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Comments in Newspapers on the Second Amendment


A brief mention and discussion of comments made in newspapers about the Second Amendment, after the Bill of Rights was submitted to Congress is presented. The entire discussion is taken from Halbrook, Stephen P., "The Right of the People or the Power of the State Bearing Arms, Arming Militias, and the Second Amendment". Originally published as 26 Val. U. L.Rev. 131-207 (1991).

Many of the proposed amendments were subjected to criticism. But the Second Amendment was apparently never attacked, aside from one editorial that argued the inefficiency of the militia clause, never questioning the right-to-bear-arms clause. After quoting the language of the proposal as it was approved by the House, the prominent antifederalist "Centinel" opined:

It is remarkable that this article only makes the observation, 'that a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, is the best security of a free state;' it does not ordain, or constitutionally provide for, the establishment of such a one. The absolute command vested by other sections in Congress over the militia, are not in the least abridged by this amendment. The militia may still be subjected to marital law..., may still be marched from state to state and made the unwilling instruments of crushing the last efforts of expiring liberty.
"Centinel" was, of course, Samuel Bryan, author of the Pennsylvania Dissent of the Minority, which demanded recognition of the right to bear arms for defense of self, state, and country, and for hunting. By not objecting to lack of such a list of purposes in the Second Amendment, the antifederalists must have assumed that exercise of the right to keep and bear arms would extend to all lawful purposes. By the same token, Samuel Adams and the drafters of the New Hampshire proposal ["Congress shall never disarm any citizen, unless such as are or have been in actual rebellion."] did not object to the lack of an explicit exclusion of criminals from the right to keep and bear arms, because this too was understood.

Centinel's observations indicate the understanding that the Second Amendment's militia clause was merely declaratory and did not protect state powers to maintain militias to any appreciable degree. That antifederalists never attacked the right-to-bear-arms clause demonstrates that it recognized a full and complete guarantee of individual rights to have and use private arms. Surely a storm of protest would have ensued had anyone hinted that the right only protected a government-armed select militia.

After James Madison's Bill of Rights were submitted to Congress, Tench Coxe (see also: Tench Coxe and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, 1787-1823 published his "Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution," in the Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789 He asserts that it's the people (as individuals) with arms, who serve as the ultimate check on government.

As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow-citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.
Coxe's defense of the amendments was widely reprinted. A search of the literature of the time reveals that no writer disputed or contradicted Coxe's analysis that what became the Second Amendment protected the right of the people to keep and bear "their private arms." The only dispute was over whether a bill of rights was even necessary to protect such fundamental rights.

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