Whatever you happen to believe about the original meaning of the Second Amendment is probably, if not altogether wrong, at least not altogether right. This, at least, is Saul Cornell's main contention in A Well Regulated Militia This is not because it is so hard to find out what people thought about the Second Amendment in 1790. It's just that so many people thought so many things that it is not really possible to reconstruct a coherent original understanding of the text. And even if we could, such an understanding would be based on a historical context that simply does not apply to America in the 21st century.
Let's begin with that context. In the 18th century, local militias were kind of a big deal. Not only did most states and communities have them; most adult white males belonged to them, and were required to belong to them, as a condition of exercising other rights of citizenship. At this time, there was no standing army and no real professional police force. If a community wanted protection--from Indians, Redcoats, bad guys or whatever--the local militia had to provide it.
And that's the way we liked it back then. Most people saw standing armies as instruments of tyranny. In Massachusetts and Virginia, the British governors had tried to disband militias, seize people's arms, and bring in professional soldiers (quartered in the homes of citizens) to provide protection. The colonists were not amused.
The Second Amendment grew out of the concern that this sort of thing could happen again (so, too, did the Third Amendment, which forbids the quartering of soldiers in peacetime). When state legislators were petitioning the First Congress about possible amendments for the Bill of Rights, nearly all of them submitted amendments that would guarantee the right to bear arms AND prohibit a standing army during peace time. Federalist, who were unimpressed with the performance of the state militias during the Revolution, managed to fight off the objections to a standing army. To do this, however, they had to guarantee the perpetuity of state militias (and assure that soldiers would not be quartered in homes).
What all of this gives us is a preamble to the Second Amendment that (translated into modern English) reads something like this: "Because a well-trained and well-provisioned militia is the only kind of security force consistent with the principles of a free Republic, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." The key here is that serving in a militia was both a civic right and a civic responsibility, like voting or serving on juries. The two clauses in the Second Amendment emphasize both the civic duty ("a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state") and the civil right ("the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.") The right and the duty are inseparable. To the eighteenth-century mind, they could not be otherwise.
Most of the things that we now associate with the Second Amendment were not part of the original understanding but results of various battles and court cases in the nineteenth century. Among the most important of these are:
The Individual Right to Self-Defense, which was recognized as a common-law right during the Founding era but not applied to the Second Amendment until the Jackson era. At that time, however, new State constitutions in Mississippi, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, and (a little bit later), Texas merged the Constitutional right to bear arms with the common-law right to self-defense in statements like: "the right to bear arms in defense of self and state." This gradually became the orthodox interpretation (and on many ways still is). However, during Reconstruction, many Southern States rejected the Individual Rights approach to the Second Amendment in favor of a Collective Rights approach that rejected any individual Constitutional right to bear arms. They did so primarily because freed slaves were demanding the right to exercise their right to bear arms. Nonetheless, the Reconstruction-Era Theory of Collective Rights became the dominate liberal approach to the Second Amendment in the 20th century
The Collective Right of Resistance, or the belief that the right to bear arms gave state or local militias the right to resist federal tyranny. Anti-federalists in the First Congress wanted something like this in the Bill of Rights, but Federalists did not go out of their way to give it to them. According to Cornell, this is first used as a legal argument in the aftermath of Dorr's Rebellion (against the State of Rhode Island) in 1842. The Court, under the direction of Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story flatly rejected this argument that any part of the Constitution conveyed a right of rebellion.
The Individual Right of Revolution: The view that the Second Amendment was designed to give individuals (as opposed to state or community militias) the right to resist the tyranny of the state--completely unheard of in the Founding Era--has become something of an article of faith among gun-rights advocates in the 20th century. Cornell does an excellent job tracing this conception back to the 1850s and the abolitionist movement. This view finds expression in the abolitionist writings of Henry Ward Beecher and its fulfillment in the raid of John Brown. It has never been upheld in any court, and most Constitutional scholars believe that it completely reverses the original understanding of the Second Amendment by transforming it from an encouragement of civic virtue to an implement of civic destruction. Nonetheless, according to a recent poll, 65% of Americans believe that this is the purpose of the Second Amendment.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: The Founders clearly recognized the natural right of revolution, which they exercised themselves in the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. But this emphatically is not the same thing as the Constitutional right to revolution, which many people see--with no support from the Founders--in the Second Amendment today).
So, where do we go from here. A lot of people think that we should base our interpretation of the Second Amendment on the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers. Could we do it? Sure. Here's how:
1. Dismantle all branches of the American military.
2. Eliminate police forces.
3. Require all male citizens to own military weapons (i.e. eliminate the right NOT to bear arms).
4. Allow government agents to record all weapons owned by citizens, to enter homes to inspect the weapons, and punish people for handling guns incorrectly.
5. Require people to give up their own time every month to engage in unpaid military exercises (this, really, is what "well regulated" means).
6. Require all citizens to bear arms in the defense of the common good, at the discretion of the executive and regardless of their personal beliefs, or face military discipline for insubordination.
7. Require everybody to sign a loyalty oath or lose the rights of citizenship, including the right to bear arms.
None of these things, of course, is likely to happen. No modern American--liberal or conservative--would tolerate them. What this means, then, is that we are going to have to do what people did throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and interpret the Second Amendment in a way that makes sense for the context that we happen to live in. In his very eloquent final chapter, Saul Cornell recommends that we think about somehow reconnecting the civil right to bear arms with the civic virtue that doing so once entailed. Such an approach would recognize that people have a right to own guns, but that they also have a responsibility to "bear arms" in a way that contributes to, or at least does not detract from, the public good.