In general, gun ownership in early America was much more widespread than in the Old World, and Americans were proud of the new direction they were taking. In Federalist No. 46, James Madison wrote that “the Americans possess [the advantage of being armed] over the people of almost every other nation.” When Thomas Jefferson advised his nephew on a course of study, he added that the exercise of the mind should accompany the exercise of the body: “As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind.”
These attitudes were understandable, given British attempts to restrict private gun ownership during the Revolutionary War. In 1775, General Thomas Gage tried to diffuse a volatile situation in Boston by disarming its residents. During this time the city was under occupation by British troops under Gage’s command. Many Bostonians, in light of what had recently happened in Lexington and Concord, wished only to evacuate the city. General Gage made an agreement with the town selectmen: If the residents would lodge their guns in the care of their own selectmen, then the citizens would be free to leave the town with all of their belongings, and the arms would later be returned to their owners once peace was restored. Thousands of guns were surrendered on these terms. Once they were collected, however, the general “set a guard over the arms,” denied permission to the citizenry to leave the Boston area, and then refused to return their arms. In other words, Gage broke every promise he had made.
This caused outrage throughout the colonies. Rumors began to circulate that the British intended to disarm all of America. On July 6, 1775, almost a year before declaring independence, the 2nd Continental Congress issued a declaration defending the colonists’ “Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.” One prominent cause featured in this catalogue of abuses was the “open violation of honor” by General Gage in Boston, “in defiance of the obligations of treaties.” Thus, the newly independent American states guarded their right to keep and bear arms.
The original understanding of the right “to keep and bear arms” that developed in early America related to the importance of a militia. But the importance of a militia—a corps of citizen-soldiers—was not primarily tied to its proficiency at defending against foreign aggression. Rather, militias were crucial for avoiding a “standing army”—a permanent force of professional soldiers. Pennsylvania’s 1776 Declaration of Rights made that connection very clear: “the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up.” Indeed, among the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence was that the King “has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our legislatures.” Standing armies were dangerous because they could be used as tools of oppression by the government. A militia was the way that free people defended themselves.
Other reasons were given for protecting the right to keep and bear arms. The Pennsylvania and Vermont Declaration of Rights both guaranteed “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state.” And one proposed constitutional amendment in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention would have extended the possible uses of this right even further, declaring: “That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game.” The primary purpose for defending the right to bear arms at the time, however, was to arm the citizens against the possibility that the federal government may one day grow tyrannical.
To be sure, the right to keep and bear arms was never intended to be absolute. People understood that dangerous weaponry should be kept from dangerous individuals. Accordingly, governments needed to be powerful enough to keep the citizenry law-abiding, and citizens needed to be armed in order to resist a government if it used its power to encroach on their rights. Neither could be completely trusted to act lawfully, and each was meant to be a check on the other.
It was clear that the primary purpose for arming American citizens was to guard against possible usurpations of power by their own governments. Five states requested that an amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms be included in the new Constitution. Three states requested amendments requiring a two-thirds or three-fourths vote in Congress before any standing army could be established in peacetime. And when the First Congress debated what would become the 2nd Amendment, Elbridge Gerry asked: “What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.” Thus according to the Amendment’s drafters, the right of the people “to keep and bear arms,” as the text of the 2nd Amendment would make clear, is “necessary to the security of a free state.”
The threat of standing armies, especially in peacetime, was indeed a pervasive dread during the debates over the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But if Americans should one day feel seriously threatened, even in peacetime, then “declarations on paper” forbidding standing armies would have little effect. Madison felt that “the best security” against standing armies “is to remove the pretext for them.” And Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 29 explained that the best way to remove the pretext for a standing army would be a vigilant and armed citizen body and the maintenance of a well regulated militia. While the 2nd Amendment was being debated, many people argued that its protections against a standing army were insufficient, but no prominent person at the time denied that the people had a right “to keep and bear arms.”