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The Independent Institute
Commentary

The Right to a Gun? You Could Look It Up


Anticipating the Supreme Court’s expected decision later this month in District of Columbia vs. Heller, the case that will decide the constitutionality of a D.C. law restricting gun ownership rights, many analysts have turned to the founders’ writings in an effort to understand the Second Amendment. What analysts need to do—recognizing that language and word usage change over time—is turn to America’s first dictionary.

The Second Amendment states simply: “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 Supreme Court questioned whether the D.C. statute violated the “Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes.”

For the answer, turn to Noah Webster.

Known as the “Father of American Scholarship and Education,” Webster believed that popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language. In “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1806, and “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1828 and adopted by Congress as the American standard, Webster defined all the words in the Second Amendment.

“People” were “the commonality, as distinct from men of rank,” and “right” was “just claim; immunity; privilege.”

“All men have a right to secure enjoyment of life, personal safety, liberty and property,” he wrote. Thus, in the language of Webster’s time, “the people” meant individuals and individuals have “rights.”

“Keep” was defined as “to hold; to retain one’s power or possession; not to lose or part with; to have in custody for security or preservation.” “Bear” was “to carry” or “to wear; name; to bear arms in a coat.” And “arms” were defined as “weapons of offense, or armor for defense and protection of the body.” Only civilians would “bear arms in a coat”—soldiers carried muskets in their hands, while officers carried pistols in holsters.

Thus the words “keep and bear arms” suggest a right to hand-held arms that a person could “bear,” such as muskets, pistols and swords but not cannon and heavy ordnance that a person could not carry.

“Infringe” was defined by Webster as “to violate, either positively by contravention, or negatively by non-fulfillment or neglect of performance.”

“Militia” was defined as “able bodied men organized into companies, regiments and brigades, with officers and required by law to attend military exercises on certain days only, but at other times left to pursue their usual occupations.” “Regulated” was defined as “subject to rules or restrictions.” A well-regulated militia consisted of civilians, not soldiers.

What about the phrase “being necessary to the security of a free state”?

“Necessary” was defined as “that must be; that cannot be otherwise; indispensably requisite.” “Security” was “protection; effectual defense or safety from danger of any kind” and “free” as “In government, not enslaved; not in a state of vassalage or dependence; subject only to fixed laws, made by consent, and to a regular administration of such laws; not subject to arbitrary will of a sovereign or lord.”

“State” was defined as “a political body, or body politic; the whole body of people united under one government, whatever may be the form of government.” A free state, we must conclude, therefore, encompasses the entire body politic.

During most of our history, an exhaustive analysis of the Second Amendment would never have been necessary. The meaning of each word would have been obvious to citizens of the time.

It was only in the late 20th century that an Orwellian view of the Second Amendment gained currency. Within this distorted language prism, “the people” would come to mean the states or state-conscripted militia; “right” would mean government power; “keep” would no longer entail custody for security or preservation; “bear” would not mean carry; “arms” would not include ordinary handguns and rifles, and “infringe” would not include prohibition.

The founders worded the Second Amendment in an easy-to-understand manner. Individuals have a right to have arms in their houses and to carry them for protection, and the government may not violate that right.

Modern contortions of language can’t change that meaning because we can still refer to Noah Webster.


Stephen P. Halbrook, Ph.D., J.D., is Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and author of the books, Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State”, The Founders' Second Amendment and Securing Civil Rights, the latter two of which were cited in the the U.S. Supreme Court cases of District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago as well as his earlier Amici Curiae Brief in Heller on behalf of 55 members of the Senate, the Senate President, and 250 members of the House of Representatives. Dr. Halbrook is also the author of the book, That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right (Independent Institute).
Full Biography and Recent Publications


New from Stephen P. Halbrook!
GUN CONTROL IN THE THIRD REICH: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State”
Presents the definitive history of how the Nazi regime used gun control to disarm and repress its enemies and consolidate power. Previous books on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust fail even to mention the laws restricting firearms ownership, which rendered Jews, political opponents, and other disfavored groups defenseless.