Taken alone, this statement could be understood as being focused on "well-regulated militias;" or it could be focused on the rights of the citizens to bear arms. For many years, the Supreme Court supported the former view. It wasn’t until 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that the Court finally concluded that gun ownership by individuals is protected by the Second Amendment.
Adam Winkler has produced a fascinating review of the legal wrangling leading up to that 2008 decision. In the process he also provides the historical background required to understand the thoughts that might have been motivating our founding generation. Winkler is convincing in leading the reader to conclude that the right to bear arms was so obvious to the writers of the Constitution that it should have been beyond question. Winkler is equally convincing in making the case that placing restrictions on gun ownership in order to further the common good was also obviously assumed as a function of the government. Winkler’s book is titled Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
The writers of the Constitution were of English descent. It is only natural that their view of personal rights would borrow heavily from those established in England.
The occasion for the cementing of this right in the English Bill of Rights was the attempt by a Catholic king to confiscate the arms of potentially troublemaking Protestants. That king lost his job as a result.
Now consider what happened a century later when another English king tried to contain dissent in his American colonies by limiting access to firearms.
"The American colonist had no standing army of their own, but had for decades formed militias composed of ordinary men to fight the Indians. These militias relied on the privately owned guns of the men called out to serve, in addition to stockpiled guns and gunpowder put away for times of need. The British began seizing these stockpiles to make it harder for the colonies to rebel—a move that only inspired the colonists to see to it that George III’s reign over them ended quickly."
It was an attempt by the British to confiscate arms being stockpiled in Concord that led to the confrontation that initiated the Revolution.
After the successful revolution, the dependence on hastily formed militias was no longer sufficient. The response was not only to allow anyone to possess a gun, but to demand that they possess a gun. This was a mandate to purchase a commercial product no less. These guns had to be registered, kept in working order, and they were subject to confiscation by the government if necessary for the public good.
"If the government decided that a privately owned gun was needed, the founding fathers used a temporary form of gun confiscation known as ‘impressment’ to seize the gun from its owner. Ten of the thirteen colonies impressed privately owned firearms for the war effort against England."
Winkler tells us that at the time it was also assumed that privately owned guns would be available so the citizens could participate in combating crime.
If there is yet any doubt that the right to bear arms was deeply imbedded in the psyche and structure of the nation when it was formed, Winkler provides this additional insight.
Winkler spends a comparable amount of his book detailing how gun restrictions have always been a part of our society.
Selective disarmament was recognized as within the government’s purview as blacks, free or slave, and people of mixed race were considered too dangerous to allow them to possess guns. And for a while in Maryland there was a law that barred Catholics from possessing guns.
An example more relevant to our times comes from Boston. City government was sufficiently concerned about fire hazards that they passed a law in 1783 fining anyone who kept or brought a loaded firearm into a building within the city.
And finally, Winkler provides this conclusion:
The history of guns in our nation is misunderstood by both sides in the arguments over rights versus regulations. Winkler’s book should help clear up many misunderstandings.
Winkler’s history of how gun regulation has evolved over time is an interesting story also. It will, perhaps, be described in a subsequent article.