The second amendment: To debate it, you must first understand it

Agree with it or not, no meaningful debate of the propriety of the second amendment can be productive without understanding its intent. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, January 11, 2013 — The Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791. There are many who wish that the Second Amendment had been left out, but much of the rhetoric about it, even by elected officials who are sworn to defend it as part of the Constitution, is simply wrong.

The Second Amendment is elegantly short: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” 

The original, hand written copy of the Bill of Rights is punctuated and capitalized slightly differently than the one in your civics book, but the words are the same.

The constitution and the bill of rights are masterpieces of political literature, and they were written in a clear style, not in legalese. Over the course of time, though, English has changed, words have different meanings, and what was clear 200 years ago isn’t quite as clear today.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated the details of the document thoroughly. After they finally agreed on the final version, they conducted the equivalent of a modern day campaign to explain the new Constitution and convince the different states that they should ratify it. “The Federalist Papers,” 85 articles written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, were a part of that attempt to explain, clarify and persuade. These articles appeared in newspapers between October 1787 and August 1788.

Modern constitutional critics often ignore the Federalist Papers when it suits them, but they are in fact an explanation of the intent of the framers of the Constitution, written by the men who wrote it.

In its 2008 majority opinion on District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that “the adjective ‘well regulated’ implies nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training.”

In Federalist No. 29, Alexander Hamilton makes a similar, but vastly different statement; “It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia.”

Hamilton clearly says, in today’s vernacular: It is obvious that the intent of the constitution is to empower the government to be responsible for training and arming the citizenry.” If you oppose the Second Amendment, be thankful it wasn’t worded like that!

A frequent source of misunderstanding are the words “well regulated.” As much as we associate this with “tons of government regulations” today, it means well organized, armed, and disciplined, according to Hamilton.

This leaves the big question: Why?

Our founders have quite a bit to say about that.

The defense of our country:

If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.
 - Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28

The defense against a tyrannical government:

“Whereas civil-rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as 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 article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.” - Tenche Coxe, in Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution

“O sir, we should have fine times, indeed, if, to punish tyrants, it were only sufficient to assemble the people! Your arms, wherewith you could defend yourselves, are gone …”
- Patrick Henry, Elliot p. 3:50-53, in Virginia Ratifying Convention demanding a guarantee of the right to bear arms

“Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American…[T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.” 
- Tenche Coxe, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788.


Sorry, Mr. Cuomo, the founders don’t seem to say anything about hunting.

However, let it also be noted, that the right to bear arms was itself to be tempered by law:

“To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws.”
 - John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States 475 (1787-1788).

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Mike Shortridge

Mike is a former Marine who served in the Middle East. He is disgusted with both the Republican and Democratic parties, seeing them as two heads of the same beast. He writes from the conservative perspective, with a focus on making complex subjects easy to understand.


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