The Key to Understanding the Second Amendment is its Curious Preamble

In the wake of another public school massacre in the United States, the debate rages anew over the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Many citizens persist in the belief that the Amendment’s protection of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is sacrosanct. Others insist that the Amendment is an obsolete relic of an earlier era, and call for its repeal.

Relatively few on either side of the debate, though, examine the curious preamble to the Second Amendment. In its entirety, the Amendment declares that:

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.

So what is the meaning of the word Militia? And why did the Founding Fathers believe that it is necessary to sustain a free nation? If that belief is still valid, then it may be reasonable to conclude that the right to keep and bear Arms may also remain valid.

Merriam-Webster defines Militia as “a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency.” In colonial times, the famed Minute Men of Massachusetts, who were roused to action by Paul Revere, were members of a Militia. And in modern times, the National Guard plays a similar goal.

At the time of the writing of the Constitution and its first ten Amendments, the citizens of the United States were living under a brief set of thirteen Articles of Confederation. Most of the powers of today’s federal government were exercised by the individual states, and there was no permanent federal Army or Navy.

Instead, according to Article VII of the Articles, “… land forces (would be) raised by any State for the common defense …” The States relied on Militias, akin to today’s National Guard units, to form such forces.

By and large, the citizen members of the Militias were responsible for arming themselves. At times when large numbers of men were needed, self-armed civilians with no prior Militia experience were expected to volunteer for military service. Thus, Militias were indeed necessary to the security of the United States, and the right of citizens to keep and bear Arms was indeed necessary for the functioning of Militias.

Today, though, the federal government of the United States relies on a permanent array of military forces (i.e. the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) to maintain the security of our free nation. Although a National Guard is available to be called in times of emergency, its members are not expected to arm themselves. Furthermore, self-armed civilians no longer join the National Guard at such times.

So is the Second Amendment still valid? Some contemporary commentators assert that the obsolescence of the preamble renders the entire Amendment obsolete. Others insist that the preamble is simply a dated introduction to a timeless personal right.

Nevertheless, individuals on both sides of the debate might agree that the Founding Fathers’ motivation for establishing the right to keep and bear Arms lies in its curious preamble. And if we can agree on the Fathers’ original motivation, we might then be able to agree on how to apply their perspective to our contemporary circumstances.