The Corner

Politics & Policy

On the Second Amendment and Hunting

Salesman Ryan Martinez holds a handgun at the Ready Gunner gun store In Provo, Utah, June 21, 2016. (George Frey/Reuters)

In my post arguing that the Founders wanted you to own AR-15, I contend that there was no mention of “hunting” during drafting debates over the Bill of Rights.

Professor Joseph Olson reminds me that the debates over ratification of the Bill of Rights in Pennsylvania did indeed mention hunting. (I write about this in detail in my cultural history of the gun.)

Here was the excellent suggestion offered by the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention on the topic of arms:

That the people have a right to bear arms for the defense 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 injury from individuals; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; and that the military shall be kept under strict subordination to and be governed by the civil powers.

James Madison ended up simplifying and distilling many suggestions, throwing in a comma that would be seized upon many years later. But the debate on ratification was over militias and standing armies, never over individual ownership of guns.

Hunting was likely only mentioned in the Pennsylvania convention as a precaution against English-style restrictions on ownership. The most famous example, the Game Act of 1671, made possession of a firearm by anyone unqualified to hunt (read, common men) illegal and provided a pretext for the Crown to confiscate weapons.

Many saw all of this as superfluous. Some argue that fear of the national government was overblown because there were so many guns in private hands it was unimaginable any tyrannical army could ever be more powerful than the general public. Noah Webster, writing as “A Citizen of America,” reasoned that “the supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.”

Not one person in the provisional government or at the Second Continental Congress or any delegate at the Constitutional Convention at any state ratifying convention is on the record arguing against the idea of individual firearm ownership. There is, however, a multitude of examples of leaders championing the importance of that right.

Eight of the 13 original states enshrined the right to gun ownership in their constitutions — most with language more straightforward than that found in the Bill of Rights. The best was probably New Hampshire’s compact sentence: “Congress shall never disarm any Citizen unless such as are or have been in Actual Rebellion.”

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