There's a great deal of discussion these days about the Second Article of the Bill of Rights, also known as the Second Amendment. It is contended by some that the Article is outmoded – that it has no relevance today – and that, furthermore, the signers of the Constitution did not really mean what they clearly said. These detractors of the right to bear arms use a number of subterfuges in their attacks against the cornerstone of American freedom – all of which can be readily refuted by simply referring to historical evidence.
One of the most frequent distortions we hear is that when James Madison used the word militia in his draft of the Second Article of the Bill of Rights in 1791, he was referring only to organized State Guards, the precursors of our modern National Guards, which report to the State Governors. This deception is readily exposed if we look at Madison's original draft from 1789:
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country..."
Madison was echoing Richard Henry Lee who in 1788 wrote,
"A militia, when properly formed, are in fact the people themselves...and include all men capable of bearing arms."
These and numerous other citations from the period can leave no doubt in the informed mind that Madison, and the signers of the final Constitution, considered the militia to be composed of all adult male Americans. And if one were inclined to dismiss the writings of the founding fathers as the blathering of a bunch of doddering old men, the Dick Act of 1902, which is still on the books, opened with the phrase:
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled that the militia shall consist of every able-bodied male citizen of the respective States, Territories, and the District of Columbia..."
Even as late as 1939, the Supreme Court majority opinion in U.S vs Miller stated,
"The Militia comprises all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense."
These same people further display their historical ignorance by insisting that the framers of the Constitution included the Second Article to provide the means of sustenance and protection on the American frontier, and never intended that such arms be used against the government. One self-styled historian went so far recently as to argue that since the First Article guarantees freedom of assembly, the signers meant for any differences between the government and the people to be settled by negotiation, never by force of arms. If these would-be historical revisionists would read history instead of tying to rewrite it to suit their prejudices, they would be aware that George Washington, the father of our country, said,
"A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government."
Even Alexander Hamilton, one of the leading proponents for a strong central government, wrote,
"[I]f 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."
Thomas Jefferson, a man of fewer words than Hamilton, put it more succinctly:
"When the people fear the government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty."
The delegates of the thirteen former colonies who ratified the Constitution of the United States in 1791 had just won a war against a tyrannical government. Most of them had fought in that war, and they were keenly aware that it was an army of armed citizens that had enabled them to beat back the most formidable military machine in the world at that time.
They were also aware that, even then, there were powers within their midst that were intent on re-imposing the stifling burden of a strong central government on the newly emancipated citizens of America. It was their intention that the United States of America be an unique institution among the nations of the world: a confederation of sovereign States voluntarily assigning certain well specified rights to a central government for the sole purpose of assuring their common defense and mutual benefit.
In order to ensure the success of that intent, the thirteen former colonies had insisted that ten amendments – ten specific restrictions on the powers of the central government – be appended to the Constitution as proposed by the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Those ten "amendments," known as the Bill of Rights, were part of the Constitution as ratified in 1791, and since the only reason for their existence was to restrain the powers of the central government, it is inane to argue that the Second Amendment somehow did not have that intent.
Some anti-gun enthusiasts, grasping at straws, have recently declared that the Second Article applied only to muskets, and not semi-automatic rifles. First of all, anyone who knows anything about the War of Independence knows that only the British used muskets, a relic from their last war with France affectionately referred to as "Brown Bess' by the British infantryman. The American citizen-soldier was equipped with a rifle, usually his own. If you don't know the difference between a musket and a rifle, take my word for it: the rifle was an advanced weapon. Furthermore – and most significantly – it was the most advanced weapon of the time, fully equal to any weapons the government might bring to bear.
And that's the point. If the militia, comprised of every adult American citizen, are not equipped with weapons equal to the government's, the Second Article of the Bill of Rights is meaningless. As Tenche Coxe wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette in February 1788,
"Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American. The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state government, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people."
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