In 2018, President Donald Trump addressed the NRA’s annual conference for the second time as a sitting president. He was only the second sitting president to do so. In 1983, then President Ronald Reagan became the first.
Both Reagan and Trump had at one time supported a ban on military-style assault weapons, a completely rational policy that the gun lobby views as a gun grab. Reagan came out for the reform ten years after he addressed the NRA; Trump endorsed it before he entered national politics. Reagan delivered his remarks with trademark passion and conviction; Trump rattled off a list of platitudes before launching into a recitation of his political conquests.
But both men delivered a similar message 35 years apart, and both distorted history.
Reagan said in 1983: “And by the way, the Constitution does not say that government shall decree the right to keep and bear arms. The Constitution says, ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’”
Trump said in 2018: “Since the first generation of Americans stood strong at Concord, each generation to follow has answered the call to defend freedom in their time. That is why we are here today: To defend freedom for our children. To defend the liberty of all Americans. And to defend the right of a free and sovereign people to keep and bear arms.”
Reagan and Trump framed the Second Amendment as an absolute right to own and carry firearms. The men (and yes, they were all men) who wrote our Constitution, however, saw that Second Amendment right to bear arms as a civic responsibility that white men had to meet in order to serve and protect their communities. The amendment was rooted in notions of responsible and ordered citizenship and was never seen as an unlimited and unregulatable right. The modern view of the Second Amendment articulated by Reagan and Trump, the one that views almost all gun regulations as contradictory to the right to bear arms, did not take hold until many years later, invented and perpetuated by a gun lobby intent on helping the firearms industry sell more guns.
For centuries, Americans had accepted and even promoted strict gun controls.
During the Revolutionary War period, for instance, the colonists heavily regulated firearms within a militia structure. Service was mandatory, and the militias were made up of white male landowners, who were required to carry and obtain their own firearms—guns they used to strip Native Americans of their land and rule enslaved Africans. To facilitate this dirty work—and ensure that guns did not fall into the “wrong” hands—early Americans employed stringent gun regulations. The early colonies required that guns be registered and inspected. Regulation of firearms in the colonies both during and after independence included policing powers over nonmilitary use of the weapons. Colonial governments tracked citizens’ firearms, and militiamen faced stiff penalties if they failed to report to muster. While many individual colonies had rules governing the storage of gunpowder, some regulations went even further.
Boston residents were not permitted to store a loaded firearm in their home, and individuals faced stiff penalties for violating this prohibition. Boston, along with New York, prohibited the firing of guns within city limits. Rhode Island conducted a house-by-house census of gun owners. Pennsylvania law allowed the government to disarm individuals deemed insufficiently loyal to the state.
By the time the 13 states came together in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787, four state constitutions protected the right to bear arms within a militia, but only Pennsylvania allowed broader ownership. (Given its high number of pacifist Quakers, the state could not form a standing militia and had to rely on armed individuals for protection.)
Most importantly, all of these early state constitutions described the right to bear arms as a civic obligation: citizens were required to arm themselves in order to participate in a militia that could protect them from foreign armies and internal threats. This understanding of self-defense was rooted in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, wherein the government tightly regulated firearms. The American colonists followed that norm, bearing arms “for the defence of the State” (North Carolina, Article XVII) or “for the common defence” (Massachusetts, Article XVII).
We spend a lot of time debating the particulars of the Second Amendment today, but it may surprise you to learn that the right to bear arms was not particularly important to the men who penned the Constitution. They did not include it in their original draft, nor was there any great public clamoring for such a provision in the fiery debates that followed the Constitutional Convention. To the extent that guns were discussed at all, the debate focused on the merits of state-run militias versus a national standing army. Before the Convention, states had controlled and regulated their own militias. The authors of the new document sought to put the federal government in charge. This change caused great divisions.
One camp of delegates—the Federalists—feared that state-run citizen militias would be ill equipped to deal with future threats. They wanted a professional nationwide armed force. Other delegates—the Anti-Federalists—argued that Congress could abuse its power, disarm the state militias, and strip landowners of their rights. Eventually, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed to a compromise: the federal government would be given the authority “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States,” while the states controlled military training and the appointment of military officers.
The Philadelphia Convention adjourned with that compromise, without any language about the “right to bear arms,” and the founders sent the document to special conventions held within state legislatures for ratification. Nine out of 13 states had to approve the Constitution for the document to go into effect. The newly proposed order unleashed feverish debates all over the country.
Early Americans penned essays and pamphlets arguing about the role of government and its size in daily life. But here too, they spent almost no time debating the gun question.
