Americans find themselves in another contentious moment of debate over the right of citizens to keep and bear arms in accordance with the Second Amendment. There are two arguments, generally, offered by opponents of 2A. One argument is whether or not citizens should be armed and the other is comprehension of the founders’ intent.
To the point of the latter argument, the intent of 2A, as with the rest of the Constitution, is found in the very comprehensive arguments between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists toward the ratification of the Constitution. Arguably there is no greater source of clarity regarding 2A than Federalist 29, penned by Alexander Hamilton on January 10, 1788.
In his essay to the People of the State of New York, Hamilton lays out very precise context regarding the militia and the expectation of an armed citizenry. One of the loudest arguments of 2A opponents is that a “well regulated militia” describes the National Guard and also is the justification for laws that infringe on the rights of people to keep and bear arms. Neither is true, from the perspective and intentions of the founders.
Hamilton opens his letter by stating, “The power of regulating the militia, and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defense, and of watching over the internal peace of the Confederacy.” The literal and functional intention of this statement is that regulation, or uniformity, would happen in times of insurrection or invasion — not a prerequisite to people already possessing arms.
This is reinforced in the very first paragraph, “It requires no skill in the science of war to discern that uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia would be attended with the most beneficial effects, whenever they were called into service for the public defense. It would enable them to discharge the duties of the camp and of the field with mutual intelligence and concert an advantage of peculiar moment in the operations of an army; and it would fit them much sooner to acquire the degree of proficiency in military functions which would be essential to their usefulness.” There is no greater example of this paragraph in action than what is being endured by the people of Ukraine. Consider how many more of their lives would have been saved had their people had liberties that mirrored ours, and they didn’t have to wait for their government to obtain arms, let alone find a way to distribute them to the public after an attack had already begun.
Later in his letter, Hamilton even states, “Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.” Hamilton clarifies two important points with this one sentence. He lays out the expectation that citizens be readily-armed organically, and he also makes a clear differentiation between armed and regulated. His statement makes no mention of uniformity, organization, or discipline. It simply lays out the assumptions that citizens should be armed with the necessary weapons to defend themselves.
Hamilton also lays out the distinction between the militia and the National Guard. “The attention of the government ought particularly to be directed to the formation of a select corps of moderate extent, upon such principles as will really fit them for service in case of need. By thus circumscribing the plan, it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defense of the State shall require it. This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but if 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.” The founders understood it was both futile and impractical to expect that the entire population be regulated, which Hamilton outlined in great length at another paragraph of Federalist 29, but “Little, if any at all, inferior to them,” is a pretty discernable way of affirming the government’s understanding that its body of citizens are armed. The formation of a select corps outlines the National Guard as we know it today — independent of and different than the whole body of armed citizens.
As for the necessity of an armed citizenry, again the most profound example is the catastrophic loss of life suffered by the unprepared people of Ukraine. Our own US Civil War is another powerful and undeniable instance. The slaves would never have been emancipated in 1865 if it weren’t for President Lincoln calling upon armed groups of often loosely-banded citizen militiamen to be incorporated into the North’s army in order to defeat the South. The Union didn’t have nearly enough arms to overcome the south and free the slaves without armed citizens. This is widely accepted truth by all historians.
There is no rational or fair argument against the emotion and frustration felt by all Americans over those lost to the negligent and heinous behavior of others. It touches all of us. I don’t believe the Founders would be any less heartbroken, but they would likely take the most exception to evil behavior of those who perpetrate these acts. Men like Hamilton were people of great moral character. They would wonder why elected officials have disregarded their duties under the Constitution to uphold the laws we already have in place. (There are more than 3,200 gun laws preexisting in the US). They would wonder why we strayed so far from being a people of common American bond. They would wonder, mostly, how we lost our morality — a measure of behavior that an inanimate object (like a gun) cannot possibly animate on its own.
Our country is united in the desire to see a reduction, if not an elimination, of the frequency and extent of mass shooting events. The conversation about meaningful and effective solutions will only be possible when the arguments start from a place of truth.
As for the truth about firearms, this entire article can be simplified like this — “Well regulated” and “armed” are not simultaneous expectations, from the perspective of the Founding Fathers. Citizens have an innate right to be armed, and regulated only after the government calls upon them to take up those arms in uniformity against a common enemy. Any negligence in the interim is not the government’s responsibility to fix. It’s the better morality of the People to fix. A People who deserve liberty are a People who accept personal responsibility for that liberty. No rational and intelligent human being would ever subjugate themselves to the advocation of their own liberties being stripped.
“Shall not be infringed.”
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