United States

Well-regulated militias and gun control

For any militia to be in good working order, it requires standards, training, and rules. Those rules are called “regulations.”

[Updated 3/6/2020]
The Second Amendment reads as follows:

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. (emphasis added)

Opponents of gun control always latch onto the phrase “shall not be infringed,” much as proponents of gun control latch onto the phrase “well-regulated.” And opponents rightly claim that “well-regulated” didn’t mean under the control of government regulations. But it’s not that simple.

Let’s start by looking at the definition of the verb “regulate.”

  • 1 a : to govern or direct according to rule
  • b (1) : to bring under the control of law or constituted authority
  • (2) : to make regulations for or concerning
  • 2 : to bring order, method, or uniformity
  • 3 : to fix or adjust the time, amount, degree, or rate of

When the Second Amendment was written, its authors meant “regulate” in sense #2 above – brought into order, method, and uniformity. Thus, logically, a “well-regulated militia” would be one that has brought into and kept in order, whose methods are controlled, and with standards that everyone in that militia is expected to follow. By contrast, as poorly-regulated militia would be one that is in a state of disarray, whose methods are uncontrolled, and that has few or no standards of uniformity. [See below for a counterargument against the use of the verb “regulate,” and why that counterargument doesn’t hold up.]

Supporters of gun control usually take “well-regulated” to mean sense #1, but the historical context is important.

Now, let’s look at the definition of “regulation.”

  • 1 : the act of regulating : the state of being regulated
  • 2a : an authoritative rule dealing with details or procedure safety regulations
  • b : a rule or order issued by an executive authority or regulatory agency of a government and having the force of law
  • 3a : the process of redistributing material (as in an embryo) to restore a damaged or lost part independent of new tissue growth
  • b : the mechanism by which an early embryo maintains normal development
  • 4a or regulation time : the standard period of time established by the rules of a game or contest excluding overtime
  • b golf : the standard number of strokes allowed by par for reaching the green on a given hole (that is, one stroke on a par 3, two strokes on a par 4, and three strokes on a par 5)
  • Senses 2a and 2b are the senses in which both supporters and opponents of gun control mean “regulation.” So at least here both groups have agreement.

    Finally, let’s look at the word “militia.”

    • 1a : a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
    • b : a body of citizens organized for military service
    • 2 : the whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to call to military service

    Generally speaking, supporters of gun control tend to believe that a militia should only be per senses 1a and 1b, while opponents believe it’s sense 2 that matters, although sometimes broadened to include able-bodied female citizens as well. This is especially true of gun control opponents who want the unrestricted right to own any weapon, including full automatics, for all citizens.

    U.S. Marines fire an MK19-3 40 mm grenade machine gun at Range K-211 during weapons training in Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., June 6, 2008. The Marines are assigned to Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Maxton G. Musselman/Released)

    The US armed forces have a lot of regulations. When can force be used, who is allowed to have what weapons, training requirements, how people and material are deployed, operational security, and on and on. A quick review finds 501 separate regulations and policies for the Army, and I’m sure that there are a lot more that are classified due to their national security sensitivity. The Marines, Navy, and Air Force all have their own regulations as well. And while there are certainly nonsensical regulations, these regulations are largely considered vital to keeping the US armed forces in good working order. And individuals who are unwilling or unable to abide by the regulations are discharged from the armed forces for it. In other words, the US armed forces requires regulations in order to be well-regulated.

    In addition, every National Guard adheres closely to the US armed forces regulations so that guard members can be called into service and installed easily alongside the ranks of the the armed forces. So official militias also require regulation in order to be well-regulated.

    So why wouldn’t a militia composed exclusively of armed citizens also require regulation in order to be well-regulated?

    We know from research into gun violence that domestic abuse is a major risk factor for gun violence, especially by a male against his partner. If every citizen is a member of the militia, then does that mean the militia is well ordered with domestic abusers in it? How about mental illnesses that correlate to violence (because most mental illnesses do not)? Is a militia composed of the violence-prone mentally ill “well ordered?” And can any citizen’s militia that never trains together be called “well ordered?”

