Second Amendment Follies, Part 2: “a Well-Regulated Militia”


As we have seen, the purpose of the Second Amendment was actually to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. But what exactly does that mean? Just what is/ was a militia, anyway? The gun culture, of course, has its own answer for that, whether it conforms to reality or not.  Let’s turn again to what is perhaps the definitive treasury of NRA talking points, the publication and website called GunFacts:

Today “militia” might be more meaningfully translated as “defense service”, associated with a “defense duty”, which attaches to individuals as much as to groups of them, organized or otherwise. When we are alone, we are all militias of one. In the broadest sense, militia is the exercise of civic virtue.

Wow. Militia of one. Fancy that tattooed on your knuckles as you pump off a few rounds of civic virtue. In less grandiose terms, what gunsters proclaim is that “militia” today means all of the citizenry, because that’s what it meant when the Second Amendment was etched in stone. But there are at least two major flaws with this claim.

First of all, it just isn’t true.  Gun fetishists likes to quote George Mason, Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, thus:

I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people, except for a few public officials.

But this line uttered in debate is not a part of an official governing document. (Ironically, many individuals willing to brandish it as gospel are also quick to brush off Tom Jefferson’s comment about the wall of separation between church and state because it’s unofficial.) And given the tenor of the times, it’s likely that Mason didn’t quite exactly mean all of the people. Because the Second Militia Act of 1792 (passed only a few months after the Second Amendment was written) designated the composition of the militia as being:

every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years

So if the NRA crowd actually adhered to the original intent (or rather the original meaning, as they really seem to be professing to do), then today’s “militia” would consist only of white males between 18 and 45. And they would be outfitted only with

a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder

And maybe a slingshot or two.

Either Mason was being non-literal, or he was just plain wrong.

Of course, the original definition of militia has been tinkered with over the years since then. In 1862, a new Militia Act finally eliminated the restrictions of race; but there was still no remedy for the sexism and ageism of the original.

Then in 1903 another Militia Act, also known as the Dick Act, established the National Guard as the official “organized militia”, and demoted those who are eligible for Guard membership (i.e., able-bodied males within a certain age range) but not actual members as “unorganized militia” . In recent years, the gun culture has twisted the language and intent of this law into an assertion that “unorganized militia” means anyone who wants to tote hardware for any purpose.  The gun culture asserts that all civilians are a part of the “unofficial” militia and therefore covered by the Second Amendment; they must be wondering why the army never seems to need their services.

Sorry, but the Dick Act does not authorize you to be a — well, jerk. Being part of that “unofficial militia” doesn’t entail wearing a uniform or being privy to a secret handshake. And even if one could make a case that the Dick Act makes all of us “unofficial militia”, whatever rights it confers/ enshrines are legal (i.e., legislative) rights rather than constitutional rights. Its concept of militia is Twentieth Century rather than Eighteenth, and its provisions were not part of either the original Constitution or the Second Amendment; indeed, the Dick Act was passed when the Founders were all long deceased.

The other problem is that the obsession with the composition of the militia is to an extent a red herring. The most important thing about the militia was not its qualifications for membership, but its purpose for existing.  And that’s also clearly spelled out in the two Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the United States shall be invaded, or be in imminent danger of invasion from any foreign nation or Indian tribe, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, to call forth such number of the militia of the state or states most convenient to the place of danger or scene of action, as he may judge necessary to repel such invasion… That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.

In other words, the militia was designed to be an organized armed force supplied by the states to execute the laws of the nation. Nothing in the Militia Acts said anything about citizens being armed for deer hunting. Or for “defending” yourself against your government — more about that in a future installment. (And the militia was by no means universally revered among the Founders; George Washington spoke of it disapprovingly on more than one occasion.) The Dick Act actually makes this even more clear. With the establishment of the National Guard as the go-to unit of reserve manpower, the need for a militia in the traditional sense effectively became obsolete — which means that the Second Amendment also became obsolete.

The purpose of the militia is further emphasized by the expression “well-regulated”. And as you might expect, the gun culture also has its insistence that “that word does not mean what you think it means”. Thus from GunFacts:

The origin of the phrase “a well regulated militia” comes from a 1698 treatise “A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias” by Andrew Fletcher, in which the term “well regulated” was equated with “well-behaved” or “disciplined”.

And the author goes on to cite several other illustrations of the word well-regulated from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1709: “If a liberal Education has formed in us well-regulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations.”

1714: “The practice of all well-regulated courts of justice in the world.”

1812: “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial.”

1848: “A remissness for which I am sure every well-regulated person will blame the Mayor.”

1862: “It appeared to her well-regulated mind, like a clandestine proceeding.”

1894: “The newspaper, a never wanting adjunct to every well-regulated American embryo city.”

What the gun culture has done, in other words, is set up a false dichotomy. On the one hand, there is what they want “well-regulated” to mean: skilled in marksmanship. And on the other hand, there is what they want the “gun control” advocates to want it to mean: strict prohibitive legislation imposed by the government.  And, they suggest, if it means one then it can’t possibly mean the other.

