Right to keep and bear arms


Download 1.33 Mb.
Date conversion04.09.2017
Size1.33 Mb.
1   ...   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   ...   17
Wilson v. State, 33 Ark. 557, 34 Am. Rep. 52 (1878).

109. State v. Wilforth, 85 Mo. 528, 530 (1882).

110. State v. Kerner, 181 N.C. 574, 107 S.E. 222 (1921).

111. Glasscock v. City of Chattanooga, 157 Tenn. 518, 11 S.W. 2d. 678 (1928).

112. City of Las Vegas v. Moberg, 82 N.M. 626, 485 P. ad 737 (1971) ("an ordinance may not deny the people the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms.")

113. People v. Zerillo, 219 Mich. 635, 189 N.W. 927 (1923).

114. People v. Nakamura, 99 Colo. 262, 62, P. 2d 246 (1936).

115. United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 175, 178-79 (1939).

116. State v. Kessler, 289 Ore. 359, 614 p. 2d 94 (1980).

117. Schubert v. DeBard,_____Ind. App. ____, 398 NE2d 1139 (1980).

[ Originally published as Report of the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., The Right to Keep and Bear Arms, 68-82 (1982) ("Other Views"). Reproduced in the 1982 Senate Report, pg. 68-82. Dr. Halbrook is the author of FREEDMEN, THE FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, AND THE RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS, 1866-1876 which may be obtained from amazon.com]


By Stephen P. Halbrook*

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. — U.S. Const. amend. II.

... No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. — U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

If African Americans were citizens, observed Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford,l "it would give to persons of the negro race ... the full liberty of speech ...; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went."2 If this interpretation ignores that Articles I and II of the Bill of Rights designate the respective freedoms guaranteed therein to "the people" and not simply the citizens (much less a select group of orators or militia), contrariwise Dred Scott followed antebellum judicial thought in recognizing keeping and bearing arms as an individual right3 protected from both federal and state infringement.4 The exception to this interpretation were cases holding that the Second Amendment only protected citizens5 from federal, not state,6 infringement of the right to keep and bear arms, to provide judicial approval of laws disarming black freemen and slaves.

Since the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to overrule Dred Scott by extending individual constitutional rights to black Americans and by providing protection thereof against state infringement,7 the question arises whether the framers of Amendment XIV and related enforcement legislation recognized keeping and bearing arms as an individual right on which no state could infringe. The congressional intent in respect to the Fourteenth Amendment is revealed in the debates over both Amendments XIII and XIV as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Anti-KKK Act of 1871, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Given the unanimity of opinion concerning state regulation of privately held arms by the legislators who framed the Fourteenth Amendment and its enforcement legislation, it is surprising that judicial opinions and scholarly articles fail to analyze the Reconstruction debates.8


J.D. 1978 Georgetown University; Ph.D. 1972 Florida State University, Member, Virginia State Bar, various federal court bars. The Author has taught legal and political philosophy at George Mason University, Howard University and Tuskegee Institute.

This is a revision of a portion of the author's The Jurisprudence of the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, IV GEORGE MASON L. REV. (1981)

Having won their national independence from England through armed struggle, post-Revolutionary War Americans were acutely aware that the sword and sovereignty go hand in hand, and that the firearms technology ushered in a new epoch in the human struggle for freedom. Furthermore, both proponents and opponents of slavery were cognizant that an armed black population meant the abolition of slavery, although plantation slaves were often trusted with arms for hunting.9 This sociological fact explained not only the legal disarming of blacks but also the advocacy of a weapons culture by abolitionists. Having employed the instruments for self-defense against his pro-slavery attackers, abolitionist and Republican Party founder Cassius Marcellus Clay wrote that "`the pistol and the Bowie knife' are to us as sacred as the gown and the pulpit."10 And it was John Brown who argued that "the practice of carrying arms would be a good one for the colored people to adopt, as it would give them a sense of their manhood."11