    There are also no standards for a citizen’s militia. Some gun owners train regularly, some train infrequently, and some don’t train at all, resulting in wildly different ability to function as a militia. There are no physical standards either, which means that people who are physically incapable of safely using weapons would still be able to make the attempt, likely injuring themselves or others in the process. No mental standards means that any member who is shown to be irresponsible with their weapon (say, leaving it loaded in the garage within reach of small children or driving one around loaded and in plain view) is still allowed to own and use that weapon.

    For any militia to be “well-regulated,” it requires standards. It requires training. It requires as sense of responsibility. And it requires that those who are irresponsible not be allowed in the militia. In other words, it requires rules called “regulations.”

    And that is why regulations are permissible per the Second Amendment.

    [3/6/2020 update] I’d like to address a common counterargument made, namely that “well-regulated” isn’t related to the verb form of “regulate” at all, but rather to the adjective “regular.” The claim is that “well-regulated” means to be made regular (see this blog opinion in Ammoland for an example of this claim). Per the dictionary again, “regular” has six major definitions, three of which have additional sub-definitions. But a review of those definitions shows that “to be made regular” and the verb “regulate” are equivalent for any definition that makes sense to apply to to a militia.

    • 1 : constituted, conducted, scheduled, or done in conformity with established or prescribed usages, rules, or discipline
    • 2a : recurring, attending, or functioning at fixed, uniform, or normal intervals
    • b : orderly, methodical
    • 3a : formed, built, arranged, or ordered according to some established rule, law, principle, or type
    • b(1) : both equilateral and equiangular
    • (2) : having faces that are congruent regular polygons and all the polyhedral angles congruent
    • c of a flower : having the arrangement of floral parts exhibiting radial symmetry with members of the same whorl similar in form
    • 4a : normal, standard: such as
    • (1) : absolute, complete
    • (2) : thinking or behaving in an acceptable, normal, or agreeable manner
    • b(1) : conforming to the normal or usual manner of inflection
    • (2) : weak sense 7
    • c of a postage stamp : issued in large numbers over a long period for general use in prepayment of postage
    • 5 : of, relating to, or constituting the permanent standing military force of a state
    • 6 : belonging to a religious order

    To be made regular in the sense of 1, 2a, 2b, 3a, 4a (1 and 2) and 4b (1 and 2) are equivalent to “regulate” sense 2. To be made regular in the sense of 3b1, 3b2, 3c, 4c, and 6 don’t make sense to apply to a militia. To be made regular in the sense of 5 would suggest no difference between a standing military force and a militia, and that’s not viable given the history of the Constitution.

    10 replies »

    1. Nice. But can you support this claim, please: “When the Second Amendment was written, its authors meant “regulate” in sense #2 above – brought into order, method, and uniformity.” In this post, that’s an assumption without a foundation provided. (Even though I agree with the assumption …)

      • There are several places I’ve found support for this, although they’re not necessarily unbiased themselves.

        That said, your point is still valid. This interpretation is held almost exclusively by opponents of gun control and proponents of the right of individuals to own firearms, and the individual right to bear arms is a relatively new interpretation (since Heller) that overturned literally centuries of Supreme Court precedent. And scholars disagree that this interpretation is correct.

        Even if this assumption is incorrect, there are a lot of people who believe it. The essay was written with the intent of reaching those who believe this and pointing out that, logically, gun control is just fine per the Second Amendment as it’s written today.

    2. You’ve taken a modern day translation and imposed its meaning on to the founders intent. The phrase “well-regulated” was in common use long before 1789, and remained so for a century thereafter. It referred to the property of something being in proper working order. Something that was well-regulated was calibrated correctly, functioning as expected. Establishing government oversight of the people’s arms was not only not the intent in using the phrase in the 2nd amendment, it was precisely to render the government powerless to do so that the founders wrote it.

      • Might I suggest that you actually read the article you’re criticizing before you comment on it?

        If you had, you would have realized that I start from the old use of the phrase “well-regulated” and then demonstrate logically that regulations – essentially rules and standards – are a natural outcome of that phrase.