In Massachusetts, the state convention actually rejected the statement that the “Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress… to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.” In Pennsylvania, a provision “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own state, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals” was similarly voted down. That clause allowed for significant police regulation of firearms, but it was still lampooned by the leaders of the day. Noah Webster, the political writer and “father of American scholarship and education,” asked sarcastically if Congress should not include language “that Congress shall never restrain any inhabitant of America from eating and drinking, at seasonable times, or prevent his lying on his left side, in a long winter’s night, or even on his back, when he is fatigued by lying on his right.”
In other words, the minority view that the Constitution should explicitly allow for a right to self-defense never picked up any significant steam, and its adherents made no campaign to advance it.
So how did the Bill of Rights come to include the Second Amendment? It originated from one of the nation’s first attempts to satisfy a political constituency!
The Constitution’s chief author—James Madison—had a problem. He wanted to win a congressional seat in Virginia, but he needed the votes of white southern Baptists to do so. What did they want? After years of oppression by the Episcopal Church, they demanded a guarantee that the new American government would never prioritize one religion over another. As Michael Waldman, author of The Second Amendment: A Biography, put it, “Madison found himself one of the first American politicians to pirouette, in the course of a campaign, from a deeply held view to its opposite—all the while insisting (and trying to convince himself) that he had not changed his view at all. The Bill of Rights was born of a pander to a noisy interest group in a single congressional district.”
Madison did indeed initially oppose significantly changing the Constitution, arguing that enumerating specific rights would not prevent governments from trampling them and could disrupt the delicate balance of power between the federal government and the states as laid out in the document. Political expediency, however, convinced him to meet the Baptists’ demand for an amendment guaranteeing religious freedom. Madison explained his change of mind: “It is my sincere opinion that the Constitution ought to be revised, and that the first Congress meeting under it ought to prepare and recommend to the States for ratification, the most satisfactory provisions for all essential rights, particularly the rights of Conscience in the fullest latitude, the freedom of the press, trials by jury, security against general warrants &c.”
Note that Madison’s list did not initially include a “right to bear arms,” though as he drafted the Bill of Rights, he incorporated language from the recommendations sent by the states’ ratification conventions. Those amendments included provisions about a right to bear arms within the context of a militia and did not appear to endorse an individual right to bear arms, even for hunting or self-defense.
Madison’s amendment echoed that sentiment, and after some revisions, it was codified into the 27 words of the Second Amendment: “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.”
Consider this amendment piece by piece:
“A well regulated militia”: The founders were concerned about protecting the militia from the dangers of a centralized standing army as the phrase “the security of a free State” suggests. The first clause of the amendment qualifies the right articulated within it.
“A free State”: Every time that phrase is used in the Constitution it refers to individual states, not the government as a whole.
“The people”: The founders used this phrase to mean not individual persons, but rather the body politic, the people as a whole. During the ratification debate in Virginia, speakers used the phrase “the people” 50 times when discussing the militia. Every single mention referred to Virginians as a group, not as individuals.
“Keep and bear arms”: If you search the phrase “right to bear arms” in the Congressional Record, you won’t find a single mention outside of the context of the military. Searching a database of all the writings and papers of our founding fathers (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison) also reveals that the “right to bear arms” referred only to the formation of militias.
In the 18th century, the Second Amendment was about militias and musters. It was not about the politics of rugged individualism or a God-given right to own as many firearms as possible. Understanding of the amendment evolved in the decades that followed, as our interpretation of the Constitution adapted to changing times. Yet the “right to bear arms” almost always reflected a collective spirit rather than an individual obligation, a duty that could be regulated to address concerns of public safety. A group of colonial historians explained it succinctly: “The authors of the Second Amendment would be flabbergasted to learn that in endorsing the republican principle of a well-regulated militia, they were also precluding restrictions on such potentially dangerous property as firearms, which governments had always regulated when there was ‘real danger of public injury from individuals.’”
During the 19th century, state militias began to give way to standing armies, and as the United States expanded west, violence increased. An organization dedicated to improving the marksmanship of American soldiers formed; it evolved into an association dedicated to undermining all gun regulations throughout the country. Before long, this group would launch a multimillion-dollar campaign to rewrite the history of the Second Amendment and distort the writings of our founding fathers to fit its message and political agenda.
Copyright © 2019 by Igor Volksy. This excerpt originally appeared in Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.
Igor Volsky is the author of Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns. He is co-founder and executive director of Guns Down America, an organization dedicated to building a future with fewer guns. He made headlines in 2015 for shaming lawmakers who took money from the NRA and sent “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings. A lively interlocutor, he has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC television, and many radio shows. He lives in Washington, DC.