This week the Supreme Court refused to hear two cases involving gun rights. In one, a federal appeals court had upheld a Maryland law that banned so-called “assault weapons” and detachable magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
In upholding the ban, the appeals court used the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s restrictions on gun ownership in his opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller. In light of SCOTUS’s refusal to uphold a right afforded every person, we felt it was time to remind SCOTUS – and Americans – what the Founding Fathers had to say about guns.
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.—Amendment II
What did the Founders mean when they penned and approved those words? As Thomas Jefferson suggested in a letter to William Johnson, “On every question of construction (of the Constitution) let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
According to An American Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. II by Noah Webster, published in 1828, the definition of “regulated” is this: “adjusted by rule, method or forms, put in good order, subjected to rules or restrictions.”
The Random House College Dictionary (1980) gives one more definition dating from 1690 and relating to troops: “properly disciplined.”
So well regulated, to the Founders, meant a group of troops put in good order and properly disciplined. So who were these troops?
The word “militia” is a Latin abstract noun meaning “military service,” not an “armed group,” and that is how the Latin-literate Founders used it. The collective term for army or soldiery was “volgus militum.” So they did not mean a standing army or a regular national guard.
The Militia Act of 1792 further defines it as the whole people, particularly, “every able-bodied man” from age 18 to 45.
Remember that the Founding Fathers had just participated in a bloody revolution. They feared a standing army. When there was a need for an “army,” men came from the surrounding area, bringing whatever weapons they possessed, to be led by a man or men with previous military service. Sometimes the State provided them with weapons, ammunition, horses, etc., if they did not have their own.
As Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts put it: “What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty…. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.”
In his An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, 1787, Webster wrote: “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom of 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, on any pretence, raised in the United States.”
Tench Coxe described the militia this way: “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 shall have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American … The 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.”
In a speech at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, George Mason said: “I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”
“A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves … and include… all men capable of bearing arms. … The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle,” wrote Richard Lee as The Federal Farmer.
“[W]hereas, to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them; nor does it follow from this, that all promiscuously must go into actual service on every occasion. The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle; and when we see many men disposed to practice upon it, whenever they can prevail, no wonder true republicans are for carefully guarding against it,” Lee also wrote.
“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; and you have no longer an aristocratical, no longer a democratical spirit. Did you ever read of any revolution in a nation, brought about by the punishment of those in power, inflicted by those who had no power at all?” said Patrick Henry during the Virgina Ratifying Convention.
Thomas Paine wrote: “The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside…Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them…”
And Samuel Adams said, “The Constitution shall never be construed … to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”
It’s clear the Founders intended that everyone be armed — not just for hunting or for self-defense, which were givens, but to protect themselves from tyranny.
Finally, what is meant by “infringed”? Again, back to An American Dictionary of the English Language, this time Volume I: “Infringed — Broken; violated; transgressed.”
Further, infringe is defined: “To break, as contracts; to violate, either positively by contravention, or negatively non-fulfillment or neglect of performance. A prince or a private person infringes an agreement or covenant by neglecting to perform its conditions, as well as by doing what is stipulated not to be done. To break to violate; to transgress; to neglect to fulfill or obey; as to infringe a law. To destroy or hinder; as to infringe efficacy.”
Liberty lovers should see the 2nd Amendment as inviolate. Not only do laws being considered by the gun grabbers infringe on the 2nd Amendment; but many, if not most, of the laws already on the books infringe on the Amendment as well.
The 2nd Amendment does not grant Americans the “right to keep and bear arms.” That right is held by all at birth. What it does is acknowledge that right and restrict any infringement upon it.
The Founders understood the dangers inherent in a government that held the monopoly on violence. The Constitution and Bill of Rights was written to restrain government, not the people.