Deciphering the Second Amendment: Militias over Individualism

Demystifying the Second Amendment: A data-driven exploration of its historical context and intent, challenging prevailing notions of individual gun ownership rights. Utilizing corpus linguistics and constitutional evidence, this article reorients the debate towards the founders' true aim: protecting state-regulated Militias from potential federal overreach

Published by

Aj Averett


June 23, 2023

Inquiry-driven, this article reflects personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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Demystifying the Second Amendment: A data-driven exploration of its historical context and intent, challenging prevailing notions of individual gun ownership rights. Utilizing corpus linguistics and constitutional evidence, this article reorients the debate towards the founders' true aim: protecting state-regulated Militias from potential federal overreach

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"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. “The Second Amendment is a short 27-word text - but don't let its size fool you. This amendment has ignited countless debates and controversies over the centuries proving itself to be a complex and nuanced piece of the United States Constitution. With the resources of the 21st century at our disposal, let’s take a closer look at what it means.

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”

 The crux of the interpretative divide seems to lie in defining a "Militia." Is it a social construct or a governmental entity? Some may hastily assume that 'we, the people' collectively form the Militia. However, the historical and constitutional evidence suggests otherwise. The Militia is and has always been a group of armed individuals appointed by Congress and organized at the state level.

If the Constitution's framers intended the Militia to be a personal construct, we expect the Constitution to echo this sentiment. Yet, the Constitution addresses the Militia as a governmental entity. 

[The Congress shall have Power] To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress… 

  • Article I, Section 8; The Constitution of the United States of America

As demonstrated in these quotes, the framers explicitly advocated for the governmental establishment and regulation of Militias, with each state authorized and encouraged to organize its own.

Some critics might question, "If the framers were concerned about the potential for government tyranny, why would they enshrine protections for the same government?" This argument needs to be clarified since anyone who has taken an introductory civics class should have heard of the concept of checks and balances. After all, the foundational idea behind the American experiment was to see if different branches or segments of the government could effectively regulate each other.

In Federalist No. 46, James Madison directly addresses the federal overreach of power. He imagines a hypothetical situation where the federal government steps outside its constitutional bounds. In such a scenario, Madison theorizes that the state Militias would stand with their local government. This makes sense. If the federal government were to impose its oppressive will over the people, a grass-roots militia probably wouldn’t cut it- even if they were to have machine guns.

If the Militias of the States were going to be a reasonable alternative to the military, the founders wished it to be robust enough. Hamilton writes, “If a well-regulated militia is the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of national security.”

In this instance, “well-regulated” refers to the capabilities of the Militia. Hamilton acknowledges that if the people were the Militia, there could be no feasible way to discipline them to be competent militiamen. Such a task seemed so implausible that in comparison to a well-trained Militia, Hamilton states that:

The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be injurious, if it were capable of being carried into execution…. To attempt a thing which would abridge the mass of labor and industry to so considerable an extent, would be unwise: and the experiment, if made, could not succeed, because it would not long be endured. Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year. But though the scheme of disciplining the whole nation must be abandoned as mischievous or impracticable; yet it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should, as soon as possible, be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia… it will be possible to have an excellent body of well-trained militia, ready to take the field whenever the defense of the State shall require it.
- Federalist Paper No. 29

To defend the security of a free state, we would need a well-trained and well-disciplined Militia. Hamilton explains that this is not, nor could be, the people at large.

“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”

The Constitution and Bill of Rights mention the word people only six times outside the second amendment. Two are in the constitution, while the others are in the amendments.

  • We the People of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
  • The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States… 
  • Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…
  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…
  • The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
  • The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The term "people" within the Constitution appears to have a level of ambiguity. The "People" who ordained and established the Constitution were the delegates of the Constitutional Convention and state representatives - not necessarily the broader public. Likewise, when the Constitution states that congressmen are "chosen... by the People of the several states," it's important to note that state governments hold considerable discretion in defining who these "People" are. Given that states possess broad authority to exclude any unprotected class from voting, the "People" in this context could be limited by various eligibility criteria set by the states.

