Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Say It With Bullets

The best writers communicate their ideas in the fewest words possible. So it was with the Founding Fathers: They crammed a lot of history and meaning into the sentence "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."

In The Founders' View of the Right to Bear Arms: A Definitive History of the Second Amendment, David E. Young unpacks the much-debated right with extensive historical references. Critics will make a number of charges, and correctly -- Young is an independent, non-credentialed historian; he too often paraphrases his source material instead of using quotes; his prose is a bit awkward. But the book is an invaluable work for those who want to know the truth about guns and the Constitution, especially in light of the current Supreme Court case regarding Washington, D.C.'s gun-control laws. The debate rages: Can all individual Americans have guns, or does the Second Amendment only protect arms-bearing when it relates to the militia?

The answer is complicated because American history took several steps in creating the amendment we all know and love. The language began in state declarations of rights, and when the fight over the Constitution came, some states proposed federal amendments based on those rights. From those proposals, early lawmakers pared down the verbiage into its current form. Drawing heavily his 1995 primary-source collection The Origin of the Second Amendment, Young details each step and the public debates that took place in between.

State declarations of rights frequently incorporated a three-part formulation by George Mason, which Young dubs the Mason Triad. Here it is in Virginia's declaration:

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; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

Of particular note is the assertion that a "well-regulated militia" is "composed of the body of the people, trained to arms." Also pay attention to the dual purpose: The right guaranteed arms for the defense of the state, but it also placed the government military under "strict subordination."

Subsequent state declarations varied quite a bit in their precise wording, particularly in the first part of the triad. Some chose the "right of the people to bear arms" language, and others chose the "well regulated militia" formulation, but none included both as the final amendment would. Young argues that the two phrases were understood to mean exactly the same thing -- a well regulated militia is the people, and almost every time early lawmakers felt the need to define a well regulated militia, that's how they did it.