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The Second Amendment Explained

by Jeff Lewis on April 11, 2012

“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.”

I was recently involved in yet another conversation with a liberal who tried as hard as he could to convince me the second amendment was never intended to allow private citizens to keep and bear arms. He argued that the framers use of the term militia was a reference to a government military unit similar to today’s National Guard.

The fact that we now have a National Guard he contends, is reason enough to repeal the second amendment. After all, if a private citizen wants to keep and bear arms, he should enlist in the National Guard.

In order to fall for this line of reasoning, four things need to be in place:

  1. Ignorance of what the term “militia” meant at the time. (Hint: It meant ordinary citizens with the capability to band together to fight back threats to their liberty, whether from an external threat or a threat from within, like an over-reaching government.)
  2. Ignorance of the stated views the framers had regarding a well-armed citizenry.
  3. An ability to completely ignore the second part of the statement; i.e. “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
  4. Ignorance of the history of tyranny. Any student of history knows the first right that is abolished on the way to tyranny is the right of free citizens to bear arms. When the tyranny fully take root, any guns left in the hands of the citizens are quickly rounded up. Why do you think they do that?

The Second Amendment

I will concentrate here on my second point and provide what the framers said they meant, in their own words.

Thomas Jefferson spoke to the topic directly with his comment,

“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” Jefferson’s justifications for his statement are found in comments like “when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty,” and “force is the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.”

Jefferson also wrote,

“For a people who are free, and who mean to remain so, a well-organized and armed militia is their best security.” He expounded on his point when he stated “the strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

Is there really any question as to where Jefferson stood on this issue?

John Adams was rather direct when he stated the following:

“Arms in the hands of citizens may be used at individual discretion… in private self-defense,” and even more controversial and bold when he offered “the right of a nation to kill a tyrant in case of necessity can no more be doubted than to hang a robber, or kill a flea.”

Was John Adams too ambiguous?

Thomas Paine told us:

Arms discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property… Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.”

George Washington said:

“The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.” Then he seemingly justified his belief with the statement “it will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition he may abuse it.”

James Madison went right to the point of the current debate when he observed:

“Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” Then he made sure to warn us as to why the first statement is needed when he argued “A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the best most natural defense of a free country.” 

Samuel Adams told us:

“The Constitution shall never be construed… to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.”

Patrick Henry said:

“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.” And to see the first statement not come true Henry said “The great object is that every man be armed.”

So there you have it in the framers’ own words.  The next time someone starts telling you the framers never intended for ordinary citizens to carry guns, just refer them to this article and ask, “then why did they write all these things?”

A final quote from Rush Limbaugh – “You know why there’s a Second Amendment? In case the government fails to follow the first one.”

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Lewis April 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm

I can find no evidence of a definition of the word Militia that implies the second amendment referred to anything other than a military group.

The word militia dates back to at least 1590 when it was recorded in a book by Sir John Smythe, Certain Discourses Military with the meanings: a military force; a body of soldiers and military affairs; a body of military discipline[8]

Militia derives from Latin roots:
• miles /mi?les/ : soldier[5]
• -itia /i?tia/ : a state, activity, quality or condition of being[6][7]
• militia /mil:i?tia/: Military service[5]

MILITIA, n. [L. from miles, a soldier...] The body of soldiers in a state enrolled for discipline, but not engaged in actual service except in emergencies; as distinguished from regular troops, whose sole occupation is war or military service. The militia of a country are the able-bodied men organized into companies, regiments and brigades, with officers of all grades and required by law to attend military exercises on certain days only, but at other times left to pursue their usual occupations. — Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York, S. Converse 1828)

Jeff Lewis April 22, 2012 at 2:12 am

Hello Steve, and welcome to the discussion.

Since your comment refers only to item #1 of the four items I began the article with, namely the framers’ meaning of the term ‘militia’ in the context of the second amendment, I want to congratulate you on coming around to agreeing with me on the other 3 points.

I have no argument with the definitions you quoted. They are correct, but they are not the only definitions, nor are they what the framers intended.

