Much has been made since the attempted assassination of President Reagan on the gun control debate. In light of recent events across our country, many people once again desire to strip us of our right to keep and bear arms. Opponents of the Second Amendment say that the framers only intended the amendment to apply to muskets, but this argument is patently untrue and is not in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution that it is in fact a living document. So to understand what the amendment truly means, we need to understand why it was created and how it is to be interpreted.
We start our journey towards enlightenment in the 1600s in England. The same tyrannical government that caused our founding fathers to emigrate to a new land and seek their independence had a standing army, and all weaponry was to support this army. Those who opposed were subjugated or destroyed. When the founders began constructing our new nation, they realized the importance of a “well regulated militia” to protect the states and their possessions from outside influence. This included a national government. They were opposed to a standing army in the infancy of our nation because of the way England had used hers to force people into going along with whatever she desired. When they were attempting to ratify the Constitution, a realization of the need to create a Bill of Rights to gain approval from the States was noted, and the Amendments were born. The Second Amendment reads:
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 founders were as careful as they could be when choosing language for these amendments, and unfortunately, the way this amendment was crafted has lent itself to the debate over time. Gun control advocates would have you believe that the arms were meant to supplement the militia of the States since they had limited funds and many citizens already possessed arms for hunting, thus making it easier to provide weaponry for the common defense. This thinking is flawed because they are ignoring the manner in which the amendment is written. It is not written as one continuous thought. Quite the opposite is the case here. It is written as an “if, then” statement.
We can break this down into its two separate and distinct parts. The first being “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”. As stated, the founding fathers were diametrically opposed to a central form of government in the beginning. Only later did they come to realize that in order for these new States to be united, a central government would have to be formed in order to further this union. So the States possessed a militia to provide for their defense, and that militia was recognized as being necessary. In no way did they falsely think that even in that day they could be expected to defend themselves without the formation of such forces. They were rebels and rogues who were asserting their independence from their motherland. Defense of their new land was only attainable if they provided for it on their own but not place that power in the hands of a central government that would likely fall to the same ills as had befallen the failed system they had left. So yes, we needed militias, however that is only the “if” part of the statement. The “then” part of the statement is “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” And that right is placed squarely in the hands of the people. But why? Why was it important to separate these two pieces? It was necessary for the government to acknowledge that a people who were powerless against their government were not citizens but subjects. They didn’t place the arms in the hands of the militias; they placed them in the hands of the people so that if the States grew too powerful, the people could oppose them as they were opposing England. The militia is necessary to the state, and the arms are the right of the people to prevent tyranny. Thus the importance of the “if, then” construction of the amendment.
The second part of the argument is that they only intended muskets. England had been oppressing its subjects with fixed blade weapons long before firearms were created. If they had meant muskets, they would have said muskets. Again, even given much more rudimentary language, our founders were very careful in their selection of words and knew that words had meanings. What they meant was actually the weaponry of the day. If the militia has swords, the people should have swords. If it were muskets, then so be it. The intent was for the people to be able to oppose the government should it become necessary. Lastly, we must continue to understand that the Constitution is a living document whose interpretation is left to the Supreme Court of the United States alone, as outlined in Article III. And time and again, they have consistently understood it to mean that the right lies with the people and that it certainly did not mean muskets. Until the Supreme Court creates new precedent, or the Legislature creates new laws, the Second Amendment to the Constitution stands as is, and guarantees a right that shall not be infringed.