28. What is the Meaning of “A Well Regulated Militia” ?

July 23, 2016

“Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.” — Virgil

Happy is he who knows the causes of things.

Some of my moments of clearest thinking seem to occur during my morning shower, which probably means that they occur during sleep and that I am remembering them during the hypnopompic moments I spend soaping and rinsing.

I went to bed late last night too tired to begin this essay, the thought of which has excited me ever since I began to discover the answer to the title question.   In the half hour before arising, between sleep and waking fully, I remember thinking that what underlies nearly all “gun control” sentiment and logic is ignorance: Ignorance about firearms themselves, ignorance of why the U.S. Constitution was set up above all other local, state and federal laws, ignorance of history more ancient than Lady Gaga or Burning Man, ignorance about the nature and causes of violence, ignorance about the depth or significance of the racial divide in America, ignorance about the nature of mental illness including the health care system that tries to address it, profound ignorance regarding what can and cannot be done about violence, and finally, ignorance of the English language, of which I was myself, in this particular instance, also possessed until a couple of days ago.

Knowing that the Supreme Court, (SCOTUS) had decided the issue of whether the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms, I had always skimmed over the first clause: “A well regulated militia, (why is that comma there?) being necessary to the security of a free state, …”, and focused on the last, “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

Although at 81 I am well beyond having to move my home in order to be near work, I do migrate annually between the locations of some of my kids and grandchildren, and they are sometimes uprooted for work and professional reasons, which is why, at the end of last summer, I found myself moving to a notoriously gun-unfriendly state, to a notoriously liberal college town and to a county with a sheriff who is manifestly unfriendly to the rights of gun owners, specifically in the area of concealed carry weapons permits. But that is a story for another time. The connection here is that I have recently begun joining the local ham radio club members at a weekly dinner and gab-fest, and this week a discussion of the Second Amendment arose. The fellow across from me, Jim, a fiftyish young man with a gray beard, raised the issue of the “well regulated militia” clause, with the implication that the Constitution meant gun owners should be well-vetted and trained members of a military force, and not just any Tom, Dick or Harry.

While passionate, the discussion was friendly. Over the next day or two, for the first time I was moved to learn more about that puzzling phrase, “well regulated”, which, truth be told, I had never really understood myself.

“Militia” I understand. History is clear that the colonists had long relied for their defense upon a quick gathering of ordinary citizens, expected to bring their then modern implements of warfare with them. That process, only slightly more formalized, carried the colony successfully through their Revolution against the king and his standing army.

A militia, therefore, had these features: An organization somewhat looser than an army, but with ranks and a chain of command, the officers of which might have a smattering of knowledge about tactics if not strategy, and a body of men who kept their military arms at home, used them for hunting and defense, practiced and competed with them, and brought them along when called to duty for a specific purpose or to meet a specific threat. In 1792 every able-bodied man between age 18 and 45 (the average life expectancy of a citizen in the 18th Century was 35 years) was designated a member of the militia.

The Swiss are famous for this militia approach to military service. When I was a boy in New Jersey during WW II a neighbor from Switzerland still had his bolt-action Vetterli rifle that I was allowed to handle very carefully on several occasions.

Nowadays the Swiss militiaman keeps the SIG SG 550 at home: a fully automatic assault rifle. At the conclusion of his active service he may purchase the weapon, which is then converted from fully automatic to semi-automatic (one trigger pull – one shot).

So what is a well regulated militia?

It turns out that our puzzlement over that phrase is caused by the fact that “well regulated” has not been in common usage for more than a hundred years. But it was in common usage in 1791 when the Second Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was adopted.

And it had a common meaning that virtually everyone at that time would have been able to enunciate.

Taken from the website of the Constitution Society: “The phrase “well-regulated” was in common use long before 1789, and remained so for a century thereafter. It referred to the quality or property of something being in proper working order. Something that was well-regulated was calibrated correctly, functioning as expected.”


Also see: http://www.lectlaw.com/files/gun01.htm

The Constitution Society also offers several quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) dating from the time of the adoption of the Second Amendment, which clarify its meaning and appear to support the “properly functioning” view of the term, as opposed to the “regulated by law” view favored by modern liberals.

1709: “If a liberal Education has formed in us well-regulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations.”

1714: “The practice of all well-regulated courts of justice in the world.”

1812: “The equation of time … is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial.”

[Ed. From their invention in 1656 until the 1930’s pendulum clocks, many models known as Regulator clocks, were the most precise timekeeping method in the world.]

1848: “A remissness for which I am sure every well-regulated person will blame the Mayor.”

1862: “It appeared to her well-regulated mind, like a clandestine proceeding.”

1894: “The newspaper, a never wanting adjunct to every well-regulated American embryo city.”

The Constitution Society finally argues: “Establishing government oversight of the people’s arms was not only not the intent in using the phrase in the 2nd amendment, it was precisely to render the government powerless to do so that the founders wrote it.”

Of course there are those who come to a different conclusion but I find the evidence of the O.E.D. persuasive.

To me, the syntax of the Second Amendment makes perfect sense just as it is, without embellishment or further specificity, if “well regulated” means “A properly functioning militia (of armed citizen soldiers) being necessary to the security of a free state”, as opposed to a standing army under the control of the federal government or a monarch.

I am grateful to my dinner companion for his level-headed question about the meaning of the clause, and comfortable with the understanding my search for an answer has produced.