Historical revisionists love to pretend that the human right to bear arms reflected in the Second Amendment was specifically confined to Colonial-era muskets, and only then in the service of the aims of the state. That is self-evidently false, as anyone with a passing familiarity with the speeches, letters, and broadsheets authored by the Founding Fathers would be able to tell you.
The Second Amendment did not create a right to bear arms.
When John Adams and his contemporaries wrote and then ratified the Second Amendment they were recognizing a pre-existing natural right of all people to be armed for their self defense.
The right to bear arms was always and continues to be an individual human right to allow you to protect your life, and the lives of those you love, and others you feel compelled to protect.
The Founders were explicit in their belief that any weapon that could be carried by a soldier should be available to the citizenry, as Founding Father Tenche Cox made clear in 1788, three years before the Second Amendment was ratified.
The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American … the unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.
Would the Founders want Joe Six-Pack walking down the street with a M67 fragmentation grenade? We can only speculate, but I’m going to guess that they probably would not.
Would the Founders want grenades, cannon, and other “terrible implements of the soldier” available for militia service against enemies foreign and domestic? Almost certainly, though I suspect they would want the heavier weapons (up to and including artillery) under lock and key at an armory under the control of the local militias (not standing government forces, which includes the National Guard).
The Founders were clearly in favor of personal arms being retained by individual citizens, and they expected citizens to be both well-armed and well-trained with their guns (which is what they meant by “well-regulated”). These included multi-shot weapons, among them rifles with “high capacity” detachable magazines that existed more than a decade before the Second Amendment was written.
In their writings, the Founders were very clear that they wanted the citizenry to be able to use private arms for the following reasons:
- Defend individual lives, families, and communities along the frontiers against lawlessness, and attacks by Native Americans
- Defend against the threat of foreign invasion
- Defend against domestic tyranny in local, state, and federal government
It’s very important to note that these reasons intertwined and overlapped to varying degrees then, just as they do now.
The first point, self-defense, speaks to the fact that citizens are responsible for their own defense, as we still are today. It was even rougher in the late 18th century, of course, because there was no option to call your local police for assistance, as their response time would be measured in decades (Boston formed the first police department in the United States in 1838). Flash forward to 2016, and you are still responsible for your own self-defense; the Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement officers have no duty to protect individuals.
You can call 911 with the most desperate of emergencies, but as much of Los Angeles discovered in 1992, the police won’t come when they are needed the most.
The threat of foreign invasion was very real to the Founders, and with good reason; the British were still supporting Native American attacks along the frontier of the young United States, and the long-simmering hostilities between the United States and Great Britain erupted in a full-on war again in 1812. Fears of an amphibious invasion from a foreign power saw a network of coastal fortifications spring up in following generations that lasted until the last forts were abandoned in 1950.
While General Yamamoto’s apocryphal quote that, “You cannot invade the mainland United States because there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass” is almost certainly false as a statement, it does speak to a larger truth: the citizenry of United States possess more small arms (300+ million, with tens of millions more added every month) than all of the world’s armies, combined.
That brings us to the main reason the Founding Fathers wanted the citizenry to have ” every other terrible implement of the soldier,” which was their own well-earned and deep-seated distrust of the corrupting power of government.
While they may not have our modern technology, the Founders were much better students of world history and arguably far more attuned to the psychology of governments than our own reality-television and social media-obsessed population which is so heavily invested in trivialities.
The Founders believed that citizens should be able to own every weapon the military could possess, with only their personal financial condition being an impediment to ownership. That generally meant citizens would own a fowling piece (shotgun), rifle, or musket, but many also owned pistols and swords. More wealthy Americans might purchase pivot guns or cannons, and some wealthy souls such a Senator James DeWolf of Rhode Island, even own privateer fleets bristling with cannon capable of flattening coastal cities.
It’s amusing to watch gun control supporters attempt to claim the Founders could only imagine or mean citizens to have muskets, when Thomas Jefferson had a fast-firing rifle with 20-shot detachable magazines.
The Founders were very clear: they want Americans to be armed with weapons of contemporary utility for self defense and use in a modern militia.
Today that would include modern handguns, shotguns, and of course, those intermediate-caliber rifles that are clearly the most vital part of modern militias and armies.
I won’t go so far as to insist that every American should own one of these “modern muskets,” but the Founders clearly meant that citizens should be able to choose firearms of contemporary military utility to defend their homes and communities from threats both foreign and domestic if they do desired.
Those souls attempting to ban such necessary weapons from the hands of the citizenry are not to be trusted, nor are they to be obeyed.