Alexander Hamilton and Friends Talk Gun Regulation

federalistThe Federalist Papers (or simply the Federalist) are a  collection of essays written in 1787-88  in  support  of the ratification of the Constitution.  There were 85 of them, most written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and a handful by John Jay. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay are, of course,  three of our revered  Founding Fathers, that prestigious, inestimable  assemblage  of demigods whom  many appeal to when deciphering what the Constitution really says.  The Supreme Court has  modeled  this tendency  itself through the years by having cited  the Federalist  hundreds of times  for  the underpinning of its decisions.

As a disclaimer,  I am not a Constitutional scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I   reference the venerable opinions of this extraordinary commentary on the Constitution at  the present time to see if  they can enlighten us  about  the Second Amendment and   the controversial  issue of gun control which has taken on a  renewed urgency in the wake of Newtown and the  other heinous cases of mass murder perpetuated by the use of assault and semi-automatic weapons.

Alexander Hamilton discusses the topic of the Second Amendment in Federalist Paper #29, “Concerning the Militia”.  A careful reading of it  may help give some insight into the original intent of the amendment itself.  Does the Second Amendment tilt toward regulation or away from it?

Here is the text of the Second Amendment that has been parsed innumerable times by proponents on either side of the issue: “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.”

Here is how Hamilton begins his discussion of  the necessity of a militia in the several states: “The power of regulating the militia, and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defence, and of watching over the internal peace of the Confederacy.”

Hamilton proceeds to discuss the people’s right to bear arms in the context of the role of the militia ( read National Guard today) in repelling invasion or insurrection.   In 1791 when the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, “a well regulated militia” is given as the reason for “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”.

This right is inviolable and sacrosanct. And no advocate of gun regulation should think otherwise.  But there should be no argument about the power of the government to regulate that right in the interests of the common good.  The regulation should be sensible and reasonable.  No one should dispute that semi-automatic guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally unbalanced.  Background checks seem a sensible step in preventing this.   Or limiting the rounds of ammunition.  Or a national gun registry.   Gun owners and advocates of gun sanity must  find a common ground. There’s no way we can  recall  the  Founding Fathers from the afterlife..  But we can listen  to  what they left behind—in their written words.

Instead of endless contentiousness, reading and reflecting  on  Federalist Paper #29 may be  more constructive.  If we did , we might see that gun ownership is not an absolute right, but subject to government  regulation in order, as the Preamble states,   to insure domestic tranquillity  and to promote the general welfare.


Filed under: Constitution, history, politics


Leave a comment
  • fb_avatar

    The militia referred to in the Constitution IS NOT the National Guard, contrary to this article's assertion. Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Tench Coxe, and many other founders defined the Militia as "the whole body of the people" and most state constitutions today define the militia as all able bodied citizens not otherwise restricted. In fact, a common definition of a militia according to dictionaries in use at the time, was "a rebel force opposing a standing army". Similarly, the term "well regulated" also had a slightly different meaning than today. A "well regulated fellow" was a person who had his act together, not someone controlled by an external force. Taken in the context of the times, the 2nd Amendment says that highly motivated, well equipped civilians are necessary to prevent dictators or standing armies from ruling. Therefore the right of the people to keep and carry arms is not to be infringed. Liberals or others who may be confused should consider that the 2nd is very similar to the 1st, whereas the 1st Amendment provides for a separation of church and state, the 2nd provides for a separation of the means to self defense, reserving to the people the ultimate responsibility and right to preserve their own freedom.

Leave a comment