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Early Gun Rights Legislation
Historical Newspaper Articles
Founding Fathers Quotations
Early Gun Rights Legislation:

Eight of the original states enacted their own bills of rights prior to the adoption of the United States Constitution. The following states included an arms-rights provision in their state constitutions:


(June 12, 1776)

13. That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.


(September 11, 1776)

18. That a well-regulated militia is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free government.


(September 28, 1776)

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.


(November 11, 1776)

XXV. That a well-regulated militia is the proper and natural defence of a free government.


(December 18, 1776)

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 the strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.


(July 8, 1777)

XV. That the people have the right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the State …


(October 25, 1780)

XVII. The people have a right to keep and bear arms for the common defence.


(June 2, 1784)

XXIV. A well regulated militia is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a state.

In addition to these legislative enactments of bills or declarations of rights, there were numerous other proclamations being promulgated at the time. For example:


(November 26, 1787)

It is our ardent wish that an efficient government may be established over these states so constructed that the people may retain all liberties, privileges, and immunities usual and necessary for citizens of a free country and yet sufficient provision made for carrying into execution all the powers vested in government. We are willing to give up such share of our rights as to enable government to support, defend, preserve the rest. It is difficult to draw the line. All will agree that the people should retain so much power that if ever venality and corruption should prevail in our public councils and government should be perverted and not answer the end of the institution, viz., the well being of society and the good of the whole, in that case the people may resume their rights and put an end to the wantonness of power. In whatever government the people neglect to retain so much power in their hands as to be a check to their rulers, depravity and the love of power is so prevalent in the humane mind, even of the best of men, that tyranny and cruelty will inevitably take place."


(December 12, 1787)

That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public inquiry from individuals.


(February 6, 1788)

And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.


(June 21, 1788)

Congress shall never disarm any citizen, unless such as are or have been in actual rebellion.


(June 27, 1788)

17th. That the people have a right to keep and bear to arms; that a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and therefore ought to be avoided, as far as the circumstances and protection of the community will admit; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.


(July 7,1788)

That the militia should always be kept well organized, armed and disciplined, and include, according to past usages of the states, all the men capable of bearing arms, and that no regulations tending to render the general militia useless and defenceless, by establishing select corps of militia, of distinct bodies of military men, not having permanent interests and attachments to the community, ought to be made.


(July 26,1788)

That the people have the right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, including the body of the people capable of bearing arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state.


(May 29, 1790)

XVII. That the people have a right to keep and bear arms; that a well-regulated militia, including the body of the people capable of bearing arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state.

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Historical Newspaper Articles:

The First and Second Amendments were allied by the colonists in a special way. Because they recognized that these rights, before all others, were absolutely critical to the survival of their new republic, without these rights liberty was not possible.

We know that the Founding Fathers were well aware of the significance of an event that had occurred 56 years earlier, in 1735 (when Jefferson and Madison were yet to be born and George Washington was only three years old). That event was the trial in New York City of John Peter Zenger, printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, for seditious libel based upon a series of attacks Zenger had made in his paper upon the character of William Cosby, governor of the colony of New York. The trial judge accurately instructed the jury that, under the common-law definition, Zenger's printed criticisms were considered seditious libel. But after hearing the defense's argument that the cause of liberty demanded the press have the right to speak and write the truth, the jury ignored the judge's instructions and found Zenger not guilty. His acquittal was to become a dominant symbol of the colonist's right to maintain a free press.

And how free (and freewheeling) these colonial newspapers were! Today, for fear of lawsuits, our newspapers and television networks generally opt for safety and blandness. But the early colonial newspapers ― chief among them the Boston Evening Post, Boston Gazette, Boston Newsletter, Providence Gazette & Country Journal, New York Courier and Enquirer, New York Statesman and Evening Advertiser, New York Gazette and Mercury, and Pennsylvania Gazette ― were aggressive, rude, unabashedly partisan, and tremendously influential.

"The influence and circulation of [colonial] newspapers is great beyond any thing ever known in Europe," an English visitor wrote. "Newspapers penetrate to every crevice of the [country]." And these newspapers were carrying not only news about America but crucial editorial commentary about America's new government.

English editor and censor Roger L'Estrange cautioned in 1663, "A public newspaper makes the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of its superiors, too pragmatical and censorious, and gives them, not only an itch, but a kind of colourable right and licence to be meddling with the government.

