An Open Letter to 2nd Amendment Absolutists

Michael Adelberg is an historian and a great writer (aka The Adelblogger). Since we have been having a TDWI dialog about guns, injuries, and injury prevention, it seems important to address the Second Amendment, its historical context and relevance to contemporary discussions about guns and limitation on gun and/or ammunition availability.  Thanks Michael, for providing historical context.    This post is from Michael’s blog, Michael’s Adel-blog, definitely a good read.  You can find Michael’s posts on Michael Adelberg’s blog. Pat

By Michael Adelberg
I don’t know much about gun control as a public policy issue, so I will avoid stepping into that bucket. But it drives me crazy, especially in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, to hear gun-advocates portray the Founders of the Republic as fans of unrestricted gun ownership. Such statements are not well grounded in historical fact.
When charged with governing, the Founders showed showed no sanctity to gun ownership . From its first days as a proto-national government, the 2nd Continental Congress advised States to disarm individuals suspected (but not convicted) of disloyalty and to impress the arms of those living in areas where arms might fall into British hands. George Washington’s first action of 1776 was a campaign to confiscate the private arms of the citizens in Queens Co., New York. Different local militias in New Jersey confiscated arms from African-Americans and inhabitants of the vulnerable shoreline.  These were not actions taken against a handful of traitors, but against large groups of people. The public’s need to wage a war repeatedly trumped an individual’s private property right to own a gun.
A decade later, as the Federalists attempted to make the Constitution more attractive to a skeptical public, they added a Bill of Rights (ten amendments to the Constitution) to lessen fears that the Constitution would become “an engine of tyranny”. The Founders wrote the 2nd Amendment so that “a well regulated militia” (the key phrase in the 2nd Amendment), properly armed and governed by officers, would exist to resist potential federal encroachment. The 2nd Amendment spoke to the Colonial experience of British soldiers forcing tax collection on localities that had no voice in the creation of the tax.
The Federalist Papers, written by the Founders to explain the benefits of the Constitution, discuss basic rights of American citizens: fair treatment before the law, the right to vote, freedom of religion and the press, etc. To the degree firearms are addressed, the Federalists speak to the right of Americans to organize into militias to resist federal encroachment. Federalist #29 declares “it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should be adopted for the proper establishment of the militia” and Federalist #46 discusses the strength of a militia “with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties.” However, The Federalist Papers—85 essays and 200,000 words long—never speak to an individual’s right to own firearms.
Based on actions taken during their presidencies, Washington and Adams had no qualms with seizing private property for a perceived public good. Washington’s confiscations of arms and property from the “Whiskey rebels” of Pennsylvania and Adams’s impressments under the Alien and Sedition Acts demonstrate this. Even Jefferson, who counseled “the government is best that governs least,” opted to limit the 1st Amendment when he championed “salutary coercion” of a press he believed overly partisan and irresponsible.
Though deeply suspicious of Federal over-reach, the Founders were not libertarians in any modern sense of the term, certainly not when governing. They supported a well regulated militia, but were ambivalent to private gun ownership when gun ownership ran up against a reasonable “public good” argument. Individual families often owned a rifle or two (the muzzle-loaded rifles of the day fired only one bullet and took two minutes to re-load) but it was the responsibility of local government to keep the really dangerous stuff—casks of gun powder, artillery, etc.—under guard in public magazines.
Even the most powerful men of the day did not keep private stores of dangerous weapons (with the exception of privateers battling foreign enemies at sea). Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon, for example, had nothing more dangerous than a small number hunting rifles. People like John Hancock and Robert Morris purchased huge quantities of war materials, and then immediately turned them over to state and local governments.
When it comes to gun control, argue whatever position you want, but it is inconsistent with the historical record to believe that the Founders supported the private ownership of firearms capable of killing dozens of people.


  1. An outstanding historical review, Michael.

    In one 27-word sentence, the Second Amendment speaks of the need of a free state for the security of a well regulated militia and declares the right of the people to keep and bear arms to meet that need.

    The new Constitution was under assault from those who thought its military provisions would remove state security from any control by the people and centralize it under the new general government. The objectors believed that the general government would create a full-time army of social misfits and foreign mercenaries who would have no respect or “fellow feeling” for the rights of the people.

    To meet the objection, the Framers wrote the Second Amendment, and they told the federal government that it must not infringe the right the amendment expresses.

