One of the many ways gun control advocates try to change the meaning to the Second Amendment is by twisting the definition of words and phrases. A common target is the phrase “bear arms,” which they claim is a military term only.

In “What Did “Bear Arms” Mean in the Second Amendment?” Clayton E. Cramer and Joseph Edward Olson provide solid historical context proving that the phrase was used repeatedly when referring to non-military individuals possessing weapons.

“Those who argue that the original meaning of the Second Amendment was only to protect a collective right, either of the states to maintain militias, or perhaps of citizens to jointly form militias, assert that “bear arms” refers exclusively or at least overwhelmingly, to the collective, military carrying of weapons,” they write. “If ‘bear arms’ referred only to the military carrying or use of arms, then the right protected by the Second Amendment would not be an individual right to possess or carry arms for personal self-defense. The right would be for a government organized militia, or at best, to exercise what the Tennessee Supreme Court acknowledged was a right to revolution.”

While pointing out that historical documents written at the time of the Second Amendment referenced by many scholars generally used the phrase “bear arms” to refer to military uses, Cramer and Olson say that this is due to a bias selection problem.

“Searching more comprehensive collections of English language works published before 1820 shows that there are a number of uses that are clearly individual, and have nothing to do with military service. Some of these uses are by authors and in contexts that give special weight to an individual rights understanding.”

Among their historical evidence is a law written in England during the reign of King Henry VIII making it unlawful for any Welsh resident to “bring or bear, or cause to be brought or borne to the same Sessions or Court, or to any place within the distance of two Miles from the same Sessions or Court, nor to any Town, Church, Fair, Market, or other Congregation . . . nor in the Highways in affray of the King’s Peace, or the King’s liege People, any Bill, Long-bow, Cross-bow, Hand-gun, Sword, Staff, Dagger, Halberd, Morespike, Spear, or any other manner of Weapon . . . .”

“The specific problem that the statute sought to correct was not even Welsh rebellion,” Cramer and Olson write, “but simple criminal actions interfering with the operation of the courts.”

Another English statue intended to disarm Scottish Highlanders also uses the term “bear arms” in referring to requirements for amnesty (emphasis added).

That from and after the time of affixing any such summons as aforesaid, no person or persons residing within the bounds therein mentioned, shall be sued or prosecuted for his or their having, or having had, bearing, or having borne arms at any time before the several days to be prefixed or limited by summons as aforesaid, for the respective persons and districts to deliver up their arms. . . .

In 1780 following the Gordon Riots in London, Cramer and Olson write, Lord Richmond protested certain actions taken by the king to disarm citizens, speaking of “the constitutional right of Protestant subjects to keep and bear arms for their own defence.

Then there is the Recorder of London, who when asked if the right to arms in the English Declaration of Rights protected groups as well as individuals, he wrote in response (emphasis added).

The right of his majesty’s Protestant subjects, to have arms for their own defence, and to use them for lawful purposes, is most clear and undeniable. It seems, indeed, to be considered, by the ancient laws of this kingdom, not only as a right, but as a duty; for all the subjects of the realm, who are able to bear arms, are bound to be ready, at all times, to assist the sheriff, and other civil magistrates, in the execution of the laws and the preservation of the public peace. And that right, which every Protestant most unquestionably possesses, individually, may, and in many cases must, be exercised collectively, is likewise a point which I conceive to be most clearly established by the authority of judicial decisions and ancient acts of parliament, as well as by reason and common sense.

“In 1789, one would expect Madison to retain these same linguistic habits regarding the use of ‘bear’ in a legislative context,” Cramer and Olson write. “Madison and Jefferson, at least, understood ‘bear’ as a word not locked into a military or militia usage. And, as shall be demonstrated, so did other men who were present during the debates over the language of the Bill of Rights.”

Sampling the definitions of several dictionaries following the Constitution’s ratification and the Second Amendment’s addition, Cramer and Olson show that none of them have the term “bear arms” as specific to the military

Let’s also take the word of James Wilson, who was a member of the Constitutional Convention and one of the authors of the 1790 Pennsylvania Constitution (not to mention a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and U.S. Supreme Court associate justice). The Pennsylvania Constitution itself makes it very clear that the term “bear arms” refers to an individual right, declaring “The right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned” (emphasis added).

Wilson himself explained that this term found in the state constitution “is one of our many renewals of the Saxon regulation,” as the Saxons were bound to keep arms in defense of themselves individually and their local kingdom.

“When the a law professor who was one of the authors of a state constitution tells you what a clause means—and explicates that ‘bear arms’ included defense ‘of their own persons’—it is best to assume that he knows what he is talking about,” Cramer and Olson note wryly. “In light of Justice Wilson’s exposition of what this right means, it is no surprise to see that there are many antebellum decisions that recognized that the right to bear arms was individual in nature (although often subject to regulation), and not specific to military duty.”

An early commentary on the Constitution also makes this clear. While William Rawle’s A View of the Constitution, written in 1829, states that the Second Amendment existed for the purpose of militia, he added that it meant “no clause in the Constitution could by any rule of construction be conceived to give to congress a power to disarm the people. Such a flagitious [shamefully wicked] attempt could only be made under some general pretence by a state legislature” (emphasis added).

Cramer and Olson conclude:

There is no dispute that the Founding generation often used the phrase ‘bear arms’ in a military sense-but the evidence above shows that common usage included the purely individual, civilian carrying of arms as well. The need to add, “for the common defence” or “for their common defence” in the Massachusetts and Tennessee Constitutions also shows that “bear arms” alone was insufficient to establish a collective or military meaning. The reaction of John Randolph to the U.S. Senate’s failure to add, “for the common defence” to the Second Amendment also suggests that “bear arms” without that qualifier was understood to protect an individual right.

“To ‘bear arms’ means to carry weapons – phraseology which shows that the Second Amendment contemplates an individual right since in every context it is people who ‘bear’ arms, not states.”

TJ Martinell

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