The practical necessities of the long, bloody Civil War, demanding every human resource, led to the arming of blacks as soldiers. While originally they considered it a "white man's war," Northern authorities by 1863 were organizing black regiments on a wide scale. At the same time, black civilians were forced to arm themselves privately against mob violence. During the anti-draft riots in New York, according to a Negro newspaper of the time, "The colored men who had manhood in them armed themselves, and threw out their pickets every day and night, determined to die defending their homes.... Most of the colored men in Brooklyn who remained in the city were armed daily for self-defense."12

Toward the end of the war Southerners began to support the arming and freeing of slaves willing to fight the invaders, and the Virginia legislature, on passing a bill providing for the use of black soldiers, repealed its laws against the bearing of arms by blacks.13 One opponent of these measures declared: "What would be the character of the returned negro soldiers, made familiar with the use of fire-arms, and taught by us, that freedom was worth fighting for?"14 Being evident that slaves plus guns equaled abolition, the rebels were divided between those who valued nationhood to slavery and those who preferred a restored union which might not destroy the servile condition of black labor.

As the movement began before the end of the war for the complete abolition of slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment, members of the U.S. Congress recognized the key role that the bearing of arms was already playing in the freeing of the slaves. In debate over the proposed Amendment, Rep. George A. Yeaman (Unionist, Ky.) contended that whoever won the war, the abolition of slavery was inevitable due to the arming of blacks:

Let proclamations be withdrawn, let statutes be repealed, let our armies be defeated, let the South achieve its independence, yet come out of the war ... with an army of slaves made freemen for their service, who have been contracted with, been armed and drilled, and have seen the force of combination. Their personal status is enhanced.... They will not be returned to slavery.15

At the same time, members of the slavocracy were planning to disarm the freedmen. Arguing for speedy adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, Rep. William D. Kelley (R., Penn.) expressed shock at the words of an anti-secessionist planter in Mississippi who expected the union to restore slavery. Kelly cited a letter from a U.S. brigadier general who wrote: "`What,' said I, `these men who have had arms in their hands?' "Yes, `he said,' we should take the arms away from them, of course.'"16

The northern government won the war only because of the arming of the slaves, according to Sen. Charles Sumner (R., Mass.), who argued that necessity demanded "first, that the slaves should be declared free; and secondly, that muskets should be put into their hands for the common defense.... Without emancipation, followed by the arming of the slaves, rebel slavery would not have been overcome."17


After the war was concluded, the slave codes, which limited access of blacks to land, to arms, and to the courts, began to reappear in the form of the black codes,18 and United States legislators turned their attention to the protection of the freedmen. In support of Senate Bill No. 9, which declared as void all laws in the rebel states which recognized inequality of rights based on race, Sen. Henry Wilson (R., Mass.) explained in part: "In Mississippi rebel State forces, men who were in the rebel armies, are traversing the State, visiting the freedmen, disarming them, perpetrating murders and outrages on them...."19

When Congress took up Senate Bill No. 61, which became the Civil Rights Act of 1866,20 Sen. Lyman Trumbull (R., Ill.), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated that the bill was intended to prohibit inequalities embodied in the black codes, including those provisions which "prohibit any negro or mulatto from having fire-arms."21 In abolishing the badges of slavery, the bill would enforce fundamental rights against racial discrimination in respect to civil rights, the rights to contract, sue and engage in commerce, and equal criminal penalties. Sen. William Saulsbury (D., Del.) added: "In my State for many years, and I presume there are similar laws in most of the southern States, there has existed a law of the State based upon and founded in its police power, which declares that free negroes shall not have the possession of firearms or ammunition. This bill proposes to take away from the States this police power...." The Delaware Democrat opposed the bill on this basis, anticipating a time when "a numerous body of dangerous persons belonging to any distinct race" endangered the state, for "the State shall not have the power to disarm them without disarming the whole population."22 Thus, the bill would have prohibited legislative schemes which in effect disarmed blacks but not whites. Still, supporters of the bill were soon to contend that arms bearing was a basic right of citizenship or personhood.

