The debate about gun control in 1791, (when the 2nd amendment was truly about militias and muskets)
The purpose and intent of the 2nd was to provide for the overthrow of government in the case of tyranny.
For the early founding fathers, that specifically meant having weaponry accessible to citizens. Here’s Hamilton in Federalist 29:
This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by congress.
Notice the word “arming” in there. But Hamilton also viewed the 2nd amendment as a collective right. Some early laws were also based on the idea of arming the populace as part of a collective right. The 1792 Act of Militia is a good example of what I’m talking about.
That every citizen so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball: or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear, so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise, or into service,
So, the founders viewed armament a lot more similarly to how the Swiss view it today: an individual responsibility as part of a collective right.
So what changed? In a lot of ways, the Civil War changed things. The NRA was actually formed after the Civil War. The Civil War, and the 14th Amendment, was actually what sort of gave rise to the view of the Bill of Rights as being individual rights rather than collective ones. As Akhil Reed Amar, a con law professor at Yale, explains here:
The NRA is founded after the Civil War by a group of ex-Union Army officers. Now the motto goes, when guns are outlawed, only klansmen will have guns. Individual black men had to have guns in their homes because they couldn’t count on the local constabulary. It’s in the text of the Freedman’s Bureau Act of 1866 that we actually see the reinterpretation of the original Second Amendment. It becomes about original rights.
So, to take things back a ways. Originally, the Second Amendment was viewed much more as a collective right. The important thing was that individuals be armed as part of a group responsibility. In other words, you needed to have a gun in case you were needed to help overthrow a tyrannical government.
After the Civil War, the whole discussion about collective versus individual rights changed, and having a gun became much more about self defense. This was in direct response to the newly Reconstructed South.
Your individual state could regulate your guns, but the feds couldn’t. Projecting the phrase “gun rights” back in time is really problematic, pretty much for this reason. It was somewhat common in the south for it to be illegal for Black men to own guns–even free Blacks. To a much lesser extent, the same was true for women. It wasn’t so much that you had “gun rights” so much at all, since there was no thought that taking guns away from Blacks was in any way threatening the gun ownership of Whites.
Here’s a list of laws/proposals relating to guns, militias and armies from the English Bill of Rights to the 2nd Amendment. I thought the progression in the wording was interesting.
English Bill of Rights (1689)
- That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law
- That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law
Virginia Declaration of Rights (May 1776)
- Section 13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Massachusetts Constitution (1780)
- XVII. The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority, and be governed by it.
Gun related requests from States to Congress for Original Amendments:
- No request
- That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, including the body of the people capable of bearing arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state.
- That the militia should not be subject to martial law, except in time of war, rebellion, or insurrection.
- That standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be kept up, except in cases of necessity; and that at all times the military should be under strict subordination to the civil power.
- 17th. That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well regulated militia composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free state. That standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.
James Madison’s original version of the 2nd Amendment
- The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.
Final version of the 2nd amendment
- 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.
I found the progression interesting. My favorite parts were:
- The founders started from a position before the revolution of statements like ‘armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature’ but by the late 1780s that language is missing.
- The 2nd amendment originally had the clause ‘but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person’ but it was removed.
- The original wording of the 2nd amendment started ‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country’ – They reversed it but I have no idea why. It seems the original was stronger though it is impossible to know their intent unless their discussions were written down.