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Few debates in the recent past have been as contentious as the one surrounding the history of gun ownership. Once again, as the nation considers gun violence, gun rights, and gun regulation, we return to early America to shed light on the meaning of the Second Amendment.
When more than a decade ago the historian Michael A. Bellesiles wrote a controversial book claiming that Americans at the time of the Second Amendment's ratification owned few guns and were not particularly skilled at using them, he triggered a firestorm of controversy. That revisionist thesis was soon discredited for its dishonest use of historical evidence, leaving largely unchallenged the suspect counternarrative put forth by some legal scholars and the National Rifle Association.
The latter mythical history, which the U.S. Supreme Court majority swallowed whole in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) when it ruled that the "Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm," goes something like this: In early America, all adult males owned firearms; those privately owned guns armed the militia; the Second Amendment was meant to ensure an individual's right to own firearms for self-defense and as protection against tyranny. But the actual historical record is much more complicated—and more interesting.
Data from probate inventories, militia rolls, and colonial census returns reveal that private gun ownership was quite common during the 1600s, and though it declined in cities and along the coast during the later 1700s, it remained widespread in most rural areas. Generally, colonists preferred to own fowlers, Indian trade guns, and fusils (light muskets) well suited to birding, hunting, and pest control, and not heavier military-style muskets. Essentially these weapons were in purpose closer to a modern shotgun or a .22 rifle than an M-16 assault rifle. A distinct minority of colonists, mostly urban residents, owned pistols that had a limited range and limited military uses.
Self-defense was not the issue; national defense was.
During the second half of the 18th century, colonial governments and then revolutionary state governments concluded that lighter personal firearms were no longer adequate for soldiers in the field or militiamen at musters. Governments wanted their soldiers and militiamen armed like British Regulars, who carried the Brown Bess, a heavy, large-caliber smoothbore military musket that fired lead balls weighing about an ounce each and was equipped with a steel ramrod and 17-inch bayonet. But in New York, government reports show, some colonial militiamen were "so indigent" that they couldn't "purchase their proper arms," and in Georgia, "many" in the militia were "unable to purchase arms."
The shift in requirements created problems during the Revolutionary War. To deal with the problem, a number of states distributed to their militiamen thousands of publicly owned military muskets equipped with steel ramrods and bayonets, but inadequate supplies, losses, and wastage made the task of providing the desired type of firearms nearly impossible.
By the time the fighting had ended, state militias lacked adequate firearms, which became a continuing problem and source of discontent. In Virginia, the former wartime governor Thomas Jefferson wrote that the "law requires every militia-man to provide himself with arms usual in regular service," but that "in the lower parts of the country they are entirely disarmed. In the middle country a fourth or fifth part of them may have such firelocks as they had provided to destroy the noxious animals which infest their farms."
In Pennsylvania, militiamen remained dependent on publicly supplied muskets. Late in 1787, they protested when the state recalled their firearms to clean them and possibly redistribute them to exposed frontier counties. It is also telling that in 1786-87, the Massachusetts uprising that came to be known as Shays' Rebellion led to a climactic confrontation at the national arsenal in Springfield as both sides sought to control its store of 7,000 military muskets.
In the late 1780s, many state militias no longer appeared to be capable of ensuring what the Second Amendment would call the "security of a free State" without improved organization, better training, and thousands of publicly supplied military muskets with bayonets. Americans were not worried that agents of the new federal government would come, door to door, to take away their squirrel guns, trade guns, fowlers, and pistols. Nor was the problem that concerned them the disarmament of some imaginary "people's militia" or "civilian militia"—rhetorical terms found in the Heller decision that have no historical basis.
Instead, the very real danger was that the existing state militias would be disarmed by simple federal inaction.
Anti-Federalists such as George Mason wanted reassurance that, "in case the general government should neglect to arm and discipline the militia there should be an express declaration, that the state governments might arm and discipline them." It was in that context that the Second Amendment emerged and was ratified in 1791.
So what does all of that say about the current debate over the regulation of firearms and the meaning of the Second Amendment?
The first point is that, even in the 18th century, not all guns were created equal. Today all 18th-century muzzle-loading, single-shot firearms appear to be ineffective and antiquated. But members of the founding generation saw them differently, making distinctions concerning the size and use of firearms just as we do today.
Second, not all private arms—especially pistols—were militia arms, and not all militia arms were private arms, by the late 1700s.
Third, the assumption by the majority in Heller that the Second Amendment gave handguns constitutional protection because "the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon" fails to meet the self-proclaimed standard of those jurists seeking to recover the Constitution's original meaning. According to the originalists, a document's words mean what the average rational man on the street thought they meant at the time. The ruling makes sense only if you believe that Dirty Harry was the typical American in 1791.
Fourth, despite Justice Anthony Kennedy's observation during oral arguments in Heller that the authors of the Second Amendment were worried about defending themselves against "grizzlies and things like that," references to hunting, in general, and bears, in particular, were rather rare in the debates over the Constitution and the Second Amendment. One could say they were almost as rare as encountering a grizzly bear east of the Ohio River. Protecting or banning firearms that would be the equivalent of today's shotguns and .22s was not really an issue at the time.
Finally, the Second Amendment really was about the militia. The need for it grew out of the Constitution's grant of power to the federal government for "organizing, arming, and disciplining" the state militias and the continuing need to equip them with military-style muskets.
The Second Amendment sought to reassure anti-Federalists rhetorically, but not substantively. Critics and concerned state officials feared that actions or, more likely, inactions by the federal government would frustrate efforts to supply the nation's 13 state militias—the equivalent of today's National Guard—with the period's equivalent of the M-16. Self-defense was not the issue; national defense was.
Those who crafted and ratified the Second Amendment were dealing with very different issues from those we face today. We need to move our discussions about guns beyond claims rooted in a debate over securing military muskets to arm the militia. At the same time, it is useful to be aware that even in the 18th century, citizens and lawmakers made distinctions concerning the appropriate uses of different types of firearms.