Debate Magazine

Second Amendment Fallacies from the Federalist Blog

Posted on the 01 September 2011 by Mikeb302000

This came from an experiement I did to see if I received different results from the google search "Second Amendment standing armies" performed outside the USA. It came as no surprise that the non-US results provided more scholarly articles than the gun right related results one received in the US.

Of course, Nothing I haven't been saying here before, but I still want to repeat this since it neds to be said:

Second Amendment Fallacies
By P.A. Madison on September 28, 2010

I wanted to take the opportunity today to add some late commentary over the court recent ruling in McDonald v. Chicago that extended the protection of an “individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia” against state infringement which had been an open question since the earlier gun case of District of Columbia v. Heller. Specifically, I want to address obvious errors in the courts reasoning in supporting an “individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia” under the Second Amendment.

Before I do, I want to add the disclaimer that I am not arguing for or against particular gun laws but only arguing gun laws, no matter how wise or foolish, are not in any way applicable to the Second Amendment. Owning a gun for personal defense is a far different principle from the keeping and bearing of arms as part of the military power of a State through a well-regulated militia that had always been compelled by State law.

The first error I’ll address is the one that treats the Second Amendment as though it confers a right directly to people of the States. The federal Constitution, and specifically the Second Amendment, did not confer anything to the people in terms of individual rights and freedoms for the simple reason they already possessed such rights through their own sovereignty under their own constitutions. It was the States with the approval of the people who gave to the new federal government and not the other way around.

Amendments were asked for and offered only to calm anti-federalists fears over future claims of power of national government to do such things as establish and compel worship to a national religion, enact laws of seditious libel, or disarm and replace state militias with a standing army, etc. The Second Amendment’s purpose was declaratory much like the Tenth Amendment. The principle it declares is that the security of a free people (State) is through a well-regulated militia for which the reason of keeping and bearing arms shall not be infringed because there can be no security in a standing army during times of peace.

Perhaps no one explained the principle behind the Second Amendment better than Tench Coxe when he wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1788:

The powers of the sword, say the minority of Pennsylvania, is in the hands of Congress. My friends and countrymen, it is not so, for the powers of the sword are in the hands of the yeomanry of America from sixteen to sixty. The militia of these free commonwealths entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible [standing] 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 right to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birth-right of an American.

James Madison said standing armies during peace were “the greatest danger to liberty.”

One might argue the Second Amendment says nothing about standing armies but neither does the Third Amendment and historians agree it is rooted in the practice of maintaining a standing army during times of peace where law required people to quarter those troops on their property.[1] One of the things that made standing armies so odious was they lived among the people.

When early American patriots spoke of bearing arms they were talking about the safeguards of liberty through security of an armed and well organized citizenry in contrast to safeguarding their homes and families through a standing army and not any private right to own and use a gun. New Hampshire Governor John Page in June of 1841 explains these safeguards through an armed citizenry require efficiency through laws and organization:

The “right of the people to keep and bear arms,” is a right dear to every freeman; arms should be in the hands of every citizen of the Republic, who is able to wield them, and it is the duty of Government to prescribe such rules of organization and discipline, as will give those arms the greatest possible efficiency.

Pennsylvania Governor John Andrew Shulze said in 1829, “The right to bear arms is another important right guaranteed to all our citizens by the [Pennsylvania] constitution.” This right says he, imposes on the “legislature the duty of so organizing and disciplining the whole body of the citizens, that they shall be able, not only to bear arms, but to use them with confidence and skill, ‘in defense of themselves and the States, ’ if such a necessity shall arise.”

History shows all the States required by law those capable of bearing arms to do so, whether they were required by law to supply their own private arms or given public arms to use. Eventually all the States did away with compelling citizens to provide their own arms and instead armed their militias with public arms. When Tench Coxe once spoke of “private arms” he was referring to his own State of Pennsylvania law that militia members provide themselves with their own musket, else the fines for missing muster days would be used to purchase a musket for those unable to provide their own.

Armed militias of the citizens served as a vital function of providing a community with an armed police force when needed since there were no established police forces in early America that could respond to such events as rioting mobs. Framer James Wilson’s home was surrounded by an angry mob of 200 (some armed) in 1779 that required the calling out of the militia the following morning to disperse.

The bearing of arms was never considered a fundamental right of individuals to personally keep and use firearms but rather viewed as a civic duty, an obligation of citizenship in the same breath as casting a ballot or jury duty. One of the early arguments against granting suffrage to woman was it could lead to the obligation of them bearing arms. Proof of the civic function of bearing arms can be found in the denial of citizenship under former naturalization laws when potential new citizens refused to take an oath to bear arms.

The United States in July of 1863 issued orders forbidding citizens of the city of Baltimore and County to keep arms except those with the constitutional right to keep arms being members of a militia.

The court calls “explicit evidence” the words “constitutional right to bear arms” under §14 of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act that the 39th Congress viewed the right to keep and bear arms as a “fundamental right.” However, the insertion of these words was in response to the arming of all white militias within former Mississippi that excluded blacks. In other words, §14 of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act actually supports arms of the citizenry under a well-regulated militia rather than an individual right to arms outside of the service of a militia.

It is important to note the Freedmen’s Bureau Act was limited only to former rebel States that were then under United States military jurisdiction which in return made the Second Amendment applicable under any laws made by Congress while administering law within these former States.

This fact became very apparent with an act of Congress on March 2, 1867 that disbanded all the armed militias within former rebel States, leading to the charge Congress was infringing citizen’s right to keep and bear arms. President Johnson called the disbanding of the militias as “contrary to the express declaration of the Constitution, that ‘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.’” In other words, it was the people who bear arms that were the well-regulated militias that provided for the security of a free State.

The majority makes a bizarre claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 “similarly sought to protect the right of all citizens to keep and bear arms” as the Freedmen’s Bureau Act did, even though the Civil Rights Act made no mention about bearing arms. The majority tries to slink around this inconvenience by suggesting the words “the right … to have full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty, personal security, and the acquisition, enjoyment, and disposition of estate, real and personal” was understood by some to include bearing arms.

How did the majority come to this wild conclusion?

They think Sen. Lyman Trumbull suggested the Freedmen’s Bureau Act would have protected the right to bear arms without the words “constitutional right to bear arms” inserted. In reality, all he said was the insertion of “constitutional right to bear arms” under the Freedmen’s Bureau Act had no “material effect” to the already existing section.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 is a bad act to cite since its author, Sen. Trumbull, said it was only intended to enforce the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States under §2 of Article IV, so “that a citizen of Massachusetts” could seek vindication or enforcement of a right in South Carolina courts. In other words, it isn’t horribly relevant since it was never viewed as advancing any personal rights under federal amendments to citizens under their own State.


Because all States compelled by law individual males of a certain age to keep arms (or arms were required to be stored in public armories) to bear when called upon to do so, dispels the idea of bearing arms was seen as a fundamental right for individual’s to own and use firearms outside of militia service. Instead, bearing arms was viewed as an obligation of citizenship in the service of the militia for both State and community defense and not anything to do with private firearms for personal use.

The declaratory principal found under the Second Amendment lies today in a dormant state due to the fact States no longer maintain and compel their citizens to serve in armed State militias as part of the security of a free State.

[1] Editorial comment: Not really true, There are drafts of the Second Amendment and other contemporary documents which make it quite clear that the existance of the militia was to prevent the establishment of a standing army.

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