In the meantime, the legislators turned their attention to the Freedmen's Bureau Bill. Rep. Thomas D. Eloit (R., Mass.) attacked an Opelousas, Louisiana ordinance which deprived blacks of various civil rights, including the following provision: "No freedman who is not in the military service shall be allowed to carry firearms, or any kind of weapons, within the limits of the town of Opelousas without the special permission of his employer ... and approved by the mayor or president of the board of police."23 And Rep. Josiah B. Grinnell (R., Iowa) complained: "A white man in Kentucky may keep a gun; if a black man buys a gun he forfeits it and pays a fine of five dollars, if presuming to keep in his possession a musket which he has carried through the war."24 Yet the right of blacks to have arms existed partly as self-defense against the state militia itself, which implied that militia needs were not the only constitutional basis for the right to bear arms. Sen. Trumbull cited a report from Vicksburg, Mississippi which stated: "Nearly all the dissatisfaction that now exists among the freedmen is caused by the abusive conduct of this militia."25 Rather than restore order, the militia would typically "hand some freedman or search negro houses for arms."26 As debate returned to the Civil Rights Bill, Rep. Henry J. Raymond (R., N.Y.) explained of the rights of citizenship: "Make the colored man a citizen of the United States and he has every right which you or I have as citizens of the United States under the laws and Constitution of the United

States.... He has a defined status; he has a country and a home; a right to defend himself and his wife and children; a right to bear arms...."27 Rep. Roswell Hart (R., N. Y.) further states: "The Constitution clearly describes that to be a republican form of government for which it was expressly framed. A government... where 'no law shall be made prohibiting a free exercise of religion;' where 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed;'...."28 He concluded that it was the duty of the United States to guarantee that the states have such a form of government.29

Rep. Sidney Clarke (R., Kansas) referred to an 1866 Alabama law providing: "That it shall not be lawful for any freedman, mulatto, or free person of color in this State, to own firearms, or carry about his person a pistol or other deadly weapon."30 This same statute made it unlawful "to sell, give, or lend fire-arms or ammunition of any description whatever, to any freedman, free negro, or mulatto...."31 Clarke also attacked Mississippi, "whose rebel militia, upon the seizure of the arms of black Union Soldiers, appropriated the same to their own use."32

Sir, I find in the Constitution of the United States an article which declares that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." For myself, I shall insist that the reconstructed rebels of Mississippi respect the Constitution in their local laws....33

Emotionally referring to the disarming of black soldiers, Clarke added:

Nearly every white man in that State that could bear arms was in the rebel ranks. Nearly all of their able-bodied colored men who could reach our lines enlisted under the old flag. Many of these brave defenders of the nation paid for the arms with which they went to battle.... The "reconstructed" State authorities of Mississippi were allowed to rob and disarm our veteran soldiers....34

In sum, Clarke presupposed a constitutional right to keep privately held arms for protection against oppressive state militia.


The need for a more solid foundation for the protection of freedmen as well as white citizens was recognized, and the result was a significant new proposal — the Fourteenth Amendment. A chief exponent of the amendment, Sen. Jacob M. Howard (R., Mich.), referred to "the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments of the Constitution; such as freedom of speech and of the press;... the right to keep and bear arms...."35 Adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment was necessary because presently these rights were not guaranteed against state legislation. "The great object of the first section of this amendment is, therefore, to restrain the power of the States and compel them at all times to respect these great fundamental guarantees."36

The Fourteenth Amendment was viewed as necessary to buttress the objectives of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Rep. George W. Julian (R., Ind.) noted that the act

Is pronounced void by the jurists and courts of the South. Florida makes it a misdemeanor for colored men to carry weapons without a license to do so from a probate judge, and the punishment of the offense is whipping and the pillory. South Carolina has the same enactments... Cunning legislative devices are being invented in most of the States to restore slavery in fact.37

