Right to keep and bear arms


The Purpose of the Second Amendment

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The Purpose of the Second Amendment


There might never have been a federal Bill of Rights had it not been for one alarming event that is almost forgotten today. As part of the price of ratification in New York, it was agreed unanimously that a second federal convention should be called by the states, in accordance with Article V of the Constitution, to revise the document. Governor Clinton wrote a circular letter making this proposal to the governors of all the states.

Madison feared that a new convention would reconsider the whole structure of government and undo what had been achieved. Professor Merrill Jensen, in The Making of the American Constitution, analyzes the situation as follows:

The Bill of Rights was thus born of Madison's concern to prevent a second convention which might undo the work of the Philadelphia Convention, and also of his concern to save his political future in Virginia. On the other side such men as Patrick Henry

75 Id. at 662.

76 Id. at 663.

understood perfectly the political motives involved. He looked upon the passage of the Bill of Rights as a political defeat which would make it impossible to block the centralization of all power in the national government.77

Madison had outmaneuvered the anti-federalists by drafting the Bill of Rights very soon after the First Congress met.

Madison's original draft of the provision that eventually became the Second Amendment read:


The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed but well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.78

There was debate in Congress over the religious exemption, and it was removed. Otherwise, there was general discussion of standing armies and the militia, and widespread support for the proposal. It became part of the Constitution with the rest of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791.

Considering the immediate political context of the Second Amendment, as well as its long historical background, there can be no doubt about its intended meaning. There had been a long standing fear of military power in the hands of the executive, and, rightly or wrongly, many people believed that the militia was an effective military force which minimized the need for such executive military power. The proposed Constitution authorized standing armies, and granted

sweeping Congressional power over the militia. Some even feared disarmament of the militia. The Second Amendment was clearly and simply an effort to relieve that fear.

Neither in the Philadelphia Convention, in the writings of the pamphleteers, in the newspapers, in the convention debates, nor in Congress was there any reference to hunting, target shooting, duelling, personal self-defense, or any other subject that would indicate an individual right to have guns. Every reference to the right to bear arms was in connection with military service.

Thus the inevitable conclusion is that the "collectivist" view of the Second Amendment rather than the "individualist" interpretation is supported by history. It thus becomes necessary to examine the decisions of the Supreme Court in order to determine whether that body has expanded the right to bear arms beyond what was intended in 1789.


VII. Supreme Court Interpretation of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment has been directly considered by the Supreme Court in only four cases: United States v. Cruikshank,79 Presser v. Illinois,80 Miller v. Texas81 and United States v. Miller.82

In Cruikshank, the defendants had been convicted of conspiracy to deprive negro citizens of the rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States, in

77 M. JENSEN, THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION 149 (1964).

78 1 ANNALS OF CONG. 434 (1789)

79 92 U.S. 542 (1875).

80 116 U.S. 252 (1886).

81 153 U.S. 535 (1894). 82 307 US. 174 (1939).

violation of the criminal provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1870. Among the rights violated were the right to peaceably assemble and the right to keep and bear arms for a lawful purpose.


Chief Justice Waite, speaking for the majority, held that the rights violated by the defendants were not secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and thus the judgment of conviction was affirmed. The chief justice began with a long discussion of the nature of the federal system in general, and the attributes of state and national citizenship in particular. The only rights protected by the national government were those necessary for participation in that government. The right to petition Congress would be such a right, but a person must look to his state

government for protection of similar rights in other situations.

In particular reference to the Second Amendment, the opinion states:

The second and tenth counts are equally defective. The right there specified is that of "bearing arms for a lawful purpose." This is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed; but this, as has been seen, means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government, leaving the people to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow-citizens of the rights it recognizes, to what is called, in The City of New York v. Miln, 11 Pet. 139, the "powers which relate to merely municipal legislation, or what was, perhaps, more properly called internal police," "not surrendered or restrained" by the Constitution of the United States.83

The only dissenter in Cruikshank was Justice Clifford, who found the indictment vague on its face. He thus concurred in the result reached by the majority without discussing any constitutional issues.


