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Well Regulated: The Lost Meaning of the Second Amendment

By Saul Cornell

Political reactions to the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech have been predictable. Leading Republicans invoke the 2nd amendment, or suggest arming students, while the Democratic leadership scrambles for cover seeking to avoid the wrath of NRA. If we are to make any progress in formulating effective gun policies that will reduce America’s staggering levels of gun violence, we will need to move beyond the myths that obscure the true meaning of the Second Amendment, disinformation that clouds the history of gun regulation in America.

For as long as there have been guns in America there have been gun regulations. Indeed, the period after the adoption of the Second Amendment witnessed an intensification of gun regulation, not a decrease. Although cornell-kevinfitzsimons.jpggun rights advocates have tirelessly worked to convince Americans that the Second Amendment prohibits robust gun regulation, history flatly contradicts this claim. There is no need to choose between honoring the Second Amendment and enacting effective and comprehensive gun regulations.

Any productive discussion about gun policy must begin with the realization that gun ownership and gun regulation are each deeply rooted in American history. The Founding Fathers sought to steer a course between tyranny and anarchy. The Second Amendment was part of this ideal of well regulated liberty. Without regulation, liberty quickly degenerated into anarchy, a nightmare the Founders feared almost as much as tyranny. Gun rights advocates often are insistent that the term well regulated simply means orderly, but this would have come as a shock to Alexander Hamilton who unambiguously declared that “If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security.” Fidelity to the Second Amendment does not pose a barrier to gun regulation, it compels it.

Gun control advocates also need to learn the lessons of our history. Sadly, the problem of gun violence is not new in American history. Nor is the history of gun control a recent development. Americans have been arguing over what to do about the dangers posed by guns since the dawn of the nineteenth century when the nation experienced its first gun violence crisis and enacted the first comprehensive gun control laws. These early experiments in gun control should serve as a cautionary warning to those genuinely interested in effective gun regulation. Gun laws that are widely perceived to be efforts to disarm the population will invariably produce a militant backlash on the part of gun rights advocates. There is a clear historical pattern in the history of gun control: tragedy, outrage, legislation, and back lash. In recent years the same cycle has reappeared in modern gun politics. Outrage over the Kennedy and Reagan assassinations set the same predictable cycle in motion again. To break this cycle, gun control supporters must reach out to the vast majority of gun owners who support more effective regulations.

Reaching out to gun owners means abandoning ideological posturing and focusing on pragmatic policy options. Polling data consistently shows that most Americans, including most gun owners, favor stronger common sense gun regulations. Americans need to rally around two points upon which there is broad agreement: keeping guns out of the hands of people who should not have them and giving law enforcement all the tools they need to achieve this goal. Perhaps if we clear away the myths around the Second Amendment and acknowledge that gun regulation is as American as venison pie, then we might just turn the tragedy at Virginia Tech into a historic opportunity to reorient the great American gun debate.


Saul Cornell is Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University and Director of the Second Amendment Research Center at the John Glenn Institute. His most recent book is A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America. Read his other posts here.

Recent Comments

  1. AntiClimacus

    There is a famous line in George Washington’s papers where he uses the phrase “well-regulated” in reference to the colonial militias. It is very significant because as a close personal friend of many of the framers as well as a contemporary we can trust his usage of the word much more than we can trust modern reinterpretations. In this instance, he uses “well-regulated” to mean “well-disciplined,” not “under strict control of many laws,” as it is currently interpreted. Furthermore, if you really wish to get at the meaning of the 2nd amendment, you only have to read the many state constitutions approved shortly after the Bill of Rights or within the next few decades. They are often more direct – for instance, Rhode Island, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” There are numerous other examples. Claiming that 2nd amendment refers to the RIGHT OF A STATE (aside from the intellectual absurdities of such a protection in the Bill of Rights for the people)is a scholarly fraud.

    From the 1856 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Dred Scott v. Sanford case:

    “If black people were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which Southern states considered to be necessary FOR THEIR OWN SAFETY.
    It would give the persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union…the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and TO KEEP AND CARRY ARMS wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and ENDANGERING THE PEACE AND SAFETY OF THE STATE.”

    All caps are mine. Notice that the decision uses fear of public safety to support its goals. Gun prohibition is used to keep subject people in their place. Also notice that the decision doesn’t question the right of citizens to keep and bear arms “wherever they went.”

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