The loudest backers of the Second Amendment have their history wrong. The Second Amendment was not drafted to facilitate armed rebellion, it was crafted to do the opposite. One can only reach the conclusion that the Amendment was designed to help armed rebels by ignoring the context in which the Constitution was written. The Constitution was ratified in large part to strengthen the federal government because the Articles of Confederation that preceded it were seen as ineffective as a government framework for putting down Shay’s rebellion.
The Second Amendment was passed to strengthen militias (think analogous to today’s National Guard) to put down citizen rebellions (like Shay’s), slave revolts and Indian attacks. Armed rebellion against the new government was considered treason. When the Whiskey Rebellion took place in the 1790s, many of the rebel leaders were convicted of high treason and two were sentenced to hang (although they were later pardoned). It is revisionist history to argue that the Second Amendment was designed to help facilitate armed rebellion. Its purpose was actually quite the opposite.
The framers of the Constitution added the Second Amendment with a desire to create a strong central government that could amass a citizen-based army that could put down armed insurrections. When the populist Shay’s rebellion wreaked havoc in Western Massachusetts in 1786, the weak federal government initially lacked the kind of army needed to contain the rebellion. It took organizing from wealthy Boston patricians to finance their own army to put down the insurrection in 1787, many months after it had begun.
Then President George Washington was alarmed by the uprising and he along with many other founders included in the Constitution Article IV, Section 4 which called for the federal government to protect each state from not only foreign invasion but also domestic insurrection. The Constitution in Article III, Section 3, made it a crime of treason to “levy war against” the United States.
The Constitution was drawn up to expand, not shrink the power of the national government. The Second Amendment portion was added to provide for domestic order and peace and the Second Amendment called for a “well-regulated militia” to provide for the “security of a free state” not to plot against it. After the Whiskey Rebellion began in Pennsylvania in 1791, the Militia Acts were implemented to require all military-age white males to obtain muskets so that they could serve in the militia needed to suppress internal rebellion.
President George Washington led a group of militias numbering over 13,000 men into battle against the Whiskey rebels to suppress the populist tax revolt. A couple of rebel leaders were sentenced to hang for high treason (though they were later spared the gallows). The constitutionally elected government of the new republic wanted to arm its white citizens in militias to put down uprisings whether they were slave revolts, Indian attacks, or anti-tax revolts like the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington, Hamilton and Madison all favored the strong government response to the Whiskey tax rebels.
The notion that the framers original intent was to arm all citizens with whatever arms they wanted so that they could violently overthrow the government is ahistorical. That myth was recently manufactured to justify possession of assault rifles and other weapons of war. Interpreting the second amendment as affirming the right of individuals who are not members of a militia to bear arms is something that was not established until the 2008 District of Columbia v Heller case where conservative judicial activists voted 5-4 to overturn over a century of judicial precedent, and redefine the amendment as affirming an individual right to bear arms. Even so, as a part of the majority opinion Justice Scalia reaffirmed that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” Adding that “…longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” were not unconstitutional.
In his blistering dissent, Justice Stevens argued that, “The Second Amendment was adopted to protect the right of the people of each of the several States to maintain a well-regulated militia … Neither the text of the Amendment nor the arguments advanced by its proponents evidenced the slightest interest in limiting any legislature’s authority to regulate private civilian uses of firearms. Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.” Stevens was in line with the intent of the founders and over two centuries of judicial understanding of the Second Amendment’s scope and intent.
The question of whether restricting certain types of guns or ammunition is good policy is a worthwhile question. However, although the proponents of unrestricted individual access to guns argue that the Second Amendment backs them up, an understanding of the language and historical context of the amendment suggests that they are sadly mistaken.