The next, and undoubtedly the most important Second Amendment case was Presser v. Illinois84 decided in 1886. Herman Presser, a German-American, was the leader of Lehr und Wehr Verein, a fraternal, athletic and paramilitary association incorporated under Illinois law. He was convicted for parading and drilling with men under arms, in violation of an Illinois statute, and was fined ten dollars.

On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, it was contended that the Illinois statute conflicted with the military powers given to Congress by the Constitution, with federal statutes passed in pursuance of those powers, and with various other parts of the Constitution, including the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected all of these claims and affirmed the conviction.

It should be emphasized that Presser was argued and decided as a case presenting broad issues of the relationship of state and federal military power, and that the Second Amendment was only one aspect of that question. In reference to the Illinois statute, the Court observed:

We think it clear that the sections under consideration, which only forbid bodies of

men to associate together as military organizations, or to drill or parade with arms in cities

and towns unless authorized by law, do not infringe the right of the people to keep

and bear arms. But a conclusive answer to the contention that this amendment

83 92 U.S. at 553 (1875).


84 116 U.S. 252 (1886).

prohibits the legislation in question lies in the fact that the amendment is a limitation only upon the power of Congress and the National government, and not upon that of the States.85

The Court cited Cruikshank in support of this proposition. The inapplicability of the Second Amendment to the states was a sufficient ground for rejecting Presser's Second Amendment contentions, but the Court did not stop there. It preferred to discuss the problem further and make clear the nature of the right protected by the Second Amendment.

It is undoubtedly true that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved military force or reserve militia of the United States as well as of the States, and, in view of this prerogative of the general government, as well as of its general powers, the States cannot, even laying the constitutional provision in question out of view, prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms, so as to deprive the United States of their rightful resource for maintaining the public security, and disable the people from performing their duty to the general government.86

One view of the Second Amendment suggests that this dicta constitutes the first step toward incorporating the right to bear arms into the Fourteenth Amendment,87 apparently forgetting that the Court was laying the Second Amendment "out of view." The Court had stated that the Illinois law does not have the effect of depriving the federal government of its military capacity.


To further clarify its view that the Second Amendment is concerned only with military matters, the opinion focuses on Presser.

The plaintiff in error was not a member of the organized volunteer militia of the State of Illinois, nor did he belong to the troops of the United States or to any organization under the militia law of the United States. On the contrary, the fact that he did not belong to the organized militia or the troops of the United States was an ingredient in the offence for which he was convicted and sentenced. The question is, therefore, had he a right as a citizen of the United States, in disobedience of the State law, to associate with others as a military company, and to drill and parade with arms in the towns and cities of the State? If the plaintiff in error has any such privilege he must be able to point to the provision of the Constitution or statutes of the United States by which it is conferred.88

The obvious implication here is that any right to bear arms by virtue of the Second Amendment, even if asserted against the national government, is contingent upon military service in

accordance with statutory law. This implication is confirmed later in the opinion, as the Court declared:

The right to voluntarily associate together as a military company or organization, or to drill or parade with arms, without, and independent of, an act of Congress or law of the State authorizing the same, is not an attribute of national citizenship. Military organization

85 Id. at 264-65.

86 Id. at 265.


87 See generally H. Black, The Bill of Rights, 35 N.Y.U.L. REV. 865 (1960).

88 Id. at 266.

and military drill and parade under arms are subjects especially under the control of the government of every country. They cannot be claimed as a right independent of law.89

Thus the Presser case clearly affirms the meaning of the Second Amendment that was intended by its framers. It protects only members of a state militia, and it protects them only against being disarmed by the federal government. There is no individual right that can be claimed independent of state militia law. Furthermore, the dicta relating to preservation of the nation's military capacity could not be used as the basis for questioning any regulation of private firearms, unless such a regulation violated an act of Congress; Congress is obviously the best judge of the proper means of preserving the nation's military capacity.

The third, and least important, of the Second Amendment cases was Miller v. Texas.90 A convicted murderer asserted that the state had violated his Second and Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the claim in one sentence, relying on the inapplicability of these provisions to the states, and citing Cruikshank and other cases.

The fourth and last time that the Supreme Court considered the Second Amendment was in United States v. Miller.91 The result reached by Justice McReynolds for a unanimous Court was obviously correct, but the opinion is so brief and sketchy that it has undoubtedly caused much of the uncertainty that exists today about the meaning of the Second Amendment.


