An 18th-century understanding


Those who argue for the exclusive application of the “keep and bear arms” clause of the Second Amendment seem unaware that their argument presupposes we are still living in the 18th century at a time when our young nation remained vulnerable to the continuing colonial ambitions of the European powers. Washington’s army had been largely disbanded. Thus it was critical to have in reserve, and ready to be called up, the civilian militias, “well regulated” and “necessary to the security of a free state.” Viewed in its historical context, this provision was designed to provide interim security until we could build up a standing army and strengthen our navy. Once this was achieved, the militia evolved into the National Guard under the regulation of Congress.

The deliberations of the Founding Fathers as they crafted a Constitution that would establish a government of the people, by the people and for the people, were anchored in three major considerations:

1) The present needs and conditions of the new country;

2) The long history of the political and social abuses of European governments, and how to avoid them;

3) How to provide a mechanism for addressing the changing social conditions certain to arise in the future.

The resulting Constitution, while not perfect, does largely address these three concerns, the last one by providing for amendments. Though the founders were remarkably successful in maintaining clarity in the language of the Constitution, they sometimes stumbled as with the ambiguity of the Second Amendment. They knew what it meant, and it was probably clearly understood by an 18th century population. Not so in our time.

If the founders could see the controversy their Second Amendment language has generated, they surely would want to clarify it, which would probably mean a longer statement.

The First Amendment also has been subject to competing interpretations, needlessly so. Once we understand what was meant by an established religion back then, no ambiguity remains regarding the separation of church and state.

Denton May