It is hardly surprising that the arms question was viewed as part of a partisan struggle. "As you once needed the muskets of the colored persons, so now you need their votes," Sen. Sumner explained to his fellow Republicans in support of black suffrage in the District of Columbia.38 At the opposite extreme, Rep. Michael C. Kerr (D., Ind.) an opponent of black suffrage and of the Fourteenth Amendment, attacked a military ordinance in Alabama that set up a volunteer militia of all males between ages 18 and 45 "without regard to race or color" on these grounds:

Of whom will that militia consist? Mr. Speaker, it will consist only of the black men of Alabama. The white men will not degrade themselves by going into the ranks and becoming a part of the militia of the State with negroes.... Are the civil laws of Alabama to be enforced by this negro militia? Are white men to be disarmed by them?39

Kerr predicted that the disfranchisement of white voters and the above military measures would result in a "war of races."40


Although the Fourteenth Amendment became law in 1868, within three years the Congress was considering enforcement legislation to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. The famous report by Rep. Benjamin F. Butler (R., Mass.) on violence in the South assumed that the right to keep arms was necessary for protection against the militia but also against local law enforcement agencies. Noting instances of "armed confederates" terrorizing the negro, the report stated that "in many counties they have preceded their outrages upon him by disarming him, in violation of his right as a citizen to `keep and bear arms,' which the Constitution expressly says shall never be infringed."41 The congressional power based on the Fourteenth Amendment to legislate to prevent states from depriving any U.S. citizen of life, liberty, or property justified the following provision of the committee's anti-KKK bill:

That whoever shall, without due process of law, by violence, intimidation, or threats, take away or deprive any citizen of the United States of any arms or weapons he may have in his house or possession for the defense of his person, family, or property, shall be deemed guilty of a larceny thereof, and be punished as provided in this act for a felony.42

Rep. Butler explained the purpose of this provision in these words:

Section eight is intended to enforce the well-known constitutional provision guaranteeing the right in the citizen to "keep and bear arms," and provides that whoever shall take away, by force or violence, or by threats and intimidation, the arms and weapons which any person may have for his defense, shall be deemed guilty of larceny of the same. This provision seemed to your committee to be necessary, because they had observed that, before these midnight marauders made attacks upon peaceful citizens, there were very many instances in the South where the sheriff of the county had preceded them and taken away the arms of their victims. This was specially noticeable in Union County, where all the negro population were disarmed by the sheriff only a few months ago under the order of the judge...; and then, the sheriff having disarmed the citizens, the five hundred masked men rode at night and murdered and otherwise maltreated the ten persons who were in jail in that county.43

The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee, and when later reported as H.R. No. 320 the above section was deleted — probably because its proscription extended to simple individual larceny over which Congress had no constitutional authority, and because state or conspiratorial action involving the disarming of blacks would be covered by more general provisions of the bill. Supporters of the rewritten anti-KKK bill continued to show the same concern over the disarming of freedmen. Sen. John Sherman (R., Ohio) stated the Republican position: "Wherever the negro population preponderates, there they [the KKK] hold their sway, for a few determined men ... can carry terror among ignorant negroes ... without arms, equipment, or discipline."44

Further comments clarified that the right to arms was a necessary condition for the right of free speech. Sen. Adelbert Ames (R., Miss.) averred: "In some counties it was impossible to advocate Republican principles, those attempting it being hunted like wild beasts; in other, the speakers had to be armed and supported by not a few friends."45 Rep. William L. Stoughton (R., Mich.) exclaimed: "If political opponents can be marked for slaughter by secret bands of cowardly assassins who ride forth with impunity to execute the decrees upon the unarmed and defenseless, it will be fatal alike to the Republican party and civil liberty."46

Section 1 of the bill, which was taken partly from Section 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and survives today as 42 U.S.C. § 1983, was meant to enforce Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment by establishing a remedy for deprivation under color of state law of federal constitutional rights of all people, not only former slaves. This portion of the bill provided:

