-Writte by Chad Uretsky
Amendment II: 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.
Such a short statement, yet arguably the most controversial amendment in the Bill of Rights. As simple and straightforward as this statement appears, many have misinterpreted this important restriction on the government. Yes, this amendment, as all other amendments in the Bill of Rights, restrict the United States Government, and State and local governments, from violating the rights of the people. Unfortunately, as often is the case with all rights and liberties, abuses of these rights lead people to believe these rights should be restricted. Killings committed with firearms foment cries for “common-sense gun laws.” Question and statements often heard in response to the latest tragedy are similar to the following:
– Why does anyone need to own an “assault rifle”?
– No one should be able to have a weapon made for the military.
– If you need thirty rounds for hunting, you’re not a very good hunter.
– We should eliminate semi-automatic weapons.
– No one needs an AR15 for self-defense.
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And the list goes on. On the surface, all of these questions sound somewhat reasonable, especially in the wake of a mass shooting or school massacre. That being the case, why would so many be against such “common-sense gun control?” Why is this amendment so controversial? At the core of this issue is the unfortunate fact that the vast majority of Americans have little or no knowledge or understanding of the history of this country and its founding principles and documents. With that, any attempt to address such questions must begin with unpacking the purpose behind this amendment and its wording.
Something people would do well to remember is that the Constitution was written while the Revolutionary War and its ravages were still fresh in the minds of the people newly freed from British rule. Along with a smaller contingent of trained men, a ramshackle group of ordinary armed citizens defeated a formidable foreign military force. This outfit of armed citizens was the “militia,” and it is with this in mind that the founders began to pen the Second Amendment. Therefore, the amendment begins with the phrase, “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” Why would a militia be needed to protect a “free State?” Most people today do not realize that the Constitution doesn’t actually provide for a standing army. To the contrary, the Constitution provided for each state to maintain a militia with military officers appointed by those states. Congress could raise an army from these militia, but with funding for no more than two years (Article I, Section 8 – https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript). For a large portion of America’s history, it was precisely these “militia” that formed the core of the country’s armed forces. These militia would be called up and directed by the federal government as need arose, though the militia under each state was to be maintained by the States themselves, under officers appointed by the States. There was a reason for structuring America’s defense forces in such a manner – the founding fathers saw a particular threat in maintaining a standing military.
Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers #29, wrote the following:
“THE power of regulating the militia and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defence, and of watching over the internal peace of the confederacy” (realize “confederacy” here, written in 1788, refers to the newly-formed alliance between the states that would be cemented by the ratification of the constitution in 1788; this does not refer, as many might be inclined to infer, to the confederation of the southern states leading to the American Civil War).
Hamilton continues later in the article:
“But though the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned as mischievous or impracticable; yet it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well digested plan should as soon as possible be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia. The attention of the government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of moderate size upon such principles as will really fit it for service in case of need. By thus circumscribing the plan 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; the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”
The founding fathers actually feared a standing army. Maintaining such a force would require a great financial burden, and if maintained, such a force could be used against the people, as the British had already done. This belief was so strong that Hamilton, in this same paper, suggests that if a standing army be formed, the citizenry should be “little if at all inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms.” This could only hold true if that citizenry were to have arms little if at all inferior to those possessed by such an army.
Joseph A. Story, born in 1779, was an associate supreme court justice from 1811 through 1845, a time period during which several of the framers were still alive and in government. Story was accomplished in the field of law, and he lived in a time close enough to the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to have a solid understanding of what the framers intended. In “A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution,” Story writes the following:
“§450. The next amendment is, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” One of the ordinary modes, by which tyrants accomplish their purposes without resistance, is, by disarming the people, and making it an offence to keep arms, and by substituting a regular army in the stead of a resort to the militia. The friends of a free government cannot be too watchful, to overcome the dangerous tendency of the public mind to sacrifice, for the sake of mere private convenience, this powerful check upon the designs of ambitious men. §451. The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the right of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms had 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.” – Story, Joseph A.. Familiar Exposition of the Constitution . Packard Technologies. Kindle Edition.