In fact, as you can see from the above examples, even GunFacts acknowledges that well-regulated spans a range of meaning. But all of its possible definitions embrace the sense of disciplined, organized and efficient. And they all apply to a military unit, such as a militia. Incidentally, members of the militia in Revolutionary days were generally conscripted for service. And one of the major ironies of today’s gun fetishists is that they worship the Second Amendment as the embodiment of what they believe to be the ultimate freedom, when in fact it was intended to be a codification of civic obligation.

Indulge the gun zealots for a moment and imagine that “well-regulated” means only skilled in marksmanship. Imagine all the “militias of one” running around on their own initiative and dispensing “civic virtue” in each other’s direction at will. Do you really think this would be a well-regulated militia in the sense that the Second Amendment intended? Militia, like military, is derived from the Latin word for soldier. And a soldier never acts alone even when he is alone.  It is only when an organized body of soldiers, whether they be regular army or militia, is well-regulated in virtually every possible sense of the term, that it will effect the “security of a free state”.

Which is the troublesome phrase we’ll examine in the next installment.




3 thoughts on “Second Amendment Follies, Part 2: “a Well-Regulated Militia”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that a “militia” refers to a government regulated military unit, used to defend all of us from threats to our nation, but if I may play the Devil’s advocate for a minute, why can’t the primary language of the 2nd amendment be read like a grocery list i.e. The right of individual people to own apples, oranges and Tomatoes, and also have access to all healthy foods.”

    My problem is with the comma in the 2nd, which is placed between the people’s right to a well regulated militia and then (comma), the right of the people to bear arms. Is it not also easy to note that the word “People” denotes a group of individuals, all with an (individual) right to bear arms?

    Of course there was no way that the founders could ever have known how deadly and sophisticated future weaponry would become, and thus its dubious that they would have wanted the people to possess all arms, like AR-15 semi automatics, fully automatic machine guns, tanks, bazookas, or (taken to even further logical extremes), perhaps even their own nuclear weapons etc. And for that reason it’s a big leap to make from using a musket and getting off maybe three or four rounds a minute, to being a kid using a semi-automatic weapon to kill and injure several dozen students in a very short time.

    I likewise reject the idea that a militia means each individual gun owner is given the right to exact justice by gunning down those he or she perceives as being threats to the country. But it is also pretty hard to believe that the way the right to bear arms is expressed, does not include, (after the comma) the right of the people (meaning any individual person’s right to bear arms as part of “the people” as a whole). If that distinction meant nothing then wouldn’t we also live in a world in which all weapons such as those used for hunting and having 6 or 8 shells per magazine would also be completely prohibited because they are not part of a well regulated militia?

    My own feeling is that no matter how we interpret the second amendment, it would be pretty contradictory of our government to approve of the people’s right to a well regulated military force, but then deny the people all rights to go hunting in the surrounding woods, or to defend themselves against personal harm.

    I am also sure that more stringent gun regulations should be in place, such as a national registry and database, a ban on semi-automatics, and that each gun owner should acquire a license based on his or her knowledge of how and when to use personal weapons, when (as previously stated) defending against home intruders, hunting deer, and engaging in non-violent and non-military target practice–after paying a proper and recurring fee.

    Then there is the fact that plenty of other modern nations have much more strict gun regulations governing individual ownership, and also experience way fewer gun attacks per capita, yet they still allow individuals to own weapons after meeting specific and stringent legal requirements. So when considering a phrase such as the people’s right to (a well-regulated militia, the right of the people to bear arms) why can’t the comma infer that, like a grocery list, americans have both the rights to form protective military bodies as well as protect the rights of individual to own their own personal weapons?

    To me the question is about properly regulating guns minus a complete ban on all individuals to have them. It’s hard to believe that the right of the people to bear arms, does not also give a nod to personal rights such as retaining individual ownership in order to defend ourselves against home invasions?

  2. It may be true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people! However, have you ever noticed that when people who kill people can’t get guns, they are not able to kill anyone–especially in a mass shooting?

    Too simple? Just run it through Congress for a few days when many non-scientist, who know nothing about human-caused global warming, insist on speaking as experts, even though appointed lawfully, that as a major part of “the swamp!” that means their debates are being politicized? legislators agree that bump stocks should go,while striving to make all gun owners part of a well regulated militia. So,why not conceive of our citizens as opposed to unregulated or simply forced compliance. Again that will not make you wise or able to use false conspiracy stories ot justify any of your opinions Pretending that 2nd amendment activists aren’t going to be able to resist deniers, just because they can’t see through that thick and deep fog!

    • Hello POP,
      As far as I’m concerned you can go ahead and delete everything but my first paragraph in the comment above.I must have posted it in the wee hours of the morning when I was not thinking very clearly.

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