What America is getting wrong about three important words in the Second Amendment

“In the context of the time…”
“In the context of the time…”
Image: Bob DeChiara/USA Today/Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On Wednesday night, CNN hosted a town hall about gun violence with members of the community of Parkland, Florida, which only a week earlier had experienced a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen students and teachers lost their lives.

The town hall was remarkable in many ways, not least for a question asked by the school’s history teacher, Diane Wolk Rogers, about a portion of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment from 1791, which states: “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.”

“What is your definition of a ‘well-regulated militia,’ as stated in the Second Amendment?” Rogers asked Dana Loesch, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association (NRA). “And using supporting detail, explain to me how an 18-year-old with a military rifle is well-regulated? And the world, our country, our nation, is going to grade your answer.”

Loesch responded: “George Mason was one of the founding fathers, and he said ‘The militia is the whole of the people.’ It’s every man, it’s every woman, that is who the militia is. In the context of the time, a well-regulated militia meant an American man, an American woman, a citizen of the United States of America, who could operate and service their firearm.”

If she were taking a history exam, Loesch’s response would likely have scored an F.

Mason, a Virginia politician and anti-Federalist, was one of only three delegates to the US Constitutional Convention of 1787 to refuse to sign the Constitution. He authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which later served as an influence for the United States Bill of Rights—and it was during the debates at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, where many of the ideas for the Bill of Rights would be generated, that he spoke the words Loesch used in her answer.

Loesch’s intent, in using this particular quote, was likely to show that one of America’s founding fathers, who provided inspiration for the Bill of Rights itself, believed that every person in the country had the right to own a gun, and that owning and operating a gun made them part of the militia. Therefore, as part of the militia, their right to own guns cannot be infringed.

But Mason’s quote doesn’t just mean something different “in the context of the time.” It means something entirely different in the context of the actual, complete quote. Loesch’s misreading, deliberate or otherwise, not only undermines the grounds on which she and the NRA base their definition of a “well-regulated militia” and who belongs to it, but subverts her authority to speak to what the Founding Fathers intention was in creating the Second Amendment.

Here is George Mason’s quote in full, as recorded in the transcripts of the Virginia Ratifying Convention:

“I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But I cannot say who will be the militia of the future day. If that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor; but they may be confined to the lower and middle classes of the people, granting exclusion to the higher classes of the people.”

If this seems a tad different than what Loesch was trying to say—that the Second Amendment means that all gun owners are part of the “militia”—that’s because it is.

Mason’s statement at the Virginia Ratifying Convention was a criticism of Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, which gave Congress the power “to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia.” Mason’s fear was that if Congress had this power, they would decide to only conscript the poor into service. Not an unreasonable fear, mind you, given the way most wars have gone. It is often the poor fighting and dying, while the rich enlist in champagne units or sit at home tending to their “bone spurs.”

In this speech, Mason also voiced his concern that a government that is too small and too far away from the people it represents would result in representatives having no “fellow-feeling for the people.” He feared that they would then inflict “ignominious punishments and heavy fines” on those who chose not to participate in the militia, or exempt people in their own class from service. He thus proposed a clause “exempting the militia from martial law except when in actual service, and from fines and punishments of an unusual nature.”

Given the fact that women were rarely permitted to serve in state militias in a fighting capacity at that time, it is also highly unlikely that Mason considered them part of it. No one was that progressive at the time.

Mason’s speech was about class, it was about military service, it was about the power of the United States government to require military service. It had absolutely nothing to do with an individual right to own assault rifles simply because you feel like owning an assault rifle. Even if you believe in an individual right to own guns, even if you believe that is what the Second Amendment guarantees, it is clear that this particular quote was not about that.

Despite this, this quote has long been a favorite of the NRA and those advocating against gun control. The most common variation—one notably used by former US attorney general John Ashcroft in a letter to the NRA assuring them of his belief in an individual right to bear arms —is, in fact, an amalgamation of this quote and an entirely different thing Mason said two days before.

“I ask, Sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people… To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”

Mason’s words, when read like this, seem like a perfect and romantic validation of everything the NRA believes in—that not only does the Constitution provide a bulwark against gun control, but that the very reason the Second Amendment gives them this right is for the purpose of keeping a tyrannical government at bay. This is why it shows up so often on message boards and lists of quotes meant to prove this point. When Loesch quoted Mason, she likely knew that many of her fellow gun enthusiasts would fill in the blanks with the rest of the “quote” themselves. It was meant to perk up the ears of those who believe that the true purpose of the Second Amendment is to give gun owners the ability to overthrow the government if necessary, that this is what the Founding Fathers intended.

The second part of the “quote,” however, literally refers to a state militia, organized for the defense of the nation, not people owning guns for fun and sport:

“Forty years ago, when the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them; but that they should not do it openly, but weaken them, and let them sink gradually, by totally disusing and neglecting the militia. […] This was a most iniquitous project. Why should we not provide against the danger of having our militia, our real and natural armed strength, destroyed? The general government ought, at the same time, to have some such power. But we need not give them power to abolish our militia. If they neglect to arm them, and prescribe proper discipline, they will be of no use.”

This, again, is very, very different from the way the cobbled-together “quote” used by Ashcroft and others makes it sound. Mason was not talking about taking guns that people purchased themselves away, but rather about not providing them with arms, training and discipline, as is necessary for a military unit to function. It is fair to say that, were the government to get involved with the “training and discipline” of everyone in the country who owns a gun, the NRA would have a pretty big problem with it.

Mason may well have believed in a personal right to arms outside the function of a militia, he may have even believed that the right to have arms in order to overthrow the government. That is not at all what he was talking about in either of these quotes—or, frankly, in anything else he wrote or has been quoted as saying.

It is important to know that, at the time the constitution was signed, there was significant opposition to having a standing army, and state militias were supposed to fill that gap. The state, in turn, was supposed to arm and train them. They were there to suppress insurrections—specifically slave insurrections and anti-tax insurrections like the Whiskey Rebellion, and to fight Native Americans who, god forbid, wanted to continue living where they were living—not to start them. From the second Military Act of 1792 until the establishment of the National Guard in 1904, all “free, able-bodied white male citizens” were conscripted into state militias and were required to fight at the behest of the government. So yes—guns for certain individuals. But individuals that were trained and disciplined, and not all that free.

Dana Loesch is, of course, free to believe what she believes. She can believe everyone and their four-year-old child should have a gun. She can believe that all people should be considered part of the militia—hell, she can believe all people should be considered part of the cast of Beatlemania!, or the Olympic luge team. The NRA and John Ashcroft are entitled to believe what they believe. However, when you can’t defend your belief without taking quotes entirely out of context, disregarding their original intent and history, you may want to consider how successful your argument is in the first place.

Robyn Pennacchia is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL. You can follow her on twitter at @RobynElyse