In the early months of 1768, royal Massachusetts governor Bernard fired off a series of letters to the Ministry in London. The Stamp Act had been rejected by the people in November 1765, and the following month James Otis informed Bernard that a government that does not function has abdicated, and thus the people have the right to institute their own government. Bernard had refused to open to the courts, since they could not operate without stamps. Bernard recognized in Otis’s argument the line of reasoning used to depose and execute Charles I a century earlier.
Now, about two years later, Bernard feared Otis’s threat was about to transform into action. Bernard had taken to calling Otis the “King of Massachusetts” and assumed Britain was about to lose control over the colony. And if Massachusetts fell, it was dominoes all the way to Virginia.
In one of Bernard’s 1768 letters, he informed Secretary of State Hillsborough of an episode at the Town Hall during which the Selectmen ordered the town guns be brought to the townhouse, cleaned and openly displayed, and then they were “laid upon the floor of the Town Hall to remind the People of the use of them.”
Bernard had never before witnessed such an event and took it for a threat. He believed the display of weapons was a signal from the Sons of Liberty. He urged the Ministry to arrest the militia’s “Chairman,” Otis, on charges of treason. He begged the Ministry to order troops to occupy Boston. Bernard feared for his life and for his government.
The Ministry declined to arrest Otis for treason (which is typically a death sentence). It was too late; the rebellion would outlive the death of its leader. But the Ministry did agree that the rebels were attempting to intimidate the government, and the government had to respond in kind. A few months after receiving news that the people were being reminded of the use of guns, two-thousand British soldiers sailed from Nova Scotia and landed in Boston on September 30. The military occupation of Boston had begun.
The purpose of the second amendment is encapsulated in the event of the Town Hall in 1768: to ensure that the people could intimidate their government. Thus, gun laws that require those who want a permit to carry a handgun in public to show “proper cause” that the weapon is specifically needed for self-defense are entirely outside of the scope of the Founders’ intentions. The “self-defense” rationale for guns is a rather recent formulation designed to tilt the balance of power in favor of the government.
But, of course, “A well regulated Militia” must mean something other than incels owning AR-15s.
In colonial terms, “well-regulated” meant “organized” in some fashion. There was no assumption that such organization was government regulation. Two of the largest, most feared “militias” in 1776 weren’t “regulated” in any fashion by any government; they were, in essence, private armies. And they secured New England from the British. General Washington’s frontier defense strategy relied entirely on local militias, which were sometimes formally controlled by a Committee of Safety, which was sometimes formally controlled (but often not) by an elected government. And yet sometimes these local militias were entirely extra-legal. The organization was often nothing more than having a list of men who owned guns and a leader willing to walk with these men a hundred miles and possibly die. And it was these militias who fought the British in the north and west.
Often, as in the case in Boston, the “militia” was financially supported but not directly controlled by the local government. In none of these cases was the militia controlled at the colony/state level. Control was local in the most extreme sense of the word; that should clue us in that “control” did not mean “centralized.” (Note: Boston had two militias, an official one financially supported by the town and the Sons of Liberty, controlled by Otis and Sam Adams.)
Of course, there’s the “the Founders didn’t know about automatic weapons” (or some variant) argument. They also didn’t know about the internet; shall we nix the First Amendment?
Further, what the First Amendment did institute — and what existed for the Founders — was weapons parity. There was no weapon that the government owned that the people couldn’t own. (Yes, many cannon were owned privately. In fact, in some years of the 17th and 18th centuries, more cannon were owned privately in the Netherlands and England than were owned by the governments.)
But when one goes into the details, the “but automatic weapons” argument suffers further. The most advanced infantry weapon of the time was the rifle. And a rifle was more likely to be used by random dudes living on the frontier (colonial incels) than by regular soldiers. In the case of the rifle, the most advanced weapon was more likely to be owned and fielded by private citizens.
When weapons parity is considered, one wonders not if there are too many weapons in private hands but rather whether there’s enough weapons in private hands. Madison explicitly notes in Federalist #46 that the local militias must be of such strength as to be able to defeat a federal army. Perhaps, then, the people don’t have enough guns.
Of course, Second Amendment arguments get contorted into “defending one’s property” arguments; such arguments serve the purposes of a government that doesn’t want to be intimidated as Bernard was and are entirely irrelevant to the Founders’ views on weapons. Governments that promise “to do something” about “gun violence” are serving their own interests to abolish the weapons parity that existed in 1768 and enabled the Revolution.
The last thing today’s governments would want people to realize is that 1776 could never have happened if today’s guns laws existed back then.