"In the decade leading up to the American Revolution," wrote Mitchell Stephens, "a hostile press certainly created unrest and helped dissolve whatever union of opinion had existed between British officials and their American subjects. But the true power of the pre-Revolutionary press is not to be found in its ability to wound the British. The true power of this press was its ability to enfranchise and unify the Americans. ...It helped the inhabitants of the colonies imagine themselves Americans."

The colonial newspapers were to become the most powerful weapon in the struggle to persuade the people to join in what John Adams called "the real American revolution," a conviction later to be echoed by these words of James Madison: "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to farce or a tragedy."

Of course, in colonial times there was no radio or television. Newspapers ― particularly those in the major urban centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia ― were the only means for literate members of the population to acquire news and informed opinion. Throughout the entire colonial period, major newspapers enjoyed substantial circulation growth, year after year, and there is ample evidence that their pages were avidly read and discussed. Of particular interest to readers were editorials on the debates then being conducted ― debates over whether the Constitution should be amended to include a Bill of Rights, and more specifically, debates over an amendment restricting the federal government from forming select militias and at the same time enunciating the right of free and law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.

Here is a representative sampling of commentary on Second Amendment issues that appeared in the popular press at the time.


Instances of the licentious and outrageous behavior of the military conservators still multiply upon us, some of which are of such nature, and have been carried to such lengths, as must serve fully to evince that a late vote of this town, calling upon its inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defence, was a measure as prudent as it was legal... It is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the [English] Bill of Rights to keep arms for their own defence; and as Mr. Blackstone observes: it is to be made use of when the sanctions of society and law are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.



(Unknown author, defending a vote by Boston colonists requesting their fellow citizens to purchase arms)

Nor is there a person either in or out of Parliament, who has justly stated and proved one single act of that town, as a public body, to be, we will not say treasonable or seditious, but even at all illegal.... For it is certainly beyond human art and sophistry, to prove the British subjects, to whom the privilege of bearing arms is expressly recognized by the [English] Bill of Rights, and who live in a Province where the law requires them to be equipped with arms, &c. are guilty of an illegal act, in calling upon one another to be supplied with them, as the law directs.

April 3, 1769



[I]t is the Right of every English subject to be prepared with Weapons for his Defence.

Ju1y 7, 1775


It was absolutely necessary to carry arms for fear of pirates, &c. and ... their arms were all stamped with peace, that they were never to be used but in case of hostile attack, that it was in the law of nature for every man to defend himself, and unlawful for any man to deprive him of those weapons of self defence.

October 25, 1787


(Unknown author, writing under the

pseudonym "Brutus")

When a building is to be erected which is intended to stand for ages, the foundation should be firmly laid. The constitution proposed to your acceptance, is designed not for yourselves alone, but for generations yet unborn. The principles, therefore, upon which the social compact is founded, ought to have been clearly and precisely stated, and the most express and full declaration of rights to have been made....

... The common good, therefore, is the end of civil government, and common consent, the foundation on which it is established.

To effect this end, it was necessary that a certain portion of natural liberty should be surrendered, in order that what remained should be preserved. ...

But it is not necessary, for this purpose, that individuals should relinquish all their natural rights. Some are of such a nature that they cannot be surrendered. Of this kind are the rights of conscience, the right of enjoying and defending life, &c. [S]o in forming a government on its true principles, the foundation should be laid in the manner I before stated, by expressly reserving to the people such of their essential rights, as are not necessary to be parted with.

November 1, 1787


(Unknown Anti-federalist author, writing under

the pseudonym "John DeWitt")

It is asserted by the most respectable writers upon the Government, that a well regulated militia, composed of the yeomanry of the country have ever been considered as the bulwark of a free society....

. . . Every writer upon government ― Locke, Sidney, Hamden, and a list of others ― have uniformly asserted, that standing armies are a solecism [mistake] in any government, that no nation as ever supported them, that did not resort to, rely on, and finally become a prey to them...

... [T]he first policy of tyrants has been to annihilate all other means of national activity and defence, and to rely solely upon standing troops....

…Pisistrarus in Greece, and Dionysius in Syracuse, Charles in France, and Henry in England, all cloaked their villainous intentions under an idea of raising a small body for a guard to their persons.