That any person who, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State, shall subject, or cause to be subjected, any person within the jurisdiction of the United States to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities to which ... he is entitled under the Constitution or laws of the United States, shall... be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress...."47

Rep. Washington C. Whitthorne (D., Tenn.), who complained that "in having organized a negro militia, in having disarmed the white man," the Republicans had "plundered and robbed" the whites of South Carolina through "unequal laws," objected to Section 1 of the anti-KKK bill on these grounds:

It will be noted that by the first section suits may be instituted without regard to amount or character of claim by any person within the limits of the United States who conceives that he has been deprived of any right, privilege, or immunity secured him by the Constitution of the United States, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State. This is to say, that if a police officer of the city of Richmond or New York should find a drunken negro or white man upon the streets with a loaded pistol flourishing it, &c., and by virtue of any ordinance, law, or usage, either of city or State, he takes it away, the officer may be sued, because the right to bear arms is secured by the Constitution, and such suit brought in distant and expensive tribunals.48

The Tennessee Democrat assumed that the right to bear arms was absolute, deprivation of which created a cause of action against state agents under Section 1 of the anti-KKK bill. In the minds of the bill's supporters, however, the Second Amendment as incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment recognized a right to keep and bear arms safe from state infringement, not a right to

commit assault or otherwise engage in criminal conduct with arms by pointing them at people or wantonly brandishing them about so as to endanger others. Contrary to the congressman's exaggerations, the proponents of the bill had the justified fear that the opposite development would occur, i.e., that a black or white man of the wrong political party would legitimately have or possess arms and a police officer of the city of Richmond or New York who was drunken with racial prejudice or partisan politics would take it away, perhaps to ensure the success of an extremist group's attack. Significantly, none of the representative's colleagues disputed his assumption that state agents could be sued under the predecessor to § 1983 for deprivation of the right to keep arms.

Rep. William D. Kelly (R., Penn.), speaking after and in reply to Rep. Whitthorne, did not deny the argument that Section 1 allowed suit for deprivation of the right to possess arms, but emphasized the arming of the KKK. He referred to "great numbers of Winchester rifles, and a particular species of revolving pistol" coming into Charleston's ports. "Poor men, without visible means of support, whose clothes are ragged and whose lives are almost or absolutely those of vagrants, are thus armed with new and costly rifles, and wear in their belts a brace of expensive pistols. "49 These weapons were used against Southern Republicans, whose constitutional rights must thereby be guaranteed by law and arms.

However, like Congressman Whitthorne, Rep. Barbour Lewis (R., Tenn.) also decried the loss of state agent's immunity should the bill pass: "By the first section, in certain cases, the judge of a State court, through acting under oath of office, is made liable to a suit in the Federal Court and subject to damages for his decision against a suitor, however honest and conscientious that decision may be; and a ministerial officer is subject to the same pains and penalties...."50 Tennessee Republicans and Democrats alike thus agreed that what is today § 1983 provided an action for damages against state agents in general for deprivation of constitutional rights.

Debate over the anti-KKK bill naturally required exposition of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, and none was better qualified to explain that section than its draftsman, Rep. John A. Bingham (R., Ohio):

Mr. Speaker, that the scope and meaning of the limitations imposed by the first section, fourteenth amendment of the Constitution may be more fully understood, permit me to say that the privileges and immunities of citizens of a State, are chiefly defined in the first eight amendments to the constitution of the United States. Those eight amendments are as follows:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


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.... [Amendments III-VIII, also listed by Bingham, are here omitted.]

