The Second Amendment, Then and Now

The Bill of Rights, which includes the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was first proposed to Congress by James Madison as articles to be incorporated into the main body of the Constitution.

Congress approved twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution in 1789 and submitted them to the states for ratification.  Contrary to Madison’s proposal, they were submitted as “supplemental” additions.  Articles Three through Twelve were ratified by the required number of states and became Amendments One through Ten in 1791.

The Second Amendment, which has become a matter of considerable interest in recent years, reads as follows:

“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.”

This was not controversial at the time.  The concept existed in English common law long before the enactment of the Bill of Rights.  And, many Americans feel it necessary to own firearms today.

The importance of this issue to the Founders was quite clear.  James Madison, who introduced the language that became the Second Amendment, also wrote that “The Constitution preserves the advantage of being armed which Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation where the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”

Alexander Hamilton, like Madison a strong advocate for Federalism, was equally explicit: “The constitution shall never be construed…to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”

Thomas Jefferson famously said: “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.” And he also wrote that “The strongest reason for the people to retain their right to keep and bear arms is as a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

During the years just prior to the Revolutionary War there was mob violence in several of the colonies.  In addition, many Americans lived in or close to wilderness regions where conditions were essentially lawless.  The need people felt to protect their families was quite rational.

It should be noted that a primary motivation for supporting “a well regulated Militia,” articulated in the Second Amendment as “being necessary to the security of a free State,” was the strong opposition among the Founders to the concept of a standing army.

Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “None but an armed nation can dispense with a standing army.  To keep ours armed and disciplined is therefore at all times important.” “Every citizen should be a soldier,” he wrote. “This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.”

The American reality in 1776 and 1791 was entirely different from that confronting us today.  Yet, news of social and religious violence imposes on our peace every day.  Older Americans are particularly sensitized to what has changed: the radical loss of trust and the lack of civility, ethical integrity, and social responsibility we see everywhere.

We must acknowledge the compelling reasons why so many feel it necessary to possess firearms.

It is in this context that I have expressed my concern about threats of force made or implied in the name of political ends.  We already face dangerous instability, a condition that can only grow worse as conditions deteriorate.

Unfortunately, I expect it will ultimately be demonstrated for all to see – that the pursuit of violence will produce exactly the opposite of its intended purpose.  Such destructiveness will set us back immeasurably.

There is a dynamic relationship between means and ends.  The character of the ends we seek will be determined by the character of the means with which we seek them.

Violence committed by Americans against Americans would contradict the rationale behind the impetus to violence itself.   It would be self-contradictory, pitting brother and sister against brother and sister, subverting the integrity and viability of the American Idea as a guiding force for the good.

We can do better.

Both our purpose and our means need to be carefully considered, and we need to get it right.  We face an extended period of sequential crises.  Many dark and dangerous things are possible.


Next week: Principled Means, Principled Ends

2 thoughts on “The Second Amendment, Then and Now

  1. First and foremost, and I am not completely certain, is that I do not believe that a constitutional method exists for a military coup. But I am listening. I do find an extreme hesitancy for people to exercise the necessary “checks and balances” of the constitution at all levels of government. Why? Because leadership, local and federal, want their well paid jobs and the benefits that go along with it. We need face this. Politicians are getting what they want, because the necessary checks are not being exercised. It’s a “good” job to have. But it is not the “good” found in “good and beautiful.” However, the logical place for the power relative to a coup lies with our congress and our military. I have more confidence in our military. The people also have this burden, this awesome responsibility. But will “we the people” shoot ourselves in the foot? Or just shoot ourselves, a pattern that is playing out before our eyes…

    I own guns. Been around them my whole life. I have used them, and seen them used to provide food. I have no problem with that. I have no problem with responsible ownership of guns. However, we are mortal. People will be accidentally killed with guns. People will be killed with guns. It’s appropriate to review these things, but legislators need not exercise a “knee jerk” reaction rushing to pass new laws to stop homicide. Homicides will continue. Shall we pass a law preventing from striking someone in the head with a rock or even a truck? No, but these “knee jerk” reactions get people elected…

    One of the problems associated with guns, is the false empowerment it gives the owner of that gun. It is a mighty ascension to power to defend your street corner-referring to potential gang behavior. The rush to arms to resolve any conflict, or the oil pipelines flowing, is wrong. Where and when did we lose the ability to “reason together” to the point of a logical conclusion or compromise? I have no problem with the better weapon, I have problem with the attitude behind the use of any weapon. If valor is the better part of restraint, the user must be prepared to train to no end in the use of that weapon. Why? Because when you use a weapon, you may be called to use restraint. Perhaps restraint can only be developed with confidence. To get confidence we must train. Do we introduce weapons training at a young age? If we have a citizen military it seems so… (Personally, I am for conscripted service of some sort. I would even be liberal enough to include service at the local hospice or incorporating church service perhaps. Shall we discuss having this program as as part of our education system. As a side note-a debate is going on about establishing the “minimum” age to 25. I support this notion with conditions. What is a year or two of conscripted service worth as part of an education?)

    We must establish some sort of discussion of the appropriate use of any weapon. Perhaps what we need to do is find a way to stop homicidal ideation. There are many paths to towards homicide. It is past due that we take note of this. Homicidal thought is the problem, not gun control. What causes homicidal ideation?

    I favor the 2nd amendment. But I have worked the “mean streets” and I have a relationship with my gun for perhaps different reasons. I want to defend my home, my loved ones. I want to rebel against my government in the “push back” sense. I don’t want bloodshed. But I want to preserve Liberty. I want to preserve good and beautiful. I want to preserve Justice.

    Sorry folks, the bloodshed is already underway… Can we turn this bloody ship around? It’s worth our time! But please note, my experience suggests that at the heart of gang behavior is a constitution. An alternate form of government. No, not all gang members know this.


    • Thank you, Jay, for sharing these deep thoughts. I respect your ambivalence, knowing that you are a compassionate and exceptionally deep thinking person — and a recently retired police officer. These are the kinds of questions we all need to be confronting in ourselves with an attitude of honesty and pragmatism — rather than with emotional “knee-jerk” reactions, as you put it so well. We will not communicate until we listen to one another with a genuine interest in understanding. Stepping back for a moment from the everyday violence on our streets, it is my view that positive change is not possible unless our means are consistent with the ends we seek. And, constructive action can only begin when we initiate relationships that rise above our differences. Tom


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