The Diverging Right(s) to Bear Arms: Private Armament and the Second and Fourteenth Amendments in Historical Context
University of Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 10, 2019
41 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2019
Date Written: June 11, 2019
This article compares the historical evolution of the social understanding of private armament with contemporary legal doctrine on the right to bear arms. The District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which held that the Second Amendment protects a personal right to self-defense, and the McDonald v. City of Chicago decision, which held the Second Amendment to be incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment, both turned on extensive historical analysis. But by reading a broad “individual right to self-defense” into both the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, the Court assumed continuity between the social understandings at the time of these amendments’ respective ratifications. This assumed continuity is belied by the changing roles private weaponry played in American society.
This article analyzes the historical development of the ideology of private armament between 1791 and 1868. While the framers of the Second Amendment were motivated by their suspicion of professional standing armies and their preference for citizen militias, the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment harbored no such beliefs and were strongly committed to the vitality of the U.S. Army. And while the arms right established by the Second Amendment may be described as primarily embodying libertarian political principles, the arms right embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be similarly viewed. Instead, civilian armament after the Civil War served both to protect newly freed African Americans in the South and also to expropriate land from indigenous peoples in the West — two goals that envisioned close cooperation between civilians and federal authorities. These radically different understandings can only be reconciled by defining the right to bear arms at such a high level of generality as to overlook the actual intentions of both amendments’ framers, thus undermining the project of originalism to which these contemporary decisions were ostensibly committed.
Keywords: Constitutional Law, Second Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Legal History, Originalism, Incorporation, Bill of Rights
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