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The Second Amendment wasn’t to protect the National Guard

by Andy Barniskis
Bucks County Sportsmen’s Coalition
Legislative Committee Chairman

March 28, 2003 -- Most of us are familiar with the on-going propaganda attack promoting the idea that, because of those unfortunate words in the Second Amendment, “A well regulated militia,” the amendment was intended to protect the right of the states to maintain National Guard type troops as we know them today, and not the rights of we individual citizens to “keep and bear arms.” It appears the classic tactic of repeating a big lie over and over until “everyone knows it” is being used.

Others have written many pages of academic, historical studies to prove that the Second Amendment was intended to define an individual right. Those studies, most of them based on numerous quotes from the founders themselves, I will not repeat here. You can look them up in many places.

Like most of us who slept through high school history and most college electives dealing with history, I probably know just enough history to be dangerous. And, I will admit that my efforts to educate myself as an adult probably suffered from that common failing of seeking only information to reinforce what I already believed. However, some time ago I came up with an argument for the “individual right” interpretation of the Second Amendment that I believe is compelling, and that I have not heard offered by anyone else. What I believe makes it especially powerful is that it is based on the words of the Constitution itself, and not upon the mere words of individuals expressing what they thought it meant, two hundred years ago.

The key I believe lies not only in the Bill of Rights, but also in the body of the Constitution itself, in which the founders made it explicit that they did not want the states to maintain independent bodies of organized troops without congressional oversight. Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution states,

“No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in times of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.”

It would seem that explicit language prohibiting the “keeping of troops,” in one of the first sections of the Constitution, is considerably at odds with those who argue that the Bill of Rights (that was added only somewhat later) was guaranteeing that right to the states. It was a right the Constitution already had restricted. To this day, the states maintain their National Guard troops in only that uniform manner that is consistent with the dictates and approval of the federal congress -- as specified by the Constitution. 

Some I have mentioned this idea to suggest that, as an amendment to the Constitution, the Second Amendment was over-riding an earlier restriction in the Constitution itself. I believe at this point, an understanding of the political climate of the founding era is necessary to see that couldn’t possibly have been true – or the political furor that would have surrounded the amendment at the time would be recorded in history and well remembered today.

Contrary to the impressions that were taught in my school days, the debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution were far more heated – and in some cases, violent – than the polite consensus that most people today believe existed. Literally hundreds of true patriots, including men like Patrick Henry, opposed the Constitution as granting far too much power to a central government. A quote we might well reflect upon today is Patrick Henry’s rhetorical question, as he opposed the Constitution in the Virginia State Ratifying Convention on June 4, 1788: 

"What can avail your imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances?"

The people like Henry, known as “Anti-Federalists,” were not as well-organized or well-funded as the Federalists, who supported the Constitution. And yet, they posed a very real threat to its ratification, and it is thanks to them that we have a Bill of Rights, which some of the Federalists argued was unnecessary. To win the support of influential Anti-Federalists like Virginia’s George Mason, it was agreed that a Bill of Rights would be included in the Constitution.

The important historical point is that while the Bill of Rights was not adopted until December 15, 1791, it was a “work in progress” that helped persuade the last of the thirteen colonies to enter the union. Rhode Island, the last of the original colonies to do so, did not join the union until May 29, 1790 and was an independent nation until that time. If at any time during the drafting of the Bill of Rights it had been suggested that an amendment would in any way modify the original intent of the Constitution (as opposed to clarifying that intent) it is certain the many Anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution would have shouted in unison, “Ah Ha! See, your Constitution is not even completely ratified yet, and already its meaning is being changed. Your ‘checks and balances’ are worthless – we told you so!

The fact is that, to my knowledge, there were no such debates or criticisms. Clearly, Article I, Section 10 of the original Constitution continued to prevent the states from maintaining organized “standing armies” without congressional approval. The Second Amendment would not have been made either contradictory or redundant to that meaning. It is clear to me the Second Amendment’s sole purpose was to guarantee the rights of the “unorganized militia” – people like you and me who are the militia by virtue of our citizenship, and our being armed.

Andy Barniskis chairs the Legislative Committee of the Bucks County Sportsmen’s Coalition. When spirit moves him, from time to time, he offers a few words via