You really only have to understand four things; but first, here is the required restating of the Amendment's text for the one or two people who may have been living in a cave in Borneo whilst all the faux debates were going on:
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.OK, here's what you need to know:
1. "Well regulated" is 18th Century English for "disciplined" or "drilled." The term does NOT refer to the State (either state or State) controlling the militia, it refers to the level of training necessary for a militia to function.
From Federalist #29 (Hamilton): "The project of disciplining all the militia of the United States is as futile as it would be injurious, if it were capable of being carried into execution. A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, or even a week, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia, would be a real grievance to the people, and a serious public inconvenience and loss."See also various passages from the journals of the Continental Congress and excerpts from the letters of George Washington.
Among military historians of the 18th and 19th Century this is not in the slightest a controversial understanding--it is common usage.
2. "Necessary for the security of a free State" has to be interpreted in the historical context of the times. The Framers were clearly worried about the threat to liberty posed by "a standing army," and believed for a brief period (from about 1785-1796) that it was practical to place the foremost reliance for the defense of the country in the hands of state-organized and common militias.
Again, from Federalist #29 (Hamilton): "Of the different grounds which have been taken in opposition to the plan of the convention, there is none that was so little to have been expected, or is so untenable in itself, as the one from which this particular provision has been attacked. If a well-regulated militia be the most natural defense of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security. If standing armies are dangerous to liberty, an efficacious power over the militia, in the body to whose care the protection of the State is committed, ought, as far as possible, to take away the inducement and the pretext to such unfriendly institutions. If the federal government can command the aid of the militia in those emergencies which call for the military arm in support of the civil magistrate, it can the better dispense with the employment of a different kind of force. If it cannot avail itself of the former, it will be obliged to recur to the latter. To render an army unnecessary, will be a more certain method of preventing its existence than a thousand prohibitions upon paper."Apologizing for the length of the quotation, there are two significant items here.
First, the argument is that only the existence of a "well-regulated militia" can prevent the Federal government from having to organize "a standing army" to defend the country. I say this again: the purpose of having a "well regulated militia" was "to render an army unnecessary."
Second, Hamilton argues (as did all the Federalists) that in order for the militia to perform in lieu of a standing army, its training had to be controlled by the Federal government. That is implied in the passage quoted above, and made explicitly clear elsewhere in Federalist #29:
"THE power of regulating the militia, and of commanding its services in times of insurrection and invasion are natural incidents to the duties of superintending the common defense, and of watching over the internal peace of the Confederacy.
It requires no skill in the science of war to discern that uniformity in the organization and discipline of the militia would be attended with the most beneficial effects, whenever they were called into service for the public defense. It would enable them to discharge the duties of the camp and of the field with mutual intelligence and concert an advantage of peculiar moment in the operations of an army; and it would fit them much sooner to acquire the degree of proficiency in military functions which would be essential to their usefulness. This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, RESERVING TO THE STATES RESPECTIVELY THE APPOINTMENT OF THE OFFICERS, AND THE AUTHORITY OF TRAINING THE MILITIA ACCORDING TO THE DISCIPLINE PRESCRIBED BY CONGRESS."The check on standing armies, as Hamilton and the rest of the Framers saw it, would be in the States' power to name the officers of those militias and to conduct the routine training of those militias "according to the discipline prescribed by Congress." If you need further evidence, try checking the contemporary state constitutions. Maryland's 1777 constitution actually takes the time to lay out this argument in some detail:
XXV. That a well-regulated militia is the proper and natural defence of a free government.
XXVI. That standing armies are dangerous to liberty, and ought not to be raised or kept up, without consent of the Legislature.
XXVII. That in all cases, and at all times, the military ought to be under strict subordination to and control of the civil power.
XXVIII. That no soldier ought to be quartered in any house, in time of peace, without the consent of the owner; and in time of war, in such manner only, as the Legislature shall direct,
XXIX. That no person, except regular soldiers, mariners, and marines in the service of this State, or militia when in actual service, ought in any case to be subject to or punishable by martial law.
What the Framers were attempting to do was execute an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to Federalize (in the sense of shared authority between National and State governments) the defense of the United States in such fashion as it would not lead to despotic control of a standing army by the National government. As we shall see below, this experiment proved to be a dismal failure.
3. "The right of the people to keep and bear arms" was a fundamental right, and was intended for not only the defense of the country and personal defense, but also as a check on government tyranny, but (and here is the critical point) that right was vested in the State constitutions, not the US Constitution.
Let's take a detour through a few of the Revolutionary and Constitutional period state constitutions:
XIII. That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
XVIII. That the people have a right to bear arms, for the defence of themselves and the State: and as standing armies, in the time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by the civil power.
Some State constitutions put a more limited construction on this right:
Art. XVII. The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority and be governed by it.
((An aside: just in case you were wondering, even when States later rewrote their Constitutions, they usually preserved the right to bear arms for personal defense:))XVII. That the people have a right to bear arms, for the defence of the State; and, as standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
Delaware Constitution (1897)
§ 20. Right to keep and bear arms.