I find it hard to believe you were unable to find any evidence that the term ‘militia’ as applied to the second amendment was anything other than a military group given the fact that the article you responded to includes eight quotes from the framers themselves as to what they meant. Are you really arguing that they didn’t mean what they said?

Since you quoted Webster’s dictionary, let me give you another quote, by Noah Webster himself. In a pamphlet urging ratification of the constitution, Webster wrote, “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe.” Was he arguing for disarming the people, or was he arguing that a free people must be armed? I think the answer is quite obvious.

George Mason remarked to his Virginia delegates regarding the colonies’ recent experience with Britain, in which the Monarch’s goal had been “to disarm the people; that [that] . . . was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”

In order to fully understand the meaning of the second amendment, or any amendment in the Bill of Rights, you must first have an understanding of the underlying purpose of the constitution, and how it differed from any government that preceded it. That will come in my next post, so stay tuned.

mark wild July 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm

From a long way away (the UK) this seems a pointless debate. Who knows what your framers meant in the second amendment. Its irrelevent. We have crazies in europe as well and the occasion mass shooting every year or so, but gun murders are hugely out of proportion in the states when comparee to a similiar population in the main developed countries if europe. A factor of ten I think.

The key issue you must face is that you just have too many firearms in society. The cat is out of the bag. There is no way back. I like america and tge majority of tge people who live there but I have a very fatalistic view of your society. I think it is terminally flawed and the sad episodes like we have just witnessed will increase in frequency.

This guy bought 1600 rounds if ammo off the web and a number of serious heavy arms in the local shops. Do you really think thats what your Mr Jeffereson intended? I doubt it.

Please stop thinking of what a man 220 years ago wrote and start thinking of todays issues.

Good luck and I hope you win your battle. I for one will never be back in your rotten homeland

Jeff Lewis July 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Welcome to the discussion Mark.

In answer to your question, ” Who knows what your framers meant in the second amendment?” I can tell you I do. In fact I explained it clearly in this post.

We in America are quite different from those of you in the UK. We are to this day the only country in the history of the world where the people formed their own government. We are not subjects of our government. Our government exists at our pleasure and we can replace that government every four years if we’re not pleased with it.

The second amendment to the constitution stems from what our framers believed was natural law. That is, all humans are born with certain unalienable rights. Those rights come from our creator, not from government. The first of those natural laws is the right to life. The right of self defense emanates from that right. The right to bear arms speaks directly to our right to defend ourselves.

There is always a knee-jerk reaction on the left whenever a tragedy happens like the one last week in Colorado. It’s always that we need to control guns in this country. The fact of the matter is there are more deaths in the U.S. by suicide each year than murders by guns, but you rarely read about it in the press.

If this lunatic was unable to get guns he would have used a homemade bomb. He had plenty of them in his residence. Guns killed nobody here. A lunatic killed twelve people.

It’s a fact that the number of dead in these situations is usually determined by how long it takes for the second armed person to arrive on the scene. That is usually a police officer. Would it have made a difference had some of those folks in the theater been carrying firearms, trained in there use? I can’t answer that question with certainty in this situation, but it might have been significant.

But getting back to the American constitutional right to bear arms, the primary reason is to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government. We haven’t been forced into that situation yet over here, but we have seen out rights slowly whittled away, especially over the last 75 years.

Now, regarding your last insulting comment, I’ll take the U.S.A. over the UK or any other place in the world in a heartbeat. With all our warts, we’re still the last, best hope for freedom in this world.

