…As Justice Scalia noted in his Heller decision, the amendment contains both a prefatory clause and an operative clause. The prefatory clause, a common feature at the time of drafting, does not limit the operative clause; rather, it explains its purpose.
The operative clause is, of course, clear: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” As Scalia correctly observed, every other time the original, un-amended Constitution or the Bill of Rights uses the phrase “right of the people,” the text “unambiguously refer[s] to individual rights.” Further, the language clearly indicates that the amendment wasn’t creating a new right but recognizing a pre-existing individual liberty — one that is referenced in the 1689 English Bill of Rights. The language “shall not be infringed” indicates recognition, not creation.
But what about the prefatory clause? What does the a “well regulated militia” have to do with an individual right? Scalia explained well in Heller:
The Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia. The prefatory clause does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting. But the threat that the new Federal Government would destroy the citizens’ militia by taking away their arms was the reason that right — unlike some other English rights — was codified in a written Constitution.
To believe that the Second Amendment is a collective right, Scalia concluded, is to believe that the authors of the Bill of Rights employed individualist language in order to protect the people’s right to take part in militia organizations over which the national government enjoys plenary power…
It is critical to remember that the Founding Fathers were Englishmen before they were Americans. When they began to sow the seeds of revolt against the British crown, they sought not to destroy all that had gone before but to protect rights that they believed they already possessed. Thus, when George III responded to unrest by attempting to disarm rebellious colonists, he “provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms,” Scalia wrote. (“Arms,” incidentally, did not mean only “muskets” but included any personal weapon that could be wielded by an individual, including but not limited to “musket and bayonet,” “side arms,” and “sabre, holster pistols, and carbine.”)
Justice Scalia understood this well:
By the time of the founding, the right to have arms had become fundamental for English subjects. Blackstone, whose works, we have said, “constituted the preeminent authority on English law for the founding generation,” cited the arms provision of the Bill of Rights as one of the fundamental rights of Englishmen. His description of it cannot possibly be thought to tie it to militia or military service. It was, he said, “the natural right of resistance and self-preservation,” and “the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.” Other contemporary authorities concurred. Thus, the right secured in 1689 as a result of the Stuarts’ abuses was by the time of the founding understood to be an individual right protecting against both public and private violence.
Writing in 1803, after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, St. George Tucker updated Blackstone’s Commentaries. In America, Tucker wrote, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed . . . and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government.” The United States, he boasted, “may reasonably hope that the people will never cease to regard the right of keeping and bearing arms as the surest pledge of their liberty.”
One cannot analyze the Second Amendment without understanding its moral and philosophical underpinnings. Colonial America was a land populated by people who were both highly literate biblically and steeped in Lockean philosophy.
The biblical record sanctioning self-defense is clear. In Exodus 22, the Law of Moses permits a homeowner to kill even a mere thief who entered his home at night, and the books of Esther and Nehemiah celebrate the self-defense of the Jews against their lawless attackers. Nehemiah exhorted the Israelites to defend themselves: “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” The oft-forgotten climax of the book of Esther is an act of bloody self-defense against a genocidal foe.
Nor did Jesus require his followers to surrender their lives — or the lives of spouses, children, or neighbors — in the face of armed attack. His disciples carried swords, and in one memorable passage in Luke 22, he declared there were circumstances in which the unarmed should arm themselves: “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” Christ’s famous admonition in his Sermon the Mount to “turn the other cheek” in the face of a physical blow is not a command to surrender to deadly violence, and it certainly isn’t a command to surrender family members or neighbors to deadly violence.
In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, Locke described the right of self-defense as a “fundamental law of nature”:
Sec. 16. The state of war is a state of enmity and destruction: and therefore declaring by word or action, not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate settled design upon another man’s life, puts him in a state of war with him against whom he has declared such an intention, and so has exposed his life to the other’s power to be taken away by him, or any one that joins with him in his defence, and espouses his quarrel; it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power. (Emphasis added.)
Moreover, Locke argues, these laws of nature were inseparable from the will of God:
The rules that they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good, or valid against it.
This right is so fundamental that it’s difficult to find even leftist writers who would deny a citizen the right to protect her own life….
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