Second Amendment to the United States Constitution

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The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, relating to the right to bear arms, was enacted as part of the Bill of Rights, its ratification occuring on December 15, 1791 with the support of the Virginia Legislature.

Text of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment, as passed by the House and Senate and later ratified by the States, reads:

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.

The hand-written copy of the Bill of Rights which hangs in the National Archives had slightly different capitalization and punctuation inserted by William Lambert, the scribe who prepared it. This copy reads:

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.

Both versions are commonly used by "official" Government publications.

Earlier proposals and drafts of the Amendment

And that the said Constitution 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.
Samuel Adams, (February 6, 1788), reported in Charles Hale, Debates and Proceedings in the Convention of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1856), p. 86. This language was proposed in the Massachusetts convention for ratification of the U.S. Constitution to be added to Article I of that document.
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and 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.
Original text of what was to become the Second Amendment, as brought to the floor to the first session of the first congress of the U.S. House of Representatives. original text
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, but no person religiously scrupulous shall be compelled to bear arms.
Reworded version of the Second Amendment by the select committee on the Bill of Rights, July 28th 1789. AoC pp. 669)
A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; but no one religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
Draft version of the Second Amendment sent by the House of Representatives to the United States Senate, on August 24th, 1789. (Note: When the Amendment was transcribed, the semicolon in the religious exemption portion was changed to a comma by the Senate scribe).
A well regulated militia, being the best security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed
Revision voted on in the U.S. Senate, September 4th, 1789.
A well regulated militia being the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Final version passed by the U.S. Senate; the phrase "necessary to" was added when the proposed Amendment was entered into the U.S. House journal.

Quotes relating to the adoption of the Amendment

The following statements were made by various founding fathers prior to the adoption of the Second Amendment. While most date from before the wording of the second amendment was established, four were made during the 1789 debates over its adoption:

Thomas Jefferson

  • No freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms.
    • Proposed Virginia Constitution, June, 1776.
  • The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves;... that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed and that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of press.
    • Letter to Major John Cartwright (June 5 1824).

John Adams

  • John Adams, defense attorney for the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre: "Here every private person is authorized to arm himself, and on the strength of this authority, I do not deny the inhabitants had a right to arm themselves at that time, for their defense, not for offence...."--L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel, ed., Legal Papers of John Adams (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1965), 3:248
  • Commenting on Marchamont Nedhams's Quote, "That the people be continually trained up in the exercise of arms, and the militia lodged only in the people's hands," Adams Stated "[T]he rule in general is excellent:" --John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America 3:471 (1788)
  • "To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government. The fundamental law of the militia is, that it be created, directed and commanded by the laws, and ever for the support of the laws." --John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States 3:475 (1787-1788)

James Madison

  • "The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for the common liberties and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the late successful resistance of this country against the British arms will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments of the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms." --James Madison, Federalist No. 46, 1788

George Mason

George Mason is considered the "Father of the Bill of Rights." Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which detailed specific rights of citizens. He was later a leader of those who pressed for the addition of explicitly stated individual rights as part of the U.S. Constitution.

  • "[W]hen the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually. . . ." --George Mason, Virginia's U.S. Constitution ratification convention, June 14, 1788, reported in Elliot, Debates of the Several State Conventions 3:380.
  • "I ask, who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor. . . ." --George Mason, Virginia's U.S. Constitution ratification convention, June 16, 1788, reported in Elliot, Debates of the Several State Conventions 3:425.
  • "That the People have a right to keep and bear Arms; that a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe Defence of a free state." -- Within Mason's declaration of "the essential and unalienable Rights of the People," --George Mason, later adopted by the Virginia ratification convention, 1788

Patrick Henry

  • "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 inevitabley ruined." --Patrick Henry, Virginia's U.S. Constitution ratification convention, June 5, 1788, reported in Elliot, Debates of the Several State Conventions 3:45.
  • "My great objection to this government is, that it does not leave us the means of defending our rights or of waging war against tyrants." --Patrick Henry, Virginia's U.S. Constitution ratification convention, June 5, 1788, reported in Elliot, Debates of the Several State Conventions 3:47.
  • "[W]here and when did freedom exist when the power of the sword and purse were given up from the people?" --Patrick Henry, Virginia's U.S. Constitution ratification convention, June 9,1788. Elliot, Debates of the Several State Conventions, 3:169

