by Richard "Chip" Peterson, PhD,  April 9,2010

    Libertarians strongly support Americans' Constitutional Second Amendment Rights of citizens to "keep and bear arms."

    When legislation is passed and lawyers in Washington write implementing legislation, they often look at the "legislative intent" of the people who proposed and voted for the legislation when they write the implementing legislation. Thus, in this piece, I will look at statements made by our nation's founding fathers about citizen's rights to be armed. In particular, I will look at statements made by James Madison, who was the primary author of the U.S. Constitution as well as statements made by Thomas Jefferson, who was the primary author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence

    In addition to being the primary writer responsible for the writing of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, became actively engaged in explaining the proposed Constitution and its implications to the general public, in order to reassure the public about the fact that the Constitution only granted limited and divided powers to the Federal government while reserving  substantial governmental powers for the states and the people. Ultimately, in a Republic, such as the United States, all powers arise from the people and the Federal government, or the states  should have no more power than the people willingly grant to any government. In order to reassure the people that that would be the case if the proposed Constitution were to be ratified, Madison participated in writing The Federalist Papers, which consisted of  85 articles published by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in New York papers under the pseudonym, Publius, and were later published in separate volumes by Hamilton. Madison, because of his experience in writing the U.S. Constitution contributed a large share of the papers. Of particular interest in this discussion are Madison's views of citizen's gun rights, which were later explicitly incorporated in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was enacted in part to guarantee citizens that their rights that were implied in the U.S. Constitution per se would also be explicitly recognized by the Constitution's Bill of Rights. He also strongly supported states rights, which were later guaranteed by the Constitution's Tenth Amendment in its Bill of Rights.

    Federalist Paper #46, written by Madison, explains why states rights and an armed citizenry are important constituents in the governmental structure proposed by the U.S. Constitution. This is shown by the following series of quotes taken from Federalist Paper #46.

    "Were it admitted, however, that the federal government may feel an equal disposition with the State governments to extend its power beyond due limits, the latter would still have the advantage in the means of defeating such encroachments....

"should an unwarrantable measure be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand."

Madison then cited the many ways that citizens of States and their State governments could resist Federal encroachments upon their rights. He then noted that,

"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 to the enterprises of ambition , more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in 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. And it is not certain that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments, chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia by these governments and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest certainty that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of oppressors. "

    In short, in Federalist Paper #46, Madison both notes that the right of American citizens to keep and bear arms is essential to preventing them from being subjugated by an overreaching and power-hungry federal government. Furthermore, the  right of citizens to keep and bear arms  is enhanced by the right of the States to have a strong degree of sovereignty with their own militias, in order to prevent their citizens and their states from being unjustly subjugated to an over-reaching  federal government. Madison states that both individual rights and states rights are important in this regard, and viewed in that light, it is clear why the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution endorses both citizens rights to keep and bear arms and the right of local and state militias to exist. It does not say that the right to keep and bear arms is limited to militia members.

    Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and third U.S. President,  also made many statements that endorsed citizens' right to be armed. At different times he said or wrote the following [I have taken these quotes from a number of compilations so exact references are not assigned to each]:

    "No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."

    "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." 

    Clearly, the U.S. founding fathers thought that the right to keep and bear arms was essential for citizens so they could preserve their liberties and safety--and that is the "legislative intent" that is embodied in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


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