These eight articles I have shown never were limitations upon the power of the States, until made so by the Fourteenth Amendment. The words of that amendment, "no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States," are an express prohibition upon every State of the Union....51

This is a most explicit statement of the incorporation thesis by the architect of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although he based the incorporation on the privileges and immunities clause and not the due process clause as did subsequent courts of selective incorporation, Rep. Bingham could hardly have anticipated the judicial metaphysics of the twentieth century in this respect. In any case, whether based on the due process clause or on the privileges and immunities clause, the legislative history supports the view that the incorporation of Amendments I-VII was clear and unmistakable in the minds of the framers of Amendment XIV.

In contrast with the above legal analysis, some comments on the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment returned to discussion of power struggle between Republicans and unreconstructed Confederates. While Republicans deplored the armed condition of white Southerners and the unarmed state of black Southerners, Democrats argued that the South's whites were disarmed and endangered by armed carpetbaggers and negro militia. Thus, Rep. Ellis H. Roberts (R., N.Y.) lamented the partisan character of KKK violence: "The victims whose property is destroyed, whose persons are mutilated, whose lives are sacrificed, are always Republicans. They may be black or white...." Of the still rebellious whites: "Their weapons are often new and of improved patterns; and however poor may be the individual member he never lacks for arms or ammunition.... In many respects the Ku Klux Klan is an army, organized and officered, and armed for deadly strife."52

Rep. Boyd Winchester (D., Ky.) set forth the contrary position, favorably citing a letter from an ex-governor of South Carolina to the reconstruction governor regretting the latter's "Winchester rifle speech" which "fiendishly proclaimed that this instrument of death, in the hands of the negroes of South Carolina, was the most effective means of maintaining order and quiet in the State."53 Calling on the governor to "disarm your militia," the letter referred to the disaster which resulted "when you organized colored troops throughout the State, and put arms into their hands, with powder and ball, and denied the same to the white people."54 The letter proceeded to cite numerous instances where the "colored militia" murdered white people. According to Rep. Winchester, it was the arming of blacks and disarming of whites which resulted in white resistance. "It would seem that wherever military and carpetbagger domination in the South has been marked by the greatest contempt for law and right, and practiced the greatest cruelty toward the people, Ku Klux operations have multiplied."55

An instance of black Republican armed resistance to agents of the state who were in the Klan was recounted in a letter cited by Rep. Benjamin F. Butler:

Then the Ku Klux fired on them through the window, one of the bullets striking a colored woman... and wounding her through the knee badly. The colored men then fired on the Ku Klux, and killed their leader or captain right there on the steps of the colored men's house.... There he remained until morning when he was identified, and proved to be "Pat Inman," a constable and deputy sheriff....56

By contrast, Rep. Samuel S. Cox (D., Ohio) assailed those who "arm negro militia and create a situation of terror," exclaimed that South Carolinians actually clamored for United States troops

to save them from the rapacity and murder of the negro bands and their white allies," and saw the Klan as their only defense: "Is not repression the father of revolution?" The congressman compared the Klan with the French Jacobians, Italian Carbonari, and Irish Fenians.57 Rep. John Coburn (R., Ind.) saw the situation in an opposite empirical light, deploring both state and private disarming of blacks. "How much more oppressive is the passage of a law that they shall not bear arms than the practical seizure of all arms from the hands of the colored men?"58

The next day Rep. Henry L. Dawes (R., Mass.) returned to a legal analysis which again asserted the incorporation thesis. Of the anti-Klan bill he argued:

The rights, privileges, and immunities of the American citizen, secured to him under the Constitution of the United States, are the subject-matter of this bill....

... In addition to the original rights secured to him in the first article of amendments he had secured the free exercise of his religious belief, and freedom of speech and of the press. Then again he has secured to him the right to keep and bear arms in his defense. [Dawes then summarizes the remainder of the first eight amendments.] ...

... And still later, sir, after the bloody sacrifice of our four years' war, we gave the most grand of all these rights, privileges, and immunities, by one single amendment to the Constitution, to four millions of American citizens....

... [I]t is to protect and secure to him

1   ...   5   6   7   8   9   10   11   12   ...   17

The database is protected by copyright ©hestories.info 2017
send message

    Main page