Story understood that the only way the government could exert tyrannical rule over its constituents was to disarm them. He also understood that the way to prevent execution of such tyrannical power, the people needed to be able to “keep and bear arms” of a nature that would allow them to defend themselves against enemies both foreign and domestic.
Despite concerns about having a federal military, it wasn’t long before the founders recognized some limitations in the idea of state-trained militias, as even Hamilton mentioned in The Federalist #29. After multiple reminders by George Washington, Congress, prior to the end their first session in 1789, granted the President’s request for a standing army. That said, it still wasn’t until much later that the standing army, as we know it now, was instituted in the United States. You can read a lot of the history of the Army on the Army’s own website.
With the founding of a standing army, based on statements by those such as Hamilton and Story, the need for the Second Amendment is further solidified, and it can easily be argued that it was precisely so that citizens could have military-grade weapons that the founding fathers enshrined in this amendment the protection of the God-given right to keep and bear arms (and yes, they saw rights as God-given, not government-granted). The fact is, the founding fathers saw defense of country and defense of self as the responsibility of each citizen, and such defense would require ownership of “military weapons.” It is with this in mind they were able to say, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” when they signed the Declaration of Independence (https://archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript).
As if to make the point for our founders, governments since have committed numerous atrocities against innumerable millions of people. This well-written article by a former anti-gun person discusses some of the mass casualties:
As for the questions and statements about limiting gun ownership, most are herein answered. The founding fathers not only saw no need to restrict the ownership of “Arms” (it is not limited to guns), but they desired to see people armed in such a way that they could defend against an army, whether sent by a foreign country or engaged against the American people by a government gone rogue.
So what about the other questions? Why does anyone need an “assault rifle?” What about the “AR15” and semi-automatic weapons? There is no such thing as an “assault rifle.” When asked, most people can’t even provide a definition of an “assault rifle.” Answers given are generally related to the appearance of a weapon, if anything, and might include the word “scary.” Even when politicians speak of guns of any sort, their orations expose their utter ignorance in regard to such matters.
The phrase “assault weapon” actually came into common use in America in the late 1980s, but the idea originated decades earlier. Some have traced the term to the word, “sturmgewehr” (literally translated, “storm gun”, though naturally translated “assault rifle”), used in place of “machinenpistole” (machine gun) for the German MP-44 rifle during World War II. It certainly makes it sound more intimidating, but it was simply a propagandistic ploy to make a common military weapon of the time sound more fearsome. Any weapon can be used for “assault,” just like any weapon can be used for defense. To name it an “assault weapon” is to imply its sole purpose is offensively inflicting harm. Such a redefinition was used to foment support for the Assault Weapons ban passed through Congress under Bill Clinton in 1990. Many now argue that an “assault rifle” is defined as a rifle that can fire many shots with one pull of the trigger; however, the concept is still vague, polymorphous and wholly inaccurate. On this point, contrary to popular misunderstanding, the “AR” in “AR15” does not stand for “Assault Rifle” – it is “Armalite Rifle,” named for the company (Armalite) from which that model rifle originated.
So why does the government always want to go after these particular weapons? Every time someone gets shot (regardless the particular firearm used), there are cries for banning rifles such as the AR15. This goes back to what Hamilton and Story insinuated – if the government can take away the Arms citizens could use to ward off an army ordered upon them by a treasonous government, then they can turn citizens into subjects. We should never cede to the government, to ANY extent, our right to keep and bear arms. This only leads to the tyranny from which the founding fathers were protecting Americans by enshrining this God-given right in the Second Amendment. It’s not about hunting, and it’s not even specifically about individual self-defense (though that is certainly included); it’s about being able to stand up to a tyrannical government (with weapons equivalent to those used by the government) in order to preserve the liberty they fought so hard to secure.