Izzy September 13, 2012 at 10:01 am

According to the “anti-gun” groups gun violence is the result of easy access to guns, not the people wielding them. Maybe we should apply this logic to other crimes.
Rape can now be blamed on the male organ rather than the man attached to it. So we just have to figure out how to restrict access to the male genitalia and we will have no more rape. We’ll replace zippers with locks, the key will be kept in a fanny pack which will be opened with a 6 digit code which you will receive by calling 1-800-tak-alik. And there you go, 3 steps to access your pants and the rape problem in this country is solved

jerry wilson December 16, 2012 at 9:32 am

I am not a tree hugging liberal or a fan of pres obama and his policies or what he stands for.In fact I used to love to hunt until my rights were taken away because of a felony D.U.I. this latest tragedy in conneticut has pushed me over the edge though when it comes to gun control.the arms we had at the time our forefathers wrote the second ammendment were single shot muskets not multi-round death machines.I think there is no need for those type of weapons except military purposes.maybe the arms we should only be allowed to posess for home protection should be single shot muzzle loaders and pistols. no more semi- autos with huge clips.

Jeff Lewis December 16, 2012 at 11:39 am

Jerry, your emotional reaction is understandable given the heinous nature of the tragedy in Connecticut, but it’s just that, an emotional reaction. Restricting the freedoms enjoyed by the American people is not the answer to our problem. Not every problem can be solved by a new law or by the government taking away our rights.

Let’s look at he facts. This crime took place in Connecticut, a state with one of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. Other mass murders this year took place in Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, California and Oklahoma. All but Oklahoma is a politically Democrat run state with restrictive gun control laws.The cities with the most restrictive gun control laws are also the ones with the most gun violence (Chicago being the #1 example). There is a simple reason for that. Criminals, including the violent ones are by nature cowards. They feel powerful with a gun in their hands, but where do they use that gun? Do they go to a police department or a gun shop and shoot the place up? Of course not. They go to a school or a movie theater where they know that they will be the only person with a gun.

Instead of taking away our constitutionally protected freedoms by passing more gun control laws that don’t work anyway, how about we take a more common sense approach to protecting ourselves from those who would do us, our neighbors and our children harm. Let’s take the recent incident at Sandy Hollow school and see what could have been different.

The latest story I heard was the principal of the school immediately recognized the threat. She charged the shooter just as he came into the school in an attempt to take him down before he could do any harm. He shot and killed her before she reached him. She was by all accounts a hero and sacrificed her life in an attempt to save others. But what if instead of having only her body to use as a weapon, she had tactical training and a firearm at her disposal? What is she had shot him dead when he entered the school dressed in camouflage with a weapon? What would the body count have been? The answer is one, the shooter.

Not a fan of having armed administrators in the schools? How about hiring off-duty police to stand guard in our schools? How about retired military or armed security guards. We hire these people to stand guard in other places. They are hired to protect celebrities and politicians. Why not hire them to protect our most valuable assets, our children?

These ideas will actually work without restricting our constitutional rights. New laws only make it harder for law abiding citizens to arm themselves. They do nothing to keep criminals any crazies from getting and using guns.

ed December 16, 2012 at 12:19 pm

It hit me last night – the gramatical syntax of the second amendment makes it difficult to parse, but I believe the framers of the government meant:

“because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms for their protection from said Militia, shall not be infringed”

Scott December 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm

No Ed,

If you’d like to overcome the “grammatical syntax” of the second amendment, simply replace the word “Militia” with the definition Jeff has provided in his article:

“A well regulated [group of] ordinary citizens with the capability to band together to fight back threats to their liberty, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

As Jeff says, you only need to understand the meaning of the word “militia” at the time, and not ignore the phrase “shall not be infringed” to understand explicitly what the second amendment means. The people ARE the militia, the amendment is intended to protect the security of the free State.

ed December 31, 2012 at 9:25 am

I don’t know Scott – I think I still disagree. First – “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” stands on it’s own, so I agree with you there. But at the time it was written, “militia” was both the “army of the people” and the “army of the state” for the colonies. The declaration already recognized the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – so arms for self protection, hunting and recreational use were already ‘covered’.

