By Laurie Endicott Thomas
If the Constitution was intended to enable the state governments and the federal government to put down local rebellions, why did the Framers amend the Constitution to allow "the people" to bear arms? It's because the "well-regulated militia" that was described in the Second Amendment wasn't intended to be used against the federal, state, or local government. It was to be used against slaves and Indians.
Under English law, all able-bodied men had to respond to their local sheriff's request to serve in a posse to pursue criminal suspects. However, the kinds of weapons that a man was allowed to have depended on his social class and religion. These laws were adapted to serve the needs of the slave economy in colonies such as Virginia. A 1639 law in Virginia required young white men to be armed at public expense. By 1680, it was illegal for black men, slave or free, to carry weapons. Eventually, Virginia permitted black men who lived on frontier plantations to keep guns for defense against Indians.
The Second Amendment was not intended to enable ordinary people to attack the federal government or their state or local government. It was to enable whites to use violence against slaves and Indians.
A big obstacle to commonsense gun control is the Right’s false historical narrative that the Founders wanted an armed American public that could fight its own government.
By Robert Parry
So, the Second Amendment read: “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.” Contrary to some current right-wing fantasies about the Framers wanting to encourage popular uprisings over grievances, the language of the amendment is clearly aimed at maintaining order within the country.
That point was driven home by the actions of the Second Congress amid another uprising which erupted in 1791 in western Pennsylvania. This anti-tax revolt, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, prompted Congress in 1792 to expand on the idea of “a well-regulated militia” by passing the Militia Acts which required all military-age white males to obtain their own muskets and equipment for service in militias.
In 1794, President Washington, who was determined to demonstrate the young government’s resolve, led a combined force of state militias against the Whiskey rebels. Their revolt soon collapsed and order was restored, demonstrating how the Second Amendment helped serve the government in maintaining “security,” as the Amendment says.
Beyond this clear historical record—that the Framers’ intent was to create security for the new Republic, not promote armed rebellions—there is also the simple logic that the Framers represented the young nation’s aristocracy. Many, like Washington, owned vast tracts of land. They recognized that a strong central government and domestic tranquility were in their economic interests.
So, it would be counterintuitive—as well as anti-historical—to believe that Madison and Washington wanted to arm the population so the discontented could resist the constitutionally elected government. In reality, the Framers wanted to arm the people—at least the white males—so uprisings, whether economic clashes like Shays’ Rebellion, anti-tax protests like the Whiskey Rebellion, attacks by Native Americans or slave revolts, could be repulsed.
By Saul Cornell
But many people who defend gun rights today are more than happy to skim over the first part of the amendment in their zeal to embrace the second. (The NRA itself literally chopped off that pesky first half when it chiseled the words on the face of its old headquarters.) As a result, our modern gun-rights ideology is often unmoored from any sense of corresponding civic obligation.
This ideology claims to rely heavily on the Second Amendment, and yet it is rooted not in the Founders’ vision, but in the insurrectionary ideas of Daniel Shays and those who rose up against the government of Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. Indeed, there are gun-rights advocates today who think the Second Amendment actually gives them the right to take up arms against the government—but if that were true the Second Amendment would have repealed the Constitution’s treason clause, which defines treason as taking up arms against the government!
This is all so deeply twisted: after all, the Founders framed the Constitution in part as a response to the danger posed by Shays’ Rebellion.
The Second Amendment's not to blame. It's how it's being interpreted by the Supreme Court
By Scott Lemieux
Moreover, it should also be remembered that Heller was a much narrower opinion than is commonly understood. Heller does foreclose an outright ban on handguns, but such bans were relatively rare at the local level (where, in a country with free movement between state borders, they are also less effective) and would be a non-starter at the federal level even had Heller come out the other way. But Justice Scalia’s opinion made it clear that the individual right to bear arms defined by the Court was far from absolute. “[N]othing in our opinion,” Justice Scalia wrote, “should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” The only right clearly established by Heller was the right for a competent, law-abiding adult to possess some kind of handgun for “immediate self-defense” in one’s own residence.
For more on the Second Amendment, see "A Well Regulated Militia...."