“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment II – “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms”

The Minute Man statue at the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts. (National Park Service)

Amendment Two to the Constitution was ratified on December 15, 1791. It protects the right for Americans to possess weapons for the protection of themselves, their rights, and their property. The original text is written as such:

“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 notion of average citizens possessing their own weapons predates the Constitution. In the English Bill of Rights in 1689, Parliament allowed all Protestant English citizens to “have arms for their defence [sic] suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This law was later commentated on by Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. He described the possession of weapons as an “auxiliary right,” designed to support the core rights of self-defense and resistance to oppression, as well as the responsibility for the armed citizenry to protect their homeland. During the subsequent colonial and revolutionary periods, legal documents such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Pennsylvania Constitution also asserted that the right for citizens to arm themselves was fundamental. After the American Revolution, one of the most prominent arguments among the Constitution’s framers was that oppressive regimes would use soldiers from their large armies to easily oppress their people. To counter this hypothetical threat, some asserted that the best deterrent would be to have each state raise their own militias. These militias would be composed of average citizens who would be granted the right to gather and possess their own armaments, while also receiving part-time military instruction and pay from their state governments. 

The preeminent argument against this proposal was that the pace to train citizens to fight may not be able to keep up with the rapid developments of a war. The strategic shortcomings of the American armies in the Revolution made this setback more apparent, and as such the Constitutional Convention granted the federal government the ability to create an army and navy in times of peace. This formed the largest divide between Federalists and Anti-Federalists regarding the ratification of the Constitution. Anti-Federalists were concerned that the sudden shift of military authority from the states to the federal government was a dangerous precedent for government usurpation of individual rights. The Federalists dismissed these concerns as overreactions, clarifying that although the federal government would have the power to run a standing army and navy, the militias would still be functioning units. The additional notion that the American public would out-arm the nation’s military by a massive margin also helped ease the Anti-Federalists’ concerns. With the Second Amendment being inducted into the Constitution, the mutual agreement was that regardless of the federal government’s military authority, the average citizen would still have the natural-born right to possess and keep their own weapons.

The 19th century brought about major changes in the United States’ military structure, including the prospective future of the Second Amendment. At first, the right to keep and bear arms was not extended to all Americans. The overwhelming majority of African Americans were often forbidden from owning their own weapons until the Reconstruction Amendments, and certain militia arsenals were required to be placed on local, state, or federal registration lists. The Second Amendment itself was originally only applied to the federal government, but arguments asserting that the Fourteenth Amendment extended those rights to individuals against state governments were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1876’s United States v. Cruikshank. Meanwhile, the Second Amendment’s purpose gradually shifted from being predominantly a bulwark against foreign invasion and federal overreach, to general safety and protection of life, liberty, and property. The 20th and early 21st centuries saw a major increase in the political and social commentaries on the Second Amendment. In a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2008, District of Columbia v. Heller asserted that the Second Amendment protected the right of all individual citizens to keep and bear their own weapons to defend themselves, instead of only being for a state-run militia. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. City of Chicago that the Second Amendment’s provisions were protected at the state level by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The future of the Second Amendment has often been divided between partisan perspectives, but scholars of American history and law still maintain a general agreement that the law is a key part of the Constitution.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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