The Second Amendment (Amendment II) to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights that protects a right to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights.
Experience in America prior to the U.S. Constitution
In no particular order, early American settlers viewed the right to arms and/or the right to bear arms and state militias as important for one or more of these purposes:
- deterring undemocratic government;
- repelling invasion;
- suppressing insurrection;
- facilitating a natural right of self-defense;
- participating in law enforcement;
- slave control in slave states.
Which of these considerations they thought were most important, which of these considerations they were most alarmed about, and the extent to which each of these considerations ultimately found expression in the Second Amendment is disputed.
During the 1760s pre-revolutionary period, the established colonial militia was composed of colonists, which included a number who were loyal to British imperial rule. As defiance and opposition to the British rule developed, a distrust of these Loyalists in the militia became widespread among the colonists, known as Patriots, who favored independence from British rule. As a result, these Patriots established independent colonial legislatures to create their own militias which excluded the Loyalists and then sought out to stock up independent armories for their militias. In response to this arms build up, the British Parliament established an embargo on firearms, parts and ammunition on the American colonies.
British and Loyalist efforts to disarm the colonial Patriot militia armories in the early phases of the American Revolution, resulted in the Patriot colonists protesting by citing the Declaration of Rights, Blackstone’s summary of the Declaration of Rights, their own militia laws and common law rights to self-defense. While British policy in the early phases of the Revolution clearly aimed to prevent coordinated action by the Patriot militia, some have argued that there is no evidence that the British sought to restrict the traditional common law right of self-defense.
The right of the colonists to arms and rebellion against oppression was asserted, for example, in a pre-revolutionary newspaper editorial in 1769 Boston objecting to the British army suppression of colonial opposition to the Townshend Acts:
Instances of the licentious and outrageous behavior of the military conservators of the peace still multiply upon us, some of which are of such nature, and have been carried to such lengths, as must serve fully to evince that a late vote of this town, calling upon its inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defense, was a measure as prudent as it was legal: such violences are always to be apprehended from military troops, when quartered in the body of a populous city; but more especially so, when they are led to believe that they are become necessary to awe a spirit of rebellion, injuriously said to be existing therein. It is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defense; and as Mr. Blackstone observes, it is to be made use of when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
The armed forces that won the American Revolution consisted of the standing Continental Army created by the Continental Congress, together with various state and regional militia units. In opposition, the British forces consisted of a mixture of the standing British Army, Loyalist Militia and Hessian mercenaries. Following the Revolution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. An unworkable division of power between Congress and the states caused military weakness, and the standing army was reduced to as few as 80 men. There was no effective federal military response to an armed uprising in western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion. Subsequently, the Philadelphia Convention proposed in 1787 to grant Congress exclusive power to raise and support a standing army and navy of unlimited size. Anti-federalists objected to the shift of power from the states to the federal government, but as adoption of the Constitution became more and more likely, they shifted their strategy to establishing a bill of rights that would put some limits on federal power.
Modern scholars Thomas B. McAffee and Michael J. Quinlan have stated that James Madison “did not invent the right to keep and bear arms when he drafted the Second Amendment; the right was pre-existing at both common law and in the early state constitutions.” In contrast, historian Jack Rakove suggests that Madison’s intention in framing the Second Amendment was to provide assurances to moderate Anti-Federalists that the militias would not be disarmed.
One aspect of the gun control debate is the conflict between gun control laws and the alleged right to rebel against unjust governments. Some believe that the framers of the Bill of Rights sought to balance not just political power, but also military power, between the people, the states and the nation, as Alexander Hamilton explained in 1788:
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.