Others

  • In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
  • To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude, that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway, than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace ; and that to model our political system upon speculations of lasting tranquility, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.
  • Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom of 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 bands of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.
    • Noah Webster (writing under the nom de plume of "A Citizen of America), An Examination Into the Leading Principles of the Constitution (October 17, 1787).
  • It is true, the yeomanry of the country possess the lands, the weight of property, possess arms, and are too strong a body of men to be openly offended-and, therefore, it is urged, they will take care of themselves, that men who shall govern will not dare pay any disrespect to their opinions. It is easily perceived, that if they have not their proper negative upon passing laws in congress, or on the passage of laws relative to taxes and armies, they may in twenty or thirty years be by means imperceptible to them, totally deprived of that boasted weight and strength: This may be done in great measure by congress, if disposed to do it, by modelling the militia. Should one fifth, or one eighth part of the men capable of bearing arms, be made a select militia, as has been proposed, and those the young and ardent part of the community, possessed of but little or no property, and all the others put upon a plan that will render them of no importance, the former will answer all the purposes of an army, while the latter will be defenceless.
    • Letters from the Federal Farmer to the Republican, III, November 1787.[1]
  • 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 the people always posses arms, and be taught alike, especially when young, how to use them...The mind that aims at a select militia, must be influenced by a truly anti-republican principle.
  • The militia, who are in fact the effective part of the people at large, will render many troops quite unnecessary. They will form a powerful check upon the regular troops, and will generally be sufficient to over-awe them.
    • Tench Coxe, Delegate to Continental Congress, Oct. 21, 1787.
  • Whereas civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as military forces, which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.
    • Tench Coxe, Federal Gazette, June 18,1789, A friend of James Madison, writing in support of the Madison's first draft of the Bill of Rights.
  • [A]rms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not others dare not lay them aside. And while a single nation refuses to lay them down, it is proper that all should keep them up. Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them; for while avarice and ambition have a place in the heart of man, the weak will become a prey to the strong. The history of every age and nation establishes these truths, and facts need but little arguments when they prove themselves.
  • The rights of conscience, of bearing arms, of changing the government, are declared to be inherent in the people.
    • Fisher Ames, Letter to F.R. Minoe, June 12, 1789 (reporting to Minoe on the amendments proposed by Madison).

Later quotes about the Second Amendment

Madison did not invent the right to keep and bear arms when he drafted the Second Amendment--the right was pre-existing at both common law and in the early state constitutions.
Thomas B. McAffee & Michael J. Quinlan, "Bringing Forward The Right To Keep And Bear Arms: Do Text, History, Or Precedent Stand In The Way?", North Carolina Law Review (March 1997), p. 781.
  • Nothing in the history, construction, or interpretation of the Amendment applies or infers such a protection. Rather, legal protection for personal self-defense arises from the British common law tradition and modern criminal law; not from constitutional law.
    • Robert J. Spitzer, "Lost and Found: Researching the Second Amendment", Chicago Kent Law Review 76, no. 1 (2000): pp. 349-401.
  • The majority falls prey to the delusion — popular in some circles — that ordinary people are too careless and stupid to own guns, and we would be far better off leaving all weapons in the hands of professionals on the government payroll. But the simple truth — born of experience — is that tyranny thrives best where government need not fear the wrath of an armed people... A revolt by Nat Turner and a few dozen other armed blacks could be put down without much difficulty; one by four million armed blacks would have meant big trouble. All too many of the other great tragedies of history — Stalin’s atrocities, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, to name but a few — were perpetrated by armed troops against unarmed populations. Many could well have been avoided or mitigated, had the perpetrators known their intended victims were equipped with a rifle and twenty bullets apiece, as the Militia Act required here. ... If a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto could hold off the Wehrmacht for almost a month with only a handful of weapons, six million Jews armed with rifles could not so easily have been herded into cattle cars.
  • In sum, we hold that the District's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.

Misattributed

A common practice among proponents of a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment has been to fabricate quotes asserting support for that broad interpretation by various founding fathers. Some of these include:

  • The beauty of the second amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.
  • When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.
  • 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.
  • Laws that forbid the carrying of arms. . . disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. . . Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.
  • Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the people's liberty teeth and keystone under independence. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences and tendencies prove that to ensure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable. The very atmosphere of firearms everywhere restrains evil interference - they deserve a place of honor with all that's good.

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