I was listening to a reading of the Federalist Papers this morning, and came upon this excellent passage bearing on the Second Amendment (though of course Madison was not referring to that amendment, which was yet to come):
Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence.
-From Number 46, James Madison
If you do the math, it becomes clear that Madison was assuming that the militia included all of the people who were able to bear arms. So the militia referred to in the Second Amendment:
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.
was all of us.
So here’s how I read it: Because a well regulated militia (the entire body of people able to bear arms) is necessary to the security of the free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. In other words, the people need to be armed, so that they can form a militia if necessary. But necessary for what? Mr. Madison continues:
It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. 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 against 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.
The purpose is clearly to protect themselves and their liberty from a tyrannical government. It often seems that politicians think the purpose of the second amendment is so that people can hunt, or perhaps defend themselves from robbers, but that does not seem to have been the focus. In fact, the right to basic self-defense is so fundamental that it is likely the writers assumed it.
The focus is on defense against the federal government, should it turn to tyranny!
What are the implications of this? First of all, if we are to have the right to defend ourselves against the federal army, we must have the right to bear more than single shot rifles and shotguns. There can be no justification for prohibiting the possession of automatic weapons and even explosive devices.
The only reason that the government would prohibit such things is that, in the words of Madison:
…the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.
Is there any other way to interpret Madison on this?
Keep in mind that Madison was no anarchist, but advocating a strong federal government.
And yet Barack Obama wants to further restrict our freedom in this regard.