Section 20. A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.
Many other State constitutions did not, however, mention the right of bearing arms "for the defense of themselves" at all. The conclusion through viewing the contemporary state constitutions is pretty clear to most historians: the fundamental right to bear arms was guaranteed or circumscribed by the State, not the Federal government. That statement in the 2nd Amendment--"the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed"--was a statement intended to mean that the Federal government could not modify or reduce that right--only the States could do so. It was not, when it was written, a direct guarantee of individual rights to bear arms because that was considered the province of the States.
However, both the 14th Amendment and several Supreme Court decisions in the 1930s changed that. The 14th Amendment functionally moves the primary responsibility for the protection of individual and civil liberties from the States to the Federal government, and in the 1930s the courts decided once and for all that the Bill of Rights overrode State constitutions to provide direct protections to citizens from ALL levels of government.
Here's where it gets a little tricky. After the 1930s, the Bill of Rights was established as the basic level of protection enjoyed by all citizens of the US against all levels of government. But while the States cannot reduce the guarantees in the Bill of Rights, they can increase them. Thus the enhanced privacy provisions of the Alaska State Constitution have been long been used to prevent police from arresting people for using small amounts of marijuana on the their private property. And--going back to the current Delaware constitution cited above--while there may be no explicit right to bear arms for personal defense in the US Constitution, there certainly is one in Delaware. (And in most other states as well.)
Unlike the 1st Amendment, the 2nd Amendment language (which was originally intended as a check on Federal power against the States) did not translate as well when it became a guarantee of individual rights. It looks muddled, because it is now being used an interpreted as something different than the original intent, thanks to the 14th Amendment and the Supreme Court.
(This is a legal process of changing meanings that goes on all the time. The provision in the original US Constitution that forbid the Feds from stopping the importation of slaves prior to 1808 was actually twisted around by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to refer to general immigration law, not the importation of slaves. During the 1880s, Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Feilds wrote a series of decisions on the 14th Amendment that converted it from a civil rights amendment to a grant of full, Constitutionally protected personhood for corporations. So it goes.)
So, ironically, when the Constitution was written, it was not intended to be the primary guarantor of a citizen's right to bear arms for personal defense (that role was left to the States) and it only became that primary guarantor much later and almost by accident.
4. The reliance on militias as a functional alternative to a standing army was a failed experiment, and was effectively dropped (in the sense that Hamilton argues for it in Federalist #29) by the time we reached the American Civil War.
It has become almost heretical these days to point out that large sections of the original US Constitution simply did not work as intended. The idea that the candidate receiving the second highest vote total for President should become Vice-President was quickly revealed to be a BAAAAD idea, and changed within less than two decades. The section of the original Constitution on the Supreme Court and the Federal court system was so hopelessly botched that our Federal courts actually run off the Judiciary Act of 1789 rather than the US Constitution, and the whole premise of judicial review (declaring laws unconstitutional) is nowhere in either of those documents. Chief Justice John Marshall simply made it up and made it stick.
Militias proved very quickly to be an inadequate reliance for national defense, first in the Whiskey Rebellion, then again in the War of 1812. The Nat Turner uprising in Virginia in 1831 turned most Southern militias from organizations committed to defense from external attack into organizations dedicated to suppressing slave revolts. The attempt by both Virginia and Tennessee to use their militias as the building blocks for their armies during the first months of the Civil War turned out to be abysmal failures. A few units, like some New York artillery militia units, would function well in that war, but their heritage was as private militia companies, not State militias, and they were the exceptions to the rule. After the Civil War, most National Guard units got their start as being the strong-arm forces that State governors used as strike-breaking forces against labor unions. In the Philippine War, World War 1 and World War 2 it was publicly acknowledged and planned for that National Guard units had to be almost completely retrained by the active-duty army before they were competent to deploy. (That truth has remained for combat arms units in the modern National Guard heading for Desert Storm and later conflicts until those units had each individually acquired tactical expertise and a cadre of veterans.)
Instead of relying on militias as a counterpoint to a standing army, during the first half of the 19th Century the United States substituted a much stronger subordination of military to civil power than is found in most nations, and adopted the cultural value that active-duty officers should not be involved in politics. Moreover, our soldiers swear their oaths to the Constitution rather than to the government; it is an essential difference.
OK if you have read this far you deserve some sort of conclusion, and here it is:
There is a right to keep and bear arms for personal defense, but that right derives originally from the States, not the Federal government. The Feds were only originally enjoined not to mess with rights that the State granted.
The whole "militia vs standing army" argument was resolved, for all practical purposes, by 1865 at the latest, with the close subordination of the military to civilian authority and the culture of apolitical officers.
The 14th Amendment and the Supreme Court unfortunately muddied the waters when reinterpreting the Bill of Rights as basic protections enjoyed by all citizens against ALL levels of government.
And knowing this will satisfy ... nobody.