Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Second Amendment: The Right to Bear Arms - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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The Second Amendment: The Right to Bear Arms - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The Second Amendment: The Right to Bear Arms
This amendment consists of a single sentence: “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.”
Although today we tend to think of the “militia” as the armed forces or national guard, the original meaning of the word was “the armed citizenry.” One of the purposes of the Second Amendment was to prevent Congress from disarming the State militias. The phrasing of the Amendment was directly influenced by the American Revolutionary experience. During the initial phases of that conflict, Americans relied on the militia to confront the British regular army. The right of each State to maintain its own militia was thought by the founding generation to be a critical safeguard against “standing armies” and tyrants, both foreign and domestic.
The Second Amendment also affirms an individual’s right to keep and bear arms. Since the Amendment limits only Congress, the States are free to regulate the possession and carrying of weapons in accordance with their own constitutions and bills of rights. “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms,” observed Justice Joseph Story of the Supreme Court in his Commentaries on the Constitution (1833), “has justly been considered as the palladium of the liberties of the republic, since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers, and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.” Thus a disarmed population cannot easily resist or overthrow tyrannical government. The right is not absolute, of course, and the Federal courts have upheld Federal laws that limit the sale, possession, and transportation of certain kinds of weapons, such as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns. To what extent Congress can restrict the right is a matter of considerable uncertainty because the Federal courts have not attempted to define its limits.