December 3, 1787 



(Unknown author, writing under the pseudonym

"the Republican")

In countries under arbitrary government, the people oppressed and dispirited neither possess arms nor know how to use them. Tyrants never feel secure until they have disarmed the people. They can rely upon nothing but standing armies of mercenary troops for the support of their power. But the people of this country have arms in their hands; they are not destitute of military knowledge; every citizen is required by law to be a soldier; we are marshaled into companies, regiments, and brigades for the defence of our country. This is a circumstance which increases the power and consequence of the people; and enables them to defend their rights and privileges against every invader.

January 7, 1788



(Tench Coxe, writing in support of the proposed

Constitution, under the pseudonym

"a Pennsylvanian")

The power of the sword, say the minority of Pennsylvania, is in the hands of Congress. My friends and countrymen, it is not so, for THE POWERS OF THE SWORD ARE IN THE HANDS OF

THE YEOMANRY OF AMERICA FROM SIXTEEN TO SIXTY. The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared to any possible army must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are these militia? [A]re they not ourselves. Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American. . . . [T]he unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but, where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people.

February 20,1788


There are other things so clearly out of the power of Congress, that the bare recital of them is sufficient. I mean "rights of conscience, or religious liberty ― the rights of bearing arms for defence, or for killing game ― the liberty of fowling, hunting and fishing .

February 22, 1788



The freemen of America will remember, that it is very easy to change a free government into an arbitrary, despotic, or military one: but it is very difficult, almost impossible to reverse the matter ― very difficult to regain freedom once lost.

March 5, 1788



(Unknown author, writing under the pseudonym


Every free man has a right to the use of the press, so he has to the use of his arms. [B]ut if he commits [libel], he abuses his privilege, as unquestionably as if he were to plunge his sword into the bosom of a fellow citizen.

March 8, 1788



(Unknown author, writing under the pseudonym

"MT. Cicero")

No free government was ever founded, or ever preserved in its liberty, without uniting the characters of the citizen and soldier in those destined for the defence of the state. . . . Such are a well regulated militia, composed of the freeholders, citizen and husbandman, who take up arms to preserve their property, as individuals, and their rights as freemen.

September 8, 1788



(Reverend Nicholas Collin, writing under the

pseudonym "Foreign Spectator")

While the people have property, arms in their hands, and only a spark of a noble spirit, the most corrupt congress must be mad to form any project of tyranny.

November 7, 1788


(Tench Coxe, writing in support of the proposed

Bill of Rights, under the pseudonym

"a Pennsylvanian")

As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow-citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article [the Second Amendment] in their right to keep and bear their private arms.

June 18, 1789


(Unknown author, writing under the pseudonym

"One of the People")

Let these truths sink deep into our hearts: that the people are the masters of their rulers and that rulers are the servants of the people ― that men cannot give to themselves what they own from nature ― that a free government is no more than a few plain directions to a number of servants, how to take care of a part of their master's property ― and that a master reserves to himself the exclusive care of all that property, and of every thing else which he has not committed to the care of those servants.

July 2, 1789



(Samuel Bryan, prominent Anti-federalist,

writing under the pseudonym "Centinel")

It is remarkable that this article (the Second Amendment) only makes the observation "that a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, is the best security of a free state;" it does not ordain, or constitutionally provide for, the establishment of such a one. The absolute command vested by other sections [of the Constitution] in Congress over the militia, are not in the least abridged by this amendment. The militia may still be subjected to martial law...may still be marched from state to state and made the unwilling instruments of crushing the last efforts of expiring liberty.

September 9, 1789



(Extract of letter from Fayetteville, North

Carolina, dated September 12, 1789)

The right of the people to keep and bear arms has been recognized by the General Government; but the best security of that right after all is that military spirit, that taste for martial exercises, which has always distinguished the free citizens of these States.... Such men form the best barrier to the liberties of America.

October 14, 1789


(Reporting a speech delivered by George

Washington to Congress on January 7, 1790)

A free people ought ... to be armed ...

January 8, 1790



(Reporting on the proposed Bill of Rights)

... that the right of the citizens to bear arms in defence of themselves and the State, and to assemble peaceably together ... shall not be questioned.

July 30, 1790



(Reporting on the proposed Bill of Rights)

... the people have a right to keep and bear arms … [and]... that a well-regulated militia include[s] the body of the people capable of bearing arms.

July 5, 1790



(Unknown author, writing under the pseudonym

"a Farmer")

Whenever people ... [e]ntrust the defence of their country to a regular, standing army, composed of mercenaries, the power of that country will remain under the direction and influence of the most wealthy citizens.

January 29,1791

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