Since San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Columbine et al., the “progressives,” the media and their acolytes have beaten their chests calling for even stricter gun restrictions, although the most restrictive states and cities that have the highest crime. They insist that the Second Amendment does not apply to individuals, but only to the National Guard, even though the modern Guard did not come into existence until the Dick Act of 1903. To them, the Supreme Court decisions in Heller v. District of Columbia and McDonald v. Chicago affirming an individual right are mistaken, a conclusion reachable only by abjuring grammar and history.
To anyone who can diagram a sentence the Second Amendment is crystal-clear, not a Delphic pronouncement. The Founding Fathers, well versed in Latin grammar, knew exactly what they meant when they passed the Second Amendment. The meaning is in the main clause — “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” — a complete sentence. “A well-regulated militia” is, in Latin, an ablative absolute, it introduces the main idea. Would Second Amendment opponents be happier if it read, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”? The idea remains the same, but given the progressivist idea of a “living Constitution,” they would nullify the Second Amendment by asserting knowledge of the Bill of Rights superior to that of its author, James Madison.
Historian Leonard Levy’s “Origins of the Bill of Rights” reaffirmed an individual right. Wrote Levy: “The right to bear arms is an individual right. … if all it meant was the right to … serve in the military … [it] would never have reached constitutional status in the Bill of Rights. The very language of the amendment is evidence that the right is a personal one, for it is not subordinated to the militia clause.” The state constitutions of the revolution and early national period also acknowledged an individual right.
The Founders’ classical education made them realistically fearful of government power. They knew well what had befallen the Roman Republic and that tyrannies were only possible when the people lacked the means to resist. The chaos and oppression of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution’s short-circuiting of the Stuart’s divine right ambitions were fixed in their minds as was the English Bill of Rights (1689) which, although limited to Protestants, secured an Englishman’s right to arms. However, the roots go even further back, to the “Trained Bandes,” locals called up to defend the realm as Elizabeth I did when the Armada threatened England. Englishmen provided their own accouterments according to their station. Likewise, the chronic war with France in which for over a century frontier settlements were attacked, settlers massacred or carried off into Indian slavery meant colonists had to protect themselves.
New England towns either supplied weapons or, as had Plymouth in 1632, ordered freemen to arm themselves for defense against ever-present Indian dangers. When Queen Anne’s War (War of the Spanish Succession) broke out in 1702, New England militias were called to support the British assault on French Canada. Militiamen brought their own weapons; those who did not own a musket were issued one that they could keep when mustered out. The battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the American Revolution could not have taken place without an armed citizenry. Who, then, was the militia? To George Mason, it consisted of “the whole people.” Under the Militia Act of 1792, every man between 18 and 54 “who when “so enrolled and notified … shall within six months thereafter, provide himself … with a musket, bayonet and belt, two spare flints, a cartridge box with 24 bullets, and a knapsack.”
The left’s assertion that America’s creators couldn’t foresee a firearm beyond a flintlock is the logical fallacy of presentism — we know better today. Were the Dark Ages better than the Pax Romana because 900 A.D. came later than 300 A.D? Contrary to modernist fallacies, innovation, not stasis, was the characteristic of 18th century society. They might not have foreseen the M-16 but they knew the devastation of the massed firepower of .69 caliber Brown Bess and that weapons evolved. The matchlock was superseded by the wheelock, the wheelock by the flintlock, as the rifle was to supersede the musket. In 1770, British Army Major Patrick Ferguson had invented a breechloading flintlock rifle and effectively deployed his riflemen at Saratoga in 1777 (Ferguson’s rifle could have revolutionized warfare). By 1819, 19 years after the Constitution’s ratification, the U.S. Army adopted the Hall breechloader.
What of the Second Amendment, then? It is most certainly individual, but more importantly, it does not grant a right; it affirms an existing one as surely as natural law recognizes every man’s right to self-defense.
• William Layer is a historian who covered Air Force presidential operations during the early years of the Reagan administration.
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