I concede that the language used in the four amendments broadly refers to the general public. However, the use of "people" in the Tenth Amendment appears more ambiguous, as it can, in some interpretations, be used synonymously with "States."

Furthermore, it's vital to consider legal history when discussing the concept of the Militia. It's not merely a philosophical construct; it's an institutional entity that individuals could be drafted into. For example, the second part of the Militia Acts of 1792 mandated that every "free able-bodied white male citizen" aged between 18 and 45 be enlisted in their local Militia company. This legislation, conceptualized by Hamilton and Madison and approved by Washington, affirms the notion of the Militia as a formal institution.

Advancements in data analysis offer new ways to interpret the original intent of the Constitution's framers when they referred to "the right of the People." One such method is corpus linguistics, an approach employed by Woods (2020) to scrutinize the phrase "the right of the people" within the context of American English at the time of the Constitution's drafting. Woods poses the following question:

“[Does] the right of the people refer to individual rights that may be exercised independent of any collective action, that is, militia action… or is it limited the right to firearm usage to the militia only, in light of its “natural meaning” as ascertained from founding-era dictionaries?”

To discern whether each usage of “the right of the people” outside the Constitution's text referred to collective or individual rights, Woods analyzed all 153 occurrences within the Corpus of Founding Era American English (COFEA). The criteria used to identify an instance as referring to collective rights rather than individual rights included at least one of the following characteristics:

  1. the pronouns they and/or their;
  2.  the mention of a large geographic region, such as “the right of the people of the Territory,” or “the right of the people of this state”;
  3. a direct reference to collective action, such as “to assemble and deliberate” or “to choose their own rulers.”

Out of the 153 instances, Woods excluded 35 percent due to ambiguity, repetition, or direct quotation. From the remaining 65 percent, Woods discovered that 100 percent of these instances were used in the context of collective rights. Even after disregarding the first criteria regarding pronouns, "the right of the people" was still solely associated with collective rights instead of individual rights.

Woods also scrutinized the terms “to keep and bear” within the COFEA. He identified every instance where the word ‘arm’ or ‘arms’ appeared within four words of any form of the verb ‘bear.’ A random sample of 300 such instances yielded the following breakdown:

  • Instances of bear arms in an ambiguous context—those that did not refer to the Second Amendment—occurred about 2% of the time.
  • Direct quotation of the Second Amendment occurred less than 1% of the time.
  • Non-militia/private usage context occurred about 4% of the time
  • With militia context accounts for the remaining 93%. 

Even the word “arms” has a collective, military connotation. Baron (2019) performed a corpus linguistic analysis on the words “bear arms” and found that this term is usually used for military use. Baron states:

“A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.”

Careful examination of the Second Amendment reveals that its true essence lies not in safeguarding individual rights to gun ownership but in protecting the collective rights of the Militia. The language and context of the Constitution, supported by historical evidence and data-driven analysis, strongly suggest a collective interpretation of the Amendment. The founders, including Madison and Hamilton, perceived the "well-regulated Militia" as a government-regulated body, not a loosely defined group of citizens. Their writings, most notably the Federalist Papers, articulate the need for such a body to be disciplined and capable, implying an organized, trained entity rather than the populace.

When analyzing the phrase "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms," the textual analysis within the founding era's context implies collective, rather than individual, rights. Applying corpus linguistics affirms this interpretation, showing that "the right of the people" predominantly refers to collective rights in contemporaneous texts. Furthermore, the terms "to keep and bear Arms" were primarily used in a military or Militia context, underscoring the collective connotation of these words.

In light of the overwhelming evidence, it becomes evident that the Second Amendment is focused on protecting states' rights to maintain regulated Militias as a safeguard against potential federal overreach. Its modern interpretation as a broad individual right to gun ownership significantly deviates from the founding fathers' intentions. Thus, our understanding and performance of the Second Amendment must shift from focusing on individual rights to protecting collective, Militia-based rights.

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Aj Averett

Visiting Fellow

Aj's journey started in South Korea and has taken him across various corners of the United States- though he is now a happy resident of the best state, Texas. Since high school, Aj nurtured a deep passion for diverse fields, including politics, psychology, computer programming, and statistics.

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