American’s Right to Own a Firearm, a Short Biography
Americans treasure their right to own firearms for many reasons. Some use firearms for hunting, for competition, for recreation and target shooting, others use them in their profession, and then there are those that use them for self-defense. There are always those loud few who don’t treasure their right to own firearms, and some that don’t even see it as a right but as a privilege. This essay will be a short biography of the history of firearm ownership leading up to the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions protecting that right up into the early 21st century.
From the beginning of recorded time, man has had a universally accepted right to self-defense; whether that be with a rock, a stick, a war club, a sword, or a firearm. Ever since the invention of the first man-portable firearms, known as hand cannons, man has chosen the firearm as a primary means of self-defense. We can trace the common law practice of carrying, or bearing, arms for self-defense all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome.
Let’s start with the common law definition of ‘to bear arms’. During the American Revolution the common law definition would be “light infantry weapons which can be carried and used, together with ammunition, by a single militiaman, functionally equivalent to those commonly used by infantrymen in land warfare” (Shaw). Similar common law definitions stretch all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. Why the common infantryman? Because each and every citizen was expected to answer their nation’s call and take up arms in her defense.
Let’s take a look at ancient Greece. Plato, speaking as “Socrates”, in the Republic, said “…political transformation in the Republic related to the tendencies of the unjust state to win privilege through “armed force” and of the “armed multitude” to abolish the unjust state in question.” If you follow Plato’s logic, the evolution from an oligarchy into a democracy requires that the common people be armed; and to maintain the honesty of that democracy, the common people must remain armed.
Ancient Rome is an excellent example of why the right to keep and bear arms is so important. During the early Roman days, when they were more republican, Roman citizenship included the right to keep and bear arms for personal and collective defense (Halbrook, location 504). For example, Rome never fielded armies more than fifty thousand men; however, for home defense against the Gauls after the first Punic war, they fielded eighteen hundred thousand citizens. This is an early example of the idea of an armed citizenry, or militia, for defense. It also was a strong reminder that citizenry could band together for defense external and internal alike. In later years, the tyrants that were the empire builders that came to rule the Roman empire, encouraged and supported policies of disarming both their political and military opponents, regardless of citizenship status, which made these territories easier to control. This is a great example of why we need to protect the right to keep and bear arms, protection from our own governments.
Now that we have established that the right to keep and bear arms is one that goes back millennia, lets look a little more closely to our country’s more recent roots, England. Even though early English kings and monarchs required subjects to be armed for mutual defense of whichever fiefdom they belonged to, later kings believed in, and were known for, their absolutism of the crown, which deprived the right of arms to the lower classes, religious groups, certain colonies and pretty much anyone else they wished to dominate, in order to enrich and increase the power and wealth of the already dominate classes. The right to keep and bear arms has always been a dominate issue in the conflicts between the commoner, citizen and the monarch, ruler, or government. The right to keep and bear arms was so important that it found it’s way into the Magna Carta and the English Declaration of Rights of 1689. “The Common-Law Right to keep, carry, and use arms was attested to by well-established judicial precedent and by the leading commentators both before and after the 1688 Glorious Revolution” (Halbrook. Location 1336).
Since it was established in ancient tradition, English Common-Law, and the English 1689 Bill of Rights as a right of all Englishmen, the right to keep and bear arms was also expected as a basic right of all English colonists in America. In England, legislation continued to be brought into law through the 18th century that disarmed Irish and Scottish citizens, with a few exceptions to those who supported the English domination of those lands. The English often searched homes and shot offenders on sight. So, when King George III enacted similar policies against English citizens in the American colonies, the colonist who saw themselves as Englishmen and therefore guaranteed Common-Law rights, including the right to petition grievance and the right to bear arms, they decided the only way to keep and preserve those rights was by a violent, armed insurrection aimed at overthrowing the English crown.
English firearms control policies were first enacted to disarm and control the Native Americans and was seen as good policy until they were put into place for the colonists themselves. This resulted in a rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon against the rule of Virginia Governor William Berkeley in 1676. “Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676” was the first large uprising in the colonies by discontented free Englishmen of all classes and races; over a thousand Virginia Englishmen took part. A hundred years later, on the 19th of April 1775, was “the shot heard around the world”. The battles known collectively as the “Battles of Lexington and Concord” were fought in Middlesex County Massachusetts. After the “Boston Tea Party” the colonial assembly declared Massachusetts in a state of open rebellion and sent 700 British Army regulars with secret orders to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies reportedly stored by the militia at Concord. The colonials caught wind of this, armed their militia and moved the rest of their arms and munitions. Although they were prepared, the militia was defeated and the “Red Coats” moved onto Lexington. There were battles fought in Middlesex County in the cities of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy, and Cambridge and by the end of the day the colonial militias had won the day. These battles were considered to be the opening battles of the American Revolution.
Americans of both sides of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists camp strongly believed in the right to bear arms as a “god given right”. It is a given that the Anti-Federalists were adamant supporters of the right to bear arms, but the Federalists were too. In The Federalist, No. 28, Hamilton wrote: “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.…”, in The Federalist, No. 29 he wrote “… This will not only lessen the call for military establishments, but 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 rights and those of their fellow citizens.”
In the original bill of rights proposed by James Madison, the amendment was introduced as “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person” (Halbrook. Location 1336). Regardless of the argument over whether or not to even have a Bill of Right in the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights was added in 1789 with the second amendment reading “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.” (US Const. amend. II).
The meaning of those twenty-seven words has been debated for decades. In 1939 in United States v. Miller the Supreme Court had the opinion that “…the Second Amendment protected the right to keep and bear militia-type arms.” and fell back on case law holding that all citizens were members of the militia. In the more recent Supreme Court decision from 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, the majority written by Justice Scalia said that “…the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to possess firearms for self-defense, hunting, and militia service.” And that “… “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” means what it literally says, and that this liberty to have arms for protection is a natural right recognized in the English tradition. It was considered fundamental by our Founders and was consistently regarded as an individual right in the nineteenth century.” (United States v. Miller)
In conclusion, we, as a free people, have a long, ancient, and strong history of the right to keep and bear arms. As Americans, that proud history of fierce independence has always been backed up with firearms and our willingness to use them for self-defense, the defense of our loved ones, the defense of our nation, and most of all, the defense of those values and rights that make it all possible.
District of Columbia v. Heller. Supreme Court of The United States. 28 June, 2008.
Halbrook, Stephen P. That every man be armed the evolution of a constitutional right. University of New Mexico, 2013.
Plato. Republic. Unknown Publisher, 380 BC
Shaw, Jazz . “Does the Second Amendment cover edged weapons?” Hot Air, 10 June 2017, hotair.com/archives/2017/06/10/second-amendment-cover-edged-weapons/.
The Constitution of the United States. Amendment II.
United States v. Miller. Supreme Court of The United States. 15 May, 1939