Study Guide

Right to Bear Arms - Original Meaning of the Second Amendment

Original Meaning of the Second Amendment

  • Much debate over gun rights centers on "original meaning" of Second Amendment
  • But the Second Amendment was written poorly and its original meaning is unclear

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 many, "original meaning" lies at the center of the debate over the Second Amendment. The National Rifle Association frequently uses the image of a minuteman—a citizen soldier of the Revolutionary War—to represent its values, and the association's conclusion that the Second Amendment guarantees an almost unlimited right to own guns is tied to eighteenth-century ideas about the importance of arms and militias to the defense of liberty. Not to be outdone, those claiming that the Second Amendment only protects a state's right to maintain an organized militia—and that federal and state governments are thus authorized to restrict individual gun ownership—base their argument on their own particular reading of the eighteenth-century documents.

On first glance, this preoccupation with the Second Amendment's original meaning might seem particularly curious. Only the Third Amendment, which denies the government the power to quarter troops in our homes, seems more dated in its concerns. We certainly don't rely on militias to preserve our freedom anymore; state militias don't really even exist today, having been subsumed into the National Guard a hundred years ago. And the sorts of weapons available today bear little resemblance to the muskets and deer rifles of 1789. When the Second Amendment was written, the same types of primitive firearms predominated in both military and civilian uses; today, an unimaginable gulf separates the pistols and rifles held by individuals from the Tomahawk missiles, Predator drones, and stealth bombers used for national defense. Still, for many, both the meaning and the symbolic importance of the Second Amendment are extraordinarily tied up in the history surrounding its passage.

But a balanced search for original meaning can produce more confusion and complexity than certainty. For starters, how do we even determine which meaning of the Second Amendment is the "original" one? Should we direct our attention to the importance attached to militias during the colonial period, or to the militia clauses of the Constitution? Should we rely on the debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution, or on the House and Senate debates surrounding the drafting of the amendment itself? Should we look at the arms clauses of the state constitutions, or should we look at more general eighteenth-century ideas about fundamental rights of self-defense?

In other words, the Second Amendment's "original meaning" is complex and contested. But in the spirit of the question, let's give it a shot.

The Colonial Militia

  • Context for Second Amendment: citizen militias played crucial role in Revolutionary War, were central to early Americans' ideas of freedom
  • Militias performed many important roles in early American society
  • Militias were "well regulated" institutions

We should begin by recognizing that militias—forces of armed citizens, organized for collective self-defense—were hugely important institutions in colonial America, and loaded with ideological importance. They were viewed as attractive alternatives to standing armies—that is, professional armies maintained by the government. History had taught the colonists that a standing army could be a dangerous tool into the hands of an ambitious tyrant, and therefore they should be discouraged. It was far better to rely on a citizen militia for order and protection than a professional army that could take away your liberty just as easily as defend it.

But militias were more than ideologically loaded alternatives to standing armies; they were also practical institutions. Professional police forces would not be introduced in America until the mid-nineteenth century. Nor did the British maintain enough professional troops in America to take care of local needs. Instead, towns relied on their own citizen militias to assist local and colonial officials in maintaining order and providing protection against outside threats. Militias were so important that they could not be left to volunteerism; instead, colonies wrote militia statutes that spelled out the specific service obligations of citizens. Colonial statutes mandated who must serve, how often they must train, what sorts of arms members should carry, and how those arms should be maintained.

In other words, militias served immediate, practical needs, and stood as symbolically powerful safeguards against threats to human liberty. But when they mustered for action, they were far from spontaneous collections of civic-minded citizens. They were more than volunteer freedom fighters who turned out at a minute's notice. They were organized and regulated—in fact, they were, to borrow a crucial phrase from the Second Amendment, "well regulated."

Militias and Arms in the Revolutionary State Constitutions

  • Revolutionary-era state constitutions contained militia statutes
  • Some states emphasized an individual right to bear arms, but others did not

Given the importance, both ideological and practical, of militias to American colonists, it is not surprising that after declaring independence from Britain, Americans included provisions in their state constitutions to preserve these critical institutions. Every new state constitution drafted during the Revolution contained militia statutes spelling out the responsibilities of its citizens. And a couple of these constitutions made specific reference to a right to bear arms. Some framed this right within language that emphasized citizens' civic responsibilities. Massachusetts, for example, guaranteed to its citizens the right to "keep and bear arms," in order to provide for "the common defense." North Carolina's constitutional guarantee was even more narrowly framed; it stated that "the people have a right to bear arms, for the defence of the State."blank" rel="nofollow">rose up in protest against the federal tax on whiskey in 1794, they too incorporated the Second Amendment in their defense of collective protest. Presenting themselves as "well regulated" militia they marched on tax collectors, federal courts, and finally through the streets of Pittsburgh to demonstrate their collective opposition to federal power. But while the meaning of the Second Amendment remained contested during these years, there was little discussion of it in its most atomized form—that is, the Second Amendment was only rarely described as a guarantee for the individual right of self defense, and the right to bear arms was rarely articulated separate from an assertion of collective—either local or state—rights.

The Second Amendment in 1830

  • States began banning concealed weapons for the first time in the 1820s
  • In response, some people began to argue for a more individualized interpretation of Second Amendment rights
  • A few states explicitly guaranteed individual rights to bear arms

The argument that individuals possessed a natural and constitutionally protected right of self-defense gained a larger following around 1820 when states began passing concealed weapons laws for the first time. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, many lawmakers had concluded that with more citizens arming themselves, some sort of regulation had become necessary. Many towns and states subsequently passed concealed weapons laws regulating the carrying of pistols, dirks, and bowie knives.

It was to protest these laws that a more individualized interpretation of the Second Amendment grew more prominent. Moreover, a few states—Mississippi, Connecticut, and Michigan—added clauses to their state constitutions explicitly protecting an individual right to bear arms for self-defense. And consistent with this greater sympathy for individual gun rights, state courts affirmed this interpretation of the right to bear arms in several cases.

The other, narrower reading of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms also persisted. In fact, most often, the courts continued to link the right to bear arms with the states' right to maintain militias. Still, the individualized interpretation of gun rights gained a broader following among jurists and lawmakers during the second quarter of the nineteenth century than during any time previous.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

  • Today both supporters of gun rights and gun control can find evidence to support their positions in the history of the Second Amendment
  • Some scholars emphasize the "civic" dimension of the Second Amendment as containing both individual rights and collective responsibilities.

On the one hand, the history of the Second Amendment suggests that all of the participants in the current debate can find a historical basis for their position—it depends largely on where a person decides to find "original meaning." And consequently, dredging up the history does little to move us beyond the polarized battle between "individual" and "collective" rights, between impassioned advocacy for gun rights on the one hand and gun control on the other. One group will continue to deny any individual right, while the other will continue to claim an unfettered right to keep and bear arms. While one group will place all weight on the first clause of the Second Amendment and ignore the meaning of the second, the other will ignore the first and celebrate only the second.

But as one historian, Saul Cornell, has argued, recovering the "civic" dimension of the Second Amendment may allow the contemporary debate over gun control and gun rights to move beyond its current impasse. For undeniably, the Second Amendment has two clauses and they would appear to pursue a complex and interdependent purpose. If both clauses are respected, the Second Amendment would seem to guarantee to both the states and to individuals certain rights. But just as importantly, the Second Amendment would seem to confer to both the states and to individuals certain responsibilities.