessary for the defense of the United States or of one or more of them, or to prevent the people from petitioning, in a peaceable and orderly manner, the federal legislature, for a redress of grievances, or to subject the people to unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, papers, or possessions.”
Samuel Adams is the strongest unsung hero of the Second Amendment. His writings on the right to have and bear arms goes back many years, even before his days in the Sons of Liberty.
Next, Maryland ratified the Constitution (overwhelmingly), then South Carolina, and finally New Hampshire (narrowly). When New Hampshire ratified in June 1788, it became the ninth state to do so. According to Article VII of the Constitution, the Constitution would go into effect when 9 states ratified. And so, the new Union was born.
But this new Union was still terribly fractured. Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island still hadn’t decided. Actually, North Carolina met in Convention on August 2, 1788 but quickly rejected the Constitution (193-75). It agreed to meet again; it was waiting to see what the other States did regarding a Bill of Rights.
When New Hampshire ratified the Constitution on June 21, 1788, the Virginia Convention was actually still going on. It was contentious. Virginia, New York, and North Carolina were not expected to ratify, and the issue was over a Bill of Rights, which James Madison had argued in Philadelphia was not necessary. George Mason and Edmund Pendleton, two of the delegates from Virginia at the Philadelphia Convention who would not sign the Constitution, were now delegates at the Virginia Ratifying Convention and were committed to preventing the document from being ratified. These men, and many others, were already calling for another Constitutional Convention – particularly George Mason, and he had the potential power to move the plan forward. Mason and Pendleton were joined in sentiment at the Convention by Patrick Henry, who was highly skeptical of the Constitution and was confident it would lead to the consolidation of the states under the federal government.
At issue at the Virginia Ratifying Convention was essentially the concerns of the anti-Federalists, which was that the Constitution lacked a Bill of Rights (and that the government tended to be overly-ambitious and powerful). The Virginia view, in general, was that a Bill of Rights is the very least that a government owes to its people. Mason argued for a Bill of Rights, and of course, any Bill of Rights worth its salt would have to include a right to bear arms. Patrick Henry told the Convention: “The great object is that every man be armed!”
In the end, a compromise was reached. James Madison promised that if the Virginia delegation would ratify the Constitution in the Convention he would recommend to the first US Congress that a Bill of Rights be added, as a series of amendments. Madison was known to be a trustworthy man and so, the Constitution was narrowly ratified on June 25 (89-79). However, the Virginia delegation did not merely ratify; in anticipation of a national Bill of Rights, it also proposed and drafted a series of amendments for consideration.
“Resolved, that, previous to the ratification of the new Constitution of government recommended by the late federal Convention, a declaration of rights, asserting, and securing from encroachment, the great principles of civil and religious liberty, and the unalienable rights of the people, together with amendments to the most exceptionable parts of the said Constitution of government, ought to be referred by this Convention to the other states in the American confederacy for their consideration”
When the Virginia delegation went back to write the amendments they would recommend, they looked to the Massachusetts and the Pennsylvania models, in addition to their own model. The language that they came up with is as follows: “That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state.”
The right to bear arms for defense of oneself and the State comes from the Pennsylvania model. The right to keep and bear arms comes from the Massachusetts model. By removing express limitations (such as “for the common good” or other qualifiers that might be later construed to limit the right (“for defense of themselves and the State”), the first part of the proposed amendment construes the right to arms in its broadest terms. The second part of the proposed amendment comes from the Virginia model and addresses the militia. The Virginia delegation already believed it was expressed in its broadest terms.
So, the Second Amendment is actually two separate thoughts. The intentional, conscious effort was to express the right to arms in the broadest terms possible, to be understood in its broadest sense.
The New York Convention followed. It wrapped up on July 26, one month after the Virginia Convention. It was another contentious convention. As in Virginia, it was a battle between anti-Federalists and Federalists. On the anti-Federalist side, the words of the Federal Farmer (possibly Richard Henry Lee) were invoked: “To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught how to use them.” Daniel Webster, for the Federalists, answered: “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword because the whole body of the people are armed and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be raised in the United States.” [to paraphrase: Because of the fact that the people are armed and therefore superior to any troops raised by the United States, they can prevent the execution of any law they perceive not to be just and constitutional].
The debates in New York led to the most famous work on the meaning and intent of the Constitution – the Federalist Papers. In fact, Madison addresses the militia (and a standing army) in Federalist No. 46. He wrote: “The people will never have to worry about a standing army because of the state militias.”
The New York Convention very narrowly ratified the Constitution (30-27). But as Virginia did, it called for a Bill of Rights and provided several for consideration. North Carolina went on to ratify, but only because a Bill of Rights has actually been adopted! And then Rhode Island ratified after that.
The Constitution was adopted on June 12, 1788 when the ninth state, New Hampshire ratified it. Fall 1788 saw the first national elections and as expected, James Madison was elected to the House of Representatives. In the months after the election and before taking his seat in Congress, which was in New York City at the time), Madison sat at his home in Montpelier and drafted a Bill of Rights. He drew from the proposed amendments that were submitted by the states. He planned to bring them with him to the first session of Congress and present them, thus making good on his promise. He drafted twelve amendments.
On June 8, 1789, Madison stood up in the House of Representatives and proposed what would become the federal Bill of Rights. His proposed Second Amendment read: “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.”
