Gun control advocates are upset over Attorney General John Ashcroft's declaration last week, outlined in a legal brief before the Supreme Court, that the Second Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms irrespective of any ties to a state militia.
Editorials in The New York Times and The Washington Post denounced Ashcroft as flying in the face of history and legal precedent. In fact, Ashcroft has the law and history on his side. Both have recognized not only an individual's right to keep and bear arms as a last defense against government tyranny, but in many cases, states have required citizens to own guns to protect their freedoms and deter criminals.
A reading of The Federalist papers, in which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay expand on the meaning of the Constitution, shows that the militia the Second Amendment refers to was to be comprised of armed private citizens. Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 46 that an armed citizen "forms a barrier against the enterprise of ambition," which the Founders understood from history and their "British oppressors" to be overreaching government.
In debate over the Constitution, Samuel Adams sought a guarantee in the Bill of Rights that "The said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to...prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms." At the Virginia Constitutional Convention, George Mason said Britain had plotted "to disarm the people - that was the best and most effective way to enslave them," while Patrick Henry noted, "The great object is that every man be armed...Everyone who is able may have a gun."
Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, proposed that "to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them."
Many believe the National Guard is the same as a state militia -- a reserve force trained at federal expense for immediate service in the event of an emergency. But the militia of which the Founders spoke was something entirely different. They viewed an armed citizenry that could be mustered into a fighting force or used to defend the rights and property of the individual as a last defense against those who would deny such rights.
In 1982, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution published a carefully documented report on "The Right to Keep and Bear Arms," including a history of events leading to passage of the Second Amendment.
"The right to keep and bear arms as a part of English and American law antedates not only the Constitution, but also the discovery of firearms," the report notes. "Under the laws of Alfred the Great, whose reign began in 872 A.D. all English citizens from the nobility to the peasants were obliged to privately purchase weapons and be available for military duty. This was in sharp contrast to the feudal system as it evolved in Europe, under which armament and military duties were concentrated in the nobility." While many English rights were "abridged" over the centuries, the right to bear arms was mostly retained.
In 1623, Virginia forbade colonists to travel unless they were "well armed." In 1631, Virginians were required to engage in target practice on Sunday and "bring their peeces (sic) to church." By 1658, every Virginian was to have a firearm at home, and in 1673 state law said that a citizen who claimed he was too poor to buy a gun "could have one purchased for him by the government, which would then require him to pay a reasonable price when able to do so."
When Britain began to increase its military presence in the colonies, Massachusetts called on its citizens to arm themselves. One colonial newspaper argued that this was legal, citing Blackstone's commentaries on English law, which listed "having and using arms for self-preservation and defense" among the "absolute rights of individuals."
When New Hampshire cast the ninth vote needed for passage of the Constitution, it called for a Bill of Rights including the provision that "Congress shall never disarm any citizen unless such as are or have been in actual rebellion." The focus was on the law-breaker, not the law-abiding gun owner, who was seen as a defender of individual liberty and national freedom.
There is much more documented in the 1982 report (available through the Government Printing Office or at www.constitution.org/mil/rkba1982.htm#01). Every citizen should read and study it, including editorial writers and the Supreme Court. Hard-won rights are not easily restored once they've been surrendered.