    The amendment was a perfect follow-up to “the right of the people” enunciated by the signers of our Declaration of Independence. That earlier document asserts that it is “the right of the people” to institute new government as a free state. The Second Amendment adds to this that it is also “the right of the people” to keep and bear arms to make the state secure.

    New government was instituted by that body of the people who were qualified and registered to vote. Under the Second Amendment, the security of that state was to be maintained by that body of the people who were qualified, enrolled, and liable to bear arms under what Washington called “a well regulated Militia Law.”

    It is easy to see why Thomas Jefferson, who later claimed to have had influence in Madison’s selection of topics for the Bill of Rights, referred to the Second Amendment as a provision for “the substitution of militia for a standing army,” not as a provision for carrying arms on private missions.

  2. I’m sorry, but your argument that the 2nd Amendment wasn’t written with private gun ownership in mind is incorrect, or at the very least, irrelevant.

    The Supreme Court decided in a landmark case (DC v. Heller) that the 2A does, in fact, translate to the private ownership of firearms for self-defense. If you disagree, that’s fine, but it’s called the Supreme Court for a reason. Their opinion matters far more than yours does.

    In addition, this notion that the guns they had in mind were so much more basic that they couldn’t have fathomed anything as lethal as what we have now is ridiculous. Are we rethinking the 1st Amendment because the Internet was invented and they never imagined such witchraft? Please.

    The fact is, we’re Americans and we have a Constitutionally-protected right to legally own firearms. This right is granted provided we are not convicted felons, convicted drug abusers or mentally ill. If you’re unhappy with this reality, I suggest you find another country, or choose to embrace this one.

  3. […] An Open Letter to 2nd Amendment Absolutists — The Doctor Weighs In George Washington's first action of 1776 was a campaign to confiscate the private arms of the citizens in Queens Co. New York. Different local militias in New Jersey confiscated arms from African-Americans and inhabitants of the . To the degree firearms are addressed, the Federalists speak to the right of Americans to organize into militias to resist federal encroachment. Federalist #29 declares “it is a matter of the utmost importance that a well-digested plan should . […]

  4. I commend Pat and the other bloggers for addressing violence as a health issue and creating this forum to discuss what doctors can do to prevent injuries in the first place. Prevention Institute has a national initiative to prevent violence in the largest U.S. cities called Urban Networks to Increase Thriving Youth (UNITY), and Tucson is one of our partner cities. Learn more about UNITY at, and read the Huffington Post article I wrote on the shooting in Tucson:

  5. Know what? You’ve convinced me. All that prattle about pre-existing rights of the individual is just a misunderstanding. All our rights are granted to us by the collective, and they can be taken away just as easily when there’s a perceived threat to the collective. “Well-regulated” in 18th-century use meant “tightly controlled” instead of “efficient and effective.” “The People” doesn’t mean “the People,” it means government employees. The “unorganized militia” in the United States Code Title 18, well , that’s just an oversight, an obscure old law that they’ve never taken time to take off the books.
    My government right, wrong or genocidal.

    The Armenian Genocide in Turkey, 1915-1918. It would have been “insurrectionist” AND ILLEGAL to defend these Christian Turkish citizens against the Muslim government killing them with wild citizen approval .. and participation.

    From “Armenian Golgotha”:

    “It’s wartime, and bullets are expensive. So [Muslim] people grabbed whatever they could from their villages — axes, hatchets, scythes, sickles, clubs, hoes, pickaxes, shovels, — and they did the killing accordingly.”
    After having been “invited to participate in this sacred religious obligation.”
    6,400 women and children massacred by their neighbors.
    “The police soldiers in Yozgat and Boghazliyan … would even boast to some of us how they had committed tortures and decapitations, cut off and chopped up body parts with axes, and how they had dismembered suckling infants and children by pulling apart their legs or dashing them on rocks.”
    Testimony of a Muslim Turk to an Armenian Christian man being taken to his own murder by government, so he saw no harm in giving details.

    But it couldn’t happen here, you say.
    You have LOTS of full-blood American Indian neighbors, I’m sure.

  6. on CBS’s “The Talk,” they discussed the case of a mother of two whose school district scored 4 out of a possble 24 in assessments. She enrolled her kids under a relative’s address in a better district. The county put her under surveillance, found out it was true, charged her with some bogus violation of school attendance laws and jailed her for 10 days. Her new felony record means she can’t become a teacher or own a gun.
    They refuse to improve the system, but they won’t let you opt out.
    But it’s for your own good.