I think the intent of the 2nd amendment was to ensure, behind the 1st, the tools necessary to fight tyranny. The dependent clause in the 2nd , “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” recognizes that the new nation will have some means of national defense, and “the people” need the tools to defend themselves against that – intellectually (the 1st) and physically (the 2nd)

Scott January 12, 2013 at 8:46 pm

I can absolutely see your point as well, Ed. I think, interpretations aside, the important thing is exactly what you point out in your second paragraph. One way or another, the second amendment explicitly guarantees us, as citizens, the right to the tools to defend ourselves against a tyrannical government and our country against foreign invasion.

Scott January 12, 2013 at 9:20 pm

OK, no idea why I hadn’t done this before, but I looked this: up.

So, you are correct Ed.

Gonen February 3, 2013 at 8:56 am

A Right to have “arms” is fine but no one say which type of arms , are you allowed to have a Tank , A land mine or maybe a Nuke bomb.

Jeff Lewis February 3, 2013 at 3:21 pm

Hey Gonen,

Tanks are not arms…they are artillery. Land mines are mines and nukes are bombs. None are defined as arms. We already have laws in place that prohibit private ownership of such weapons. Those of us who are defenders of the second amendment are not advocating for the legalization of tanks, bombs and nukes.

Scott February 3, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Thanks Jeff, for explaining that to Gonen. Now I wonder if he’d answer a question for us:

Gonen, a Bill of Rights is fine, but no one says which of those rights we should protect. Which other Constitutional Rights would you like to sacrifice, the First? The Fourth? Oh, good news, they’ve already started on that one too. Maybe we could give in a little on the Fifth Amendment? Maybe the Eighth? Just let us know which amendment in the Bill of Rights you’d like to place on the chopping block next.

You see sir, it isn’t just about guns. Of course they want to go after the Second Amendment first. It’s the one that allows for you to protect all the others.

Gun control isn’t about guns, it’s about control.

Gonen February 3, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I’m glad you agree with my point there should be a limit of the type of weapons regular people are allowed to hold.

Jeff Lewis February 4, 2013 at 7:58 am

Gonen, As far as I can tell you haven’t made a point, other than we should ban things which are already banned.

If you want to argue that the sun should rise in the east, we’ll find agreement on that as well.

If you want to argue something substantive, why not refer to Scott’s comment about gun control not being about guns, but about control. Please explain to us what other amendments in the Bill of Rights you want to do away with.

Maurice Lewman February 9, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Thanks fellows ,just what I needed to know.
Maurice Lewman

Scott February 10, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Gonen is obviously a troll and shall, henceforth, be ignored. I’ll reconsider if he posts anything productive.

Thomas April 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm

To try and clear things up, the “militia” is not the military. The military is addressed in completely different section of the Constitution. The State is the People. And to correct the above definition of “militia” – a group of ordinary citizens with the capability to band together to fight back threats to their liberty – with arms provide by themselves. Here is a great video to explain:

Sad part is the man telling us what is intended by our Forefathers wasn’t even born in America. Americans who do not understand this logic should be ashamed..

Phil Lavender August 6, 2013 at 6:13 am

Another component in understanding the original intention of the amendment is the attitude of Thomas Jefferson toward the idea of a standing army – a federal force always manned and armed under the direction of the federal government. In short, he hated the thought.

When you add this aversion to the concept of a permanent military, then the amendment makes perfect sense: No permanent military, then who would defend us?

The answer, of course, is that our own citizenry, fully aware via experience of the threat of an overbearing government, would be personally armed and ever-ready to come themselves to defend against enemies both foreign and domestic. Our individual and collective liberty would, therefore, be in the hands of, as well as be the burden of, the citizens of the United States.

In the present day, due to our own ignorance of our own history, the word “militia” is not synonymous with the phrase “domestic terrorism.” This is a sad reality. If the common person knew the facts shown just on this page of this web site, how much better off we could be!

Phil Lavender August 6, 2013 at 6:22 am


I meant to write that, in our twisted perspective of 2013,
“…the word “militia” IS synonymous with the phrase “domestic terrorism.”

This misunderstanding truly is sad and is due to dumbed-down historical education and due to the modern day media.

Alden Wayne Dumas August 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm

For the guy who wants Militis defined, you might want to read this……

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