Richard J. August: Founders clearly meant individuals' gun rights

Robert Whitcomb once again displays his anti-gun bias when he “guesses that the Second Amendment was far more about state militias than individual possession” of firearms (“More mental hospitals, please”, June 7 Providence Journal column). To be sure, the intent of the framers of the Constitution, principally James Madison, has been the subject of numerous conflicting decisions by courts at all levels of the judicial system. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2008 Heller decision clearly stated that the Second Amendment refers to the right of an individual citizen to own and carry a firearm. This, however, was not the only case in recent times that addressed this issue.

In a 1990 case involving the Fourth Amendment, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority in Verdugo-Urquidez that “the people” protected by the Second Amendment are “persons” and not a “well-regulated militia” as Mr. Whitcomb and other anti-gunners claim.

The Federalist Papers make clear that the Founders were wary –- some would say fearful -- of a large standing army that could be used by a tyrannical government. Hence, the Second Amendment reference to a militia involved a body of armed men at the state level that could counterbalance such a federal force. The militia in most of the states included all able-bodied males between certain ages who were required to turn out for a muster with a firearm suitable for military service and a specified amount of ammunition.

Madison made his position clear in “The Federalist Papers” number 46, where he referred to “a militia amounting to half a million men” The population of "free white males'' 16 and over in the United States in 1790 was about 808,000, out of total population of about 3.9 million.

The co-author of the Second Amendment, George Mason of Virginia, wrote “A well-regulated Militia, composed of Gentlemen, Freeholders and other Freemen was necessary to protect our ancient laws and liberty from the standing army....” In other words all able-bodied males made up the militia. Mason went on to describe the type of weapon, amount of ammunition and accoutrements that each militiaman was required to possess.

I am tired of people saying that “the militia” means the National Guard. The National Guard was created in 1903 –-more than a hundred years after the Constitution was written and ratified by the states.

I call Mr. Whitcomb’s attention to Section 22 of Article One of the Rhode Island Constitution, which reads, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. How does he suggest one interpret that language?

The state Supreme Court wrestled with that matter and decided that “the people” referred to were indeed a militia. One wonders who the justices believe the Rhode Island Constitution refers to in its preamble, which begins, “The people of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations...” Perhaps “the people” here are white, male landowners who were the only citizens allowed to vote when the document was written.

With respect to the title of Mr. Whitcomb’s piece, one wonders whether he is suggesting that the Ladd School {for the mentally disabled} and the former tuberculosis sanitarium at Zambarano State Hospital be reopened to house those who post whacky You Tube videos and disturbing messages and images on Facebook.

Richard J. August, of North Kingstown, R.I., is a cast member of the weekly radio gun talk show “Lock, Stock and Daria” on WHJJ.

Mr. Whitcomb responds: I'm not anti-gun; I even own a few guns (through inheritance). The dispute is over to what extent government can regulate their use, especially since the sort of guns available now did not exist in the Founders' day, to say the least.