With all the recent talk about gun violence and the 2nd Amendment, the question that many Christians are asking is, “Does the Bible have anything to say about all of this?” This series is my attempt to answer that question. I hope it helps you answer that question and encourages healthy dialogue.
Allow me to first precede my statements by saying that I have spent a good deal of time over the past few months researching the information I will be presenting. My goal was to find an honest answer to the question of where a Christian ought to stand on the issue of gun control. With that as my guiding desire, as I researched, I tried to approach the question with as few biases as possible. That being said, if anyone finds any flaws in my logic, please, by all means, feel free to bring them to my attention in the comments section below.
This week, we will look at the Historical Context of the 2nd Amendment.
I begin with the premise that the Constitution was written on the contextual foundation of the principles and ideals of the Declaration of Independence. The foundational premise of the Declaration of Independence is of course:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Thus the Bill of Rights could be considered a list of laws that secure the God-given, unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (or property).
With that in mind, let’s examine the Second Amendment itself. The text of the Second Amendment states:
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.
It is important to note that the Second Amendment did not grant the right to keep and bear arms. That right existed prior to the writing of the Bill of Rights as is implied in the text. The amendment clearly states that the right to keep and bear arms “shall not be infringed.” There is no establishing of this right, the right is already there, thus the 2nd amendment is, again, a law that secures a right that already exists.
It is often argued that the historical context of the Second Amendment — namely the Revolutionary War period and the establishment of a new nation, one without a standing army — negates the validity of the Second Amendment today. Second Amendment opponents claim that because the U.S. has an Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, and because state and local governments provide a National Guard, a Coast Guard, and state and local police forces who are all supplied with firearms by their respective governments that employ them, the necessity of a “well regulated militia” has been met and the right to keep and bear arms does not apply to individuals. That argument, however, completely ignores other historical contexts surrounding the Second Amendment.
In his popular edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1803), St. George Tucker, a lawyer, Revolutionary War militia officer, legal scholar, and later a U.S. District Court judge (appointed by James Madison in 1813), wrote of the Second Amendment:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government.
In the appendix to the Commentaries, Tucker elaborates further:
This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty… The right of self- defense is the first law of nature; in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Whenever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction (emphasis mine). In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game: a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. True it is, their bill of rights seems at first view to counteract this policy: but the right of bearing arms is confined to protestants, and the words suitable to their condition and degree, have been interpreted to authorise the prohibition of keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game, to any farmer, or inferior tradesman, or other person not qualified to kill game. So that not one man in five hundred can keep a gun in his house without being subject to a penalty (emphasis mine).
Tucker’s words offer pretty solid historical context that proves that the so-called “militia clause” was not intended to limit this amendment to militia members. His use of the phrase “The right of self-defense…” in the appendix shows the proper understanding of the Founders. Self-defense and national defense are clearly contrasted here.
Also, Tucker’s reference to “the first law of nature” confirms that the Founders saw the 2nd amendment and the right to self-defense as a God-given, natural right.
In his work, “A View of the Constitution of the United States of America” (1829), which became a constitutional law textbook at West Point and other institutions, U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania, William Rawle, describes the scope of the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms:
The prohibition is general. No clause in the constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious attempt could only be made under some general pretence by a state legislature. But if in any blind pursuit of inordinate power, either should attempt it, this amendment may be appealed to as a restraint on both.
Seems pretty straightforward. Neither a state nor the federal government has any constitutional authority to disarm its citizens. If the Army training facility’s textbook on constitutional law takes the position that the government cannot disarm the people, the argument that the Second amendment is negated by the existence of a standing army is completely fallacious!
A personal favorite, Justice Joseph Story (my home county is named for him), who was appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice by James Madison in 1811, wrote a constitutional commentary in 1833. In his comments on the Second Amendment, he writes:
The next amendment is: “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.”
The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.
The Supreme Court of Tennessee summed it up best in Andrews v. State (1871) when they stated that:
[T]his passage from Story, shows clearly that this right was intended, as we have maintained in this opinion, and was guaranteed to, and to be exercised and enjoyed by the citizen as such, and not by him as a soldier, or in defense solely of his political rights.
Justice Story would have lamented the fact that we now have a large military establishment and would likely be sounding the alarm against tyranny and the alienation of our unalienable Rights. And I can’t say that I disagree with his logic or his conclusion.
Another of the ideologies in the Declaration of Independence that made these United States possible was the understanding that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”. Upon this revelation Alexander Hamilton bases the idea that the right to self-defense is the “original right” in Federalist Paper No. 28:
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, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair (emphasis mine).
We can conclude, based upon the historical evidence, that the Founders thought that this “original right” was necessary for the securing of the God-given “unalienable rights” listed in the Declaration of Independence. In order to enjoy the rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, we must be able to secure and defend those rights. Thus the right to defend one’s self is central to the philosophy of the Founders and the 2nd Amendment and directly connected to the idea that these rights are apart of Natural Law.
Another beneficial aid to interpreting the Bill of Rights are the various state constitutions that were written contemporaneously. These documents are especially insightful when in comes to the Second Amendment on numerous levels. Provisions for the right to bear arms are contained in 44 of the 50 state constitutions, making the Second Amendment one of the most reiterated right of the Bill of Rights. And often, the language used in the state constitutions is less ambiguous, giving us a clear understanding of the thought behind the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
The present-day Pennsylvania Constitution, using language adopted in 1790, declares in article 1, section 21:
The right of the citizens to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State shall not be questioned.
Compare that to Pennsylvania’s first constitution, adopted in 1776, stated in its Declaration of Rights:
That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination, to, and governed by, the civil power.
Adopted in 1777, the Vermont Constitution closely resembles the Pennsylvania Constitution. It states:
That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State — and as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.
Based upon this historical look we can reasonably conclude that the 2nd amendment was of vital importance to the framers of the Constitution and that it was originally about individual self-defense.
Next week, we will look beyond the Founders at the Natural Law context of the 2nd Amendment and self-defense in order to better understand where and how the concept of the 2nd Amendment was derived.