The Second Amendment never fails to stir our passions. When we feel torn apart by debate, it may be helpful to take a look backward in order to enable us to move forward together.
The Founding Fathers created the Constitution because the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate. Four states ratified the new document quickly, but fierce ideological battles in the others soon threatened its passage.
Federalists, led by Hamilton, Madison and Jay, supported the Constitution’s stronger central government. Anti-Federalists, including Jefferson and Henry, feared a loss of liberty and a return to monarchy if the Constitution was adopted unamended. It became evident that the Constitution would not survive without enumerated rights, which Madison reluctantly proposed.
Once the amendments were promised, the undecided states agreed to ratification. Without immediate amendment, the Constitution would have failed.
Primary source documents offer little help for interpreting the amendments. The Federalist Papers paint a clear picture about what was in the Framers’ minds as they drafted the Constitution, yet they only offer hints about the amendments. Madison uses Europe, where “the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms,” as the basis of arguing for an armed militia, yet points toward the states’ militia, not individuals (No. 46).
Hamilton argues that the people should stand armed, ready to be called upon by the federal government, but doesn’t mention self-defense (No. 29).
In opposition, Jefferson wrote “and what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”
As quotable as these essays and letters are, none of them definitively answers if there was collective intent, and what that intent was if it existed.
So we are left to interpret the words themselves. The Second is one of the most popularly known amendments, yet few can quote it verbatim:
“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.”
Interestingly, it is the only amendment that states a purpose for its inclusion. Does that mean the right exists only for the security of a free state? The Supreme Court has ruled that it applies to individuals and self-defense, so today the disagreement centers upon to what degree the government can limit our right through regulation.
Should we interpret literally, or broadly? This question applies not only to gun control but to the Constitution itself.
Constructionalists read the Constitution at its word and attempt no interpretation. Originalists attempt to get into the minds of the framers to interpret what they meant when they wrote the words.
Living constitutionalists read it liberally, arguing its enduring power is its ability to be reinterpreted with changing times. We can’t agree on what it says, what it means, or how to read it. So where does that leave us?
There is no easy way to settle the gun control argument. It is not as simple as asking what the framers intended: entire schools of academia and law continue to be devoted to that.
The crux is this: It is not the intent of the Framers but their actions that are most helpful.
The Founding Fathers argued vehemently, both publicly and privately, but they ultimately exemplified what it took to create the world’s greatest democracy: compromise. Madison was the principal author of the Constitution and believed enumerated rights unnecessary, but knew ratification would not happen without them, so he penned the proposed amendments himself. Patrick Henry, who famously said “Give me Liberty, or give me Death,” eventually supported the Federalists.
Benjamin Franklin, unsatisfied with the Constitution, chose to approve it “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
One thing is certain: Without compromise, the Constitution would never have been ratified. Above all, the framers showed us that to form a more perfect union, we must engage in spirited debate, and we must be willing to compromise. When we feel torn apart, they instruct us on how to behave when we disagree about that which we would die fighting for.
Caren Ray teaches government, economics and world history at Santa Maria High School. She is a member of the Arroyo Grande City Council.