Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Constitution provided for a permanent navy, but it would not do the same for an army.

The Congress shall have Power To …raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years….



Raising an army was supposed to take a special legislative act and be limited in time to meet some crisis. Of course, even at the slower pace of the 18th century, in a time of crisis it could conceivably take too long to raise an army, so state militias were the first line of defense. The Constitution provided for this too.

The Congress shall have Power To…provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; 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;



At the time, the states were vastly more divided than they are today, particularly on the issue of religion. The Congregationalists of Massachusetts, the Presbyterians of New Jersey, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, the Anglicans of Virginia and the Baptists of the Carolinas did not trust some overarching federal government to control their militias. This is why the states maintained the right to appoint their own officers and the training of their own soldiers. They would not have submitted to anything like the National Guard that we have today.

They also had the responsibility for arming their own militias, and this was partly because the federal government sure as hell didn’t want to pay for the expense. In fact, after the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in 1791, Congress decided that they needed to codify how militias were to be used in the future. In the Militia Acts of 1792, Congress was clear that the responsibility for arming the militias lied not just with the states but with every male citizen.

Militia members, referred to as “every citizen, so enrolled and notified”, “…shall within six months thereafter, provide himself…” with a musket, bayonet and belt, two spare flints, a cartridge box with 24 bullets, and a knapsack. Men owning rifles were required to provide a powder horn, ¼ pound of gunpowder, 20 rifle balls, a shooting pouch, and a knapsack.

Now, we’re working a little outside of a strict chronology here, but it’s easy to see how the Second Amendment’s concern with a “well-regulated” militia fits in. How, for example, could a man provide his own musket if he was prevented from buying one?

So, on the one hand, the distrust of standing armies and of an overarching federal power led to the adoption of the Second Amendment, and state militias would remain under state control as much as possible during a federal muster. On the other hand, to make this practicable, the Congress soon concluded that every man must own a firearm. The Second Amendment only restricted what the federal legislature could prohibit, but the Militia Acts applied to the states and their citizens.

Now, consider that we have had a National Guard since 1903 and a standing army for much longer than that. I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t move from one state to another because they didn’t want to live under a foreign religion. We haven’t had a draft since the 1970s, and the idea that the federal government could compel you to buy a firearm seems tyrannical to every American citizen. If the government does compel us to serve, we expect them to pay for our equipment.

We got over our religious differences. We got over our fear of a standing army. We allowed the federal government to play a large role in our state’s militias when they were organized into national guards and reserves. But we somehow never got over our adherence to the Second Amendment. In fact, about ten years ago, the Supreme Court for the first time in our nation’s history ruled that citizens have an individual right to a firearm irrespective of their potential service in a militia.

We’re not living in a country anymore where everyone owns a gun or where every male citizen can be compelled to own a gun. We aren’t relied upon to race to the country’s defense if an emergency arises so immediate that there is no time to raise a standing army.

Almost every element that was present when the Second Amendment was enacted is absent now.

I recognize that many people still believe that an armed citizenry is a bulwark against tyranny, but it’s not much of one―as the standoff at Waco made clear. The primary way that the Constitution tried to prevent tyranny was by denying the federal government a standing army. To do this, the founding fathers devised provisions to make a standing army unnecessary or limited in duration. The state militia system was their device for accomplishing this, but it’s a solution that predates the Napoleonic Wars. It proved itself unworkable over 200 years ago.

The rationale for the Second Amendment is an anachronism. This is true if you look at the narrow language they used (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary…”), and it’s also true if you look at the wider context and purposes of the amendment. Not only is a militia no longer necessary, but the whole scheme we use for our national defense is a gigantic violation of the principles the amendment sought to preserve and protect.

When we get rid of our army, marines and air force, and we eliminate our national guards and reserves and reapply the principle that our citizens must be ready to muster to the nation’s defense and provide their own equipment, then we can talk about how necessary it is to preserve the Second Amendment.

In the meantime, anyone who tells us that the Original Intent of the Founders requires us to consent to the easy availability of AR-15s and similar weapons, is completely misinformed.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at