The Origins of the Second Amendment

The Origins of the Second Amendment

The Heritage Foundation

“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.” —BILL OF RIGHTS

A foundation of American democracy is the natural law principle that every human possesses certain inalienable rights. Inherent in this is a right to self-defense—that is, to forcibly resist infringements on inalienable rights. The right of the people to keep and bear arms, enshrined in the Constitution’s Second Amendment, is centered not on hunting or sport shooting but on this natural right of self-defense. It gives “teeth” to the promises of liberty, ensuring that attempts to reduce our natural rights to mere dead letters may be met with meaningful resistance.

“In America we may reasonably hope that the people will never cease to regard the right of keeping and bearing arms as the surest pledge of their liberty.”1      —ST. GEORGE TUCKER

The Framers and ratifiers of the Second Amendment did not operate in a philosophical or historical vacuum. In ratifying the Second Amendment, they built upon a strong foundation of inherited rights they had long possessed as Englishmen. A century before American independence, the Declaration of Rights of 1689 codified the right of English subjects to possess arms for their defense. Nearly contemporaneous to the American Revolution, famed English jurist William Blackstone listed the right of English subjects to possess arms for their defense as one of the principal barriers against violations of life, liberty, and property. This cherished right flowed from “the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, where sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”2

The right to keep and bear arms for self-preservation may vest in the individual, but it also secures a collective resistance against large-scale threats to liberty. The founding generation well understood that people who lack the means to defend and enforce their rights are not, in any meaningful sense, free. For centuries, ruling monarchs had often disarmed the general population and then employed professional armies or loyal “select” militias to impose their tyrannical rule on a defenseless people.

In a very real sense, the war for independence from Great Britain started over King George III’s attempts to do the same. As colonial frustrations over repeated injuries to their rights and liberties reached a breaking point, the royal response grew progressively hostile and heavy-handed. Increasingly larger numbers of royal soldiers were sent to occupy Boston, not to protect the civilians from foreign threats, but to enforce controversial laws at bayonet-point and intimidate the colonists into submission. Ultimately, under orders from the King, General Thomas Gage led hundreds of well-armed professional troops to forcibly seize supplies of arms and gunpowder stored in some of the most disaffected areas of colonial America—the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. The ensuing skirmishes between British regulars and colonial militiamen were a final “spark” that set the Revolution ablaze. Had the colonists allowed themselves to be widely disarmed—or had they not already been one of the most widely armed civilian populations in history—the Revolution would certainly have been doomed.

It is little wonder, then, that the Founders immediately sought to safeguard the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” in their new nation. Their foresight to guarantee a well-armed citizenry continues, even today, to ensure the “security of a free state.”

ENDNOTES

1. William Blackstone, Commentaries (St. George Tucker Ed., Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. 1996) (1803).
2. William Blackstone, Commentaries, 139 (1765).

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