What the Founding Fathers Really Meant When They Wrote the Second Amendment

Has the Second Amendment been twisted by conservatives? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

The Second Amendment was created so that the states could form militias or armies to destroy insurrections or slave rebellions because the federal government had no standing military for a long time. The Founding Fathers were frightened by a standing army, because they feared coups. Without a standing army, the only protection the people and the government had were militias.

The U. S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, states:

"The Congress shall have Power ... To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy; To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces; To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;"

Note that there could be a permanent navy, but not a standing army. Note also the Constitution explicitly states what militias do: they make sure the laws are followed, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions. This was a lesson learned after Shays Rebellion of 1786-1787 and The Whiskey Rebellion 1791-1794. The Militia Act of 1792 also explicitly directs the president's use of militias; see The Militia Act of 1792.

The Constitution made sure that there was nothing to fear from the Federal government, because there was no standing army. They feared insurrection and invasions of all sorts. The militias were empowered by the Constitution to protect against these in the absence of a U.S. army. Every single speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives who commented on the Second Amendment before its ratification spoke only about militias.

That being said, the Founding Fathers seemed to think that guns and militia service were good for character building. They certainly didn't want to ban them. On the contrary, gun ownership and militia membership were required. The aforementioned Militia Act of 1792 stated:

"That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack."

However, the states had many laws regulating guns from the earliest days of the founding of America until the present day. Not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution were prohibited from owning guns. Even Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870's prohibited weapons from being carried. That law wasn't very effective.

The U.S. Constitution and subsequent laws provided for militias to protect the government, while regulating guns. Guns were integral to the American experience, as every white male between 18 and 45 was required to own a gun and serve in the militia. Guns could be and were regulated. It is difficult to know with certainty how the Founding Fathers would react to a number of things as they are today, including the fact that we have an incredibly powerful standing army and that we are awash in handguns and weapons that have no relationship to militias.

For what it's worth, my opinion is that at this time gun ownership is fully ingrained in our laws and experience. The states should be able to regulate them as they see fit. That is the law as it is now. To change the law will require a Constitutional Amendment, which is not likely any time in the foreseeable future.

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