Defendants Miller and Layton were indicted for violation of the National Firearms Act of 1934,92 which was designed to help control gangsters, and which infringed the right to keep and bear sawed off shotguns, among other arms. The District Court of the United States for the Western District of Arkansas sustained a demurrer and quashed the indictment, holding the 1934 Act unconstitutional on Second Amendment grounds. The government appealed to the

Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded.

When Miller was argued before the High Court, there was no appearance for the defendants. With only one side presenting a case, it is easy to understand why the Court viewed the issues as rather simple, and not needing very much analysis.

The Court began by observing that the National Firearms Act was a valid revenue measure, and not a usurpation of the police powers of the states. The opinion then addresses itself to the Second Amendment issue:

In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a "shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length" at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense.93

It is this paragraph that is the source of the uncertainty and confusion arising from the Miller case. The Court was merely correcting the error of the district judge, but it made the mistake of


89 Id. at 267.

90 153 U.S. 535 (1894).

91 307 U.S. 174 (1939).

92 National Firearms Act as amended 26 U.S.C. ยงยง 5801-5872 (1972).

93 307 U.S. at 178.

looking at the weapon, rather than the person, in determining that the Second Amendment is not applicable.

Fortunately, however, Justice McReynolds went on and partially clarified the ambiguity in the above paragraph. He cited the militia clauses of the Constitution and said:

With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.94

These words alone undercut any individual right interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Justice McReynolds then proceeded to give a brief history of the militia, stressing its function as a military force. He then considered the relevance of state interpretations of the right to bear arms, and noted:

Most if not all of the States have adopted provisions touching the right to keep and bear arms. Differences in the language employed in these have naturally led to somewhat variant conclusions concerning the scope of the right guaranteed.95


He concluded that such decisions did not support the trial judge's ruling. He then referred the reader to "some of the more important opinions" concerning the militia. First among these opinions was Presser v. Illinois.96

Thus, in spite of some ambiguity in the Court's opinion in Miller, there is no reason to suppose that there was any change in the established view that the Second Amendment defines and protects a collective right that is vested only in the members of the state militia.

VIII. Conclusion

In the last angry decades of the twentieth century, members of rifle clubs, paramilitary groups and other misguided patriots continue to oppose legislative control of handguns and rifles. These ideological heirs of the vigilantes of the bygone western frontier era still maintain that the Second Amendment guarantees them a personal right to "keep and bear arms."97 But the annals of the Second Amendment attest to the fact that its adoption was the result of a political struggle to restrict the power of the national government and to prevent the disarmament of state militias.98 Not unlike their English forbears, the American revolutionaries had a deep fear of centralized executive power, particularly when standing armies were at its disposal. The Second Amendment was adopted to prevent the arbitrary use of force by the national government against the states and the individual.

94 Id.

95 Id. at 182.


96 116 U.S. 252 (1886).

97 A recent call to action was made by an organization which calls itself the Sheriffs Posse Comitatus. This group, dismayed over claimed violations of the Second Amendment promises to "come together and do something about it." Its propaganda concludes rather ominously, "The PEOPLE are the rightful masters to both congress and courts, not to over throw (sic) the Constitution, but to over throw (sic) the men who pervert the Constitution." Flyer, Sheriffs Posse Comitatus, Petaluma, California, 1975.

98 See notes 60-66 and accompanying text.

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention had no intention of establishing any personal right to keep and bear arms. Therefore the "individualist" view of the Second Amendment must be rejected in favor of the "collectivist" interpretation, which is supported by history and a handful of Supreme Court decisions on the issue.

As pointed out previously, the nature of the Second Amendment does not provide a right that could be interpreted as being incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment. It was designed solely to protect the states against the general government, not to create a personal right which either state or federal authorities are bound to respect.

The contemporary meaning of the Second Amendment is the same as it was at the time of its adoption. The federal government may regulate the National Guard, but may not disarm it against the will of state legislatures. Nothing in the Second Amendment, however, precludes Congress or the states from requiring licensing and registration of firearms; in fact, there is nothing to stop an outright congressional ban on private ownership of all handguns and all rifles.




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