The first Congress amended Madison’s proposal; it removed the language concerning the conscientious-objector. Then a committee was formed – a drafting committee – consisting of Madison himself and Roger Sherman, an anti-Federalist, to provide the final draft. The final draft of the Second Amendment was a pared-down version which read: “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.”
In the debates in the Senate on the proposed Bill of Rights, a motion was made to insert into the Second Amendment the words “for the common defense” next to the words “bear arms.” It was rejected !!
On September 25, 1789, Congress approved the amendments (all 12 of them) and then they were sent to the states.
James Madison’s friend, Tench Coxe, of Philadelphia, provided the most comprehensive analysis of the Second Amendment in a publication under the pen name “The Pennsylvanian.” It was printed in all the states. He wrote: “As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which might be occasionally called to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article [the Second Amendment] in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”
The Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791.
All the leading commentators of the day saw the right to bear arms as an individual right, including US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1811-1845), who was the leading constitutional expert and commentator during the early-mid 20th century, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley (1864-1885), the leading constitutional commentator at the end of the 19th century, and Sir William Blackstone, the leading English commentator who was very influential on our founders and framers.
St. George Tucker, who first gained fame as a Revolutionary War hero from Virginia, became famous again for writing a very famous treatise. In 1803, he wrote a 5-volume set, being characterized as the American version of Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” It was titled: Blackstone’s Commentaries, with Notes of Reference to the Constitution & Laws of the Federal Government of the United States & of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Tucker was seen as the best source and authority on the original intent and early interpretation of the US Constitution until about 1825, and his work has been cited by the US Supreme Court over forty times. For those looking to understand the meaning and intent of the Constitution at the time it was adopted and as it served our first sessions of government, it would be interesting to read Tucker’s volumes.
Tucker wrote about Blackstone’s exposition on the right to arms as it existed in the English law and explained how it applied to the United States. Tucker wrote: “’The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ This amendment is without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as in the case of the British government.”
He went on to elaborate even further: Explaining the scope of the amendment, he wrote: “This [the Second Amendment] may be considered the true palladium of liberty… The right of the 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. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, then liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”
In 1825, Tucker’s treatise was replaced by the text written by William Rawle – A View of the Constitution of the United States of America. Regarding the Second Amendment, Rawle wrote in his book: “No clause in the Constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to Congress a power to disarm the people..” [Rawle was part of the convention in Pennsylvania that ratified the US Bill of Rights; he was offered the position of first US Attorney General but turned it down].
The most influential constitutional commentator of the late 19th century and early 20th century was Thomas Cooley. He was considered the greatest legal mind of the time. He wrote the text: The General Principles of Constitutional Law in the United States of America. In his text, he explains exactly what the right is that is protected in the Second Amendment: “It may be supposed from the phraseology of this provision that the right to keep and bear arms was only guaranteed to the militia, but this would be an interpretation not warranted by the intent. The militia, as has been elsewhere explained, consists of those persons who, under the law, are liable to the performance of military duty, and are officered and enrolled for service when called upon. But the law may make provision for the enrollment of all who are fit to perform military duty, or of a small number only, or it may wholly omit to make any provision at all; and if the right were limited to those enrolled, the purpose of this guaranty might be defeated altogether by the actions or neglect to act of the government it was meant to hold in check. The meaning of the provision undoubtedly is that the people, from whom the militia must be taken, shall have the right to keep and bear arms, and that they need no permission or regulation of law for the purpose…”
Professor Randy Burnett of Boston University’s School of Law sums up the history of the Second Amendment this way: “What is shown by the historical record is that we have statements made before the second amendment was proposed, while the second amendment was being considered, and immediately after the second amendment was ratified, each of which reflects the understanding of the speaker that the amendment protects an individual right to have and bear arms. What we don’t have – what we don’t find in the historical record is a single example of any contemporary at the time of the second amendment referring to it as anything other than an individual right.”
Professor Eugene Volokh, of the UCLA School of Law, comments: “Throughout the 1700’s, throughout the 1800’s, and up until the early 1900’s, the right to bear arms was universally seen as an individual right. There was virtually no authority for the collective rights/ states’ right point of view.” (States right to call a militia, that is).
But yet, in the late 20th century and now in the 21st century, somehow this history means nothing?
“The Second Amendment is a right held by States and does not protect the possession of a weapon by a private citizen.” — The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit (2000)
“The right to keep and bear arms is meant solely to protect the right of the States to keep and maintain an armed militia.” — The Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (1996)
The conservatives on the bench in the Heller case and then in the McDonald case got it right. They chose to be intellectually honest.
DVD: “In Search of the Second Amendment (A Documentary),” produced and directed by David T. Hardy (2006). Second Amendment Films LLC
United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939)
District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)
McDonald v. Chicago, 561 US 742 (2010)
Don B. Kates, Jr. “Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment,” 82 Michigan Law Review (MICH. L. REV.) 204-273 (1983). Referenced: http://www.constitution.org/2ll/2ndschol/57mich.pdf
Resolutions of the Provincial Congress of Virginia (Patrick Henry) regarding the militia, March 23, 1775 – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/res_cong_va_1775.asp
George Mason, the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Referenced at: http://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/varights.cfm
Virginia’s Ratification of the Constitution, Elliott’s Debates (June 25, 1788) – http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ratification/elliot/vol3/june25/
The proposed amendments to the Bill of Rights submitted by the State of Virginia (June 27, 1788) – http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ratification/elliot/vol3/june27/
Teaching American History (an Intereactive Resource) – http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ratification/overview/