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Commentary: In their own words: What the Founding Fathers really believed about guns

In 18th century, gun ownership was common, and there was virtually no fear governments might restrict guns because of their potential danger around the household. The primary purpose of the Second Amendment, like all amendments in the Bill of Rights, was to protect the people from an out-of-control national government. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When the Founding Fathers approved the “right to bear arms” and the 13 newly formed states agreed to ratify the Second Amendment, the reason couldn’t be clearer: An armed citizenry is a free citizenry.

Yet despite the clear historical evidence showing the true intention behind the Second Amendment, liberals continue to mislead the public by asserting the founders believed the Second Amendment only protects guns necessary for everyday life in the 18th century, such as hunting rifles, or that the founders believed these constitutional protections apply only to militias, not to individuals.

These notions are nothing more than left-wing delusions, carefully crafted by people who in their pursuit of power and “public safety” have become desperate to take away law-abiding citizens’ centuries-old rights to own and operate guns.

As Richard Brookhiser, a historian and author of "What Would the Founders Do?," concluded in his book’s section on the Second Amendment, “The founders lived among guns; they would never make them illegal; they would subject them to necessary laws, following [William] Blackstone. And they broke their own laws when honor demanded it.” 

What the founders said about gun rights

Americans in the 18th century needed weapons to hunt, protect themselves from wildlife, and defend their lives and property from criminals. Gun ownership was common, and there was virtually no fear governments might restrict guns because of their potential danger around the household. The primary purpose of the Second Amendment, like all amendments in the Bill of Rights, was to protect the people from an out-of-control national government.

Thomas Jefferson, writing to William S. Smith in Paris, explained his view in crystal-clear terms, writing, “what country can preserve it’s [sic] liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? let [sic] them take arms.” 

In Noah Webster’s important "Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution," authored in 1787, the famous writer and editor wrote, “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretence [sic], raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.” 

Samuel Adams said during Massachusetts’ Constitution ratification convention in 1788, “The said Constitution [will] be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms …”

What about militias?

In a recent opinion article for the New York Times, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens argued the Second Amendment, contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions, was never intended to protect individual gun owners’ rights, but rather only the rights of organized militias. 

This argument has become increasingly common in left-wing publications in recent decades, but as you’ll read in a moment, it’s totally out of step with what the Founding Fathers believed when they wrote the Second Amendment.

In the 18th century, militias were not like the modern-day National Guard. They were much more comparable to today’s small-town volunteer fire departments. In times of distress, individual members of the community would gather together to defend their towns, bringing their own arms with them. This is incredibly important to understand: In the 18th century, militias were composed of individuals from the community who owned their own guns. Without individual gun ownership, militias could never have existed. This proves Stevens’ argument about militias is totally false.

In 1788, at Virginia’s Constitution ratification convention, George Mason stated plainly, “I ask, who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” 

Also in 1788, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee wrote, “A militia when properly formed are in fact the people themselves … and include all men capable of bearing arms. … To preserve liberty it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms.”

In 1789, James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” said, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.”

The most important right

The Second Amendment is truly precious. From this one protection, all other liberties are made possible. Without it, liberty only exists so long as those with weapons, the government, permit the people to have freedom.

Despite this seemingly apparent reality, left-wing activists are now working feverishly to convince the people the founders never intended for the Second Amendment to protect Americans against intrusive federal gun laws. The purpose of this deceitful strategy is to confuse and undermine liberty by persuading those Americans who do care about the original intent of the Constitution that only the government and militias deserve the right to own weapons.

This plot must be thwarted and their arguments must be rejected whenever they arise. If we fail, the liberty we now enjoy will eventually be stolen away from future generations. 

Justin Haskins (@